Silent Reading

And it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life: that he may learn to fear the Lord his God, to keep all the words of this law and these statutes, to do them:

Deuteronomy 17:19 (KJV)

Read – In the early 400s AD, St. Augustine wrote about a man named Ambrose who, when he read, did not vocalize the words or move his tongue. This was apparently shocking for St. Augustine to witness so much so that he noted it in his journal.

But when he was reading, his eye glided over the pages, and his heart searched out the sense, but his voice and tongue were at rest.

Confessions of St. Augustine, 401 AD

Today reading to one’s self is a very introverted action. We sit quietly with an open book and read without sound. This was not a common practice during Biblical times. About 370 years after Christ’s death, silent reading was still a phenomenon. In fact, reading silently wasn’t common until the 1700s! Can you imagine that?

The default of the earlier centuries was to read out loud. It was a social event. Prior to the 1700s moveable type had not been invented yet, so any written material was handwritten. This meant that books, scrolls, and other reading material were extremely expensive. Not everyone could afford a book, let alone the Bible, or a copy of one of Paul’s letters. Synagogues didn’t even have many scrolls. They may have had 1-3 scrolls written by the prophets, but not all of them. So synagogues would trade their copies with each other occasionally to support the spreading of God’s word. And remember, whenever it was read, it was always read out loud for the benefit of others.

As late as the 1700s, historian Robert Darnton wrote, “For the common people in early modern Europe, reading was a social activity. It took place in workshops, barns, and taverns. It was almost always oral but not necessarily edifying.”

The word in Hebrew is qara, which means both “to read” and “to call or proclaim.” I wrote before about how calling on the name of the Lord was really about reading His word daily. This is the reason why.

So while the above law from Deuteronomy is directed to the established king, it is implied that he should be reading the Torah out loud for his surrounding people to hear. Because hand-written documents were so expensive at that time, the king was one of the few able to afford it. So being that he had these documents in his possession, it was imparative for him to read it to everyone else. It was a form of calling on the name of the Lord. The Levites were also instructed to do this as well.

When all Israel is come to appear before the Lord thy God in the place which he shall choose, thou shalt read this law before all Israel in their hearing.

Deuteronomy 31:11

This bit of history causes a paradigm shift when reading Scripture. If people never read silently in Biblical times, then everywhere it says to read something, it might mean to call out the words for everyone to hear. And quite often when it says that people called out the Name, or confessed with their lips, it might just be instructions to read the words of God aloud.

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