Author Topic: accessibility to Scripture?  (Read 1391 times)

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Offline KarenCelia

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accessibility to Scripture?
« on: Tue Feb 11, 2014 - 23:45:26 »
Hi there!  I'm trying to learn a bit about the history of Orthodox Christianity.  I'm having some trouble finding information on one thing in particular.  I'm curious to know how accessible Scripture was to the average joe in the early church.  As Orthodoxy spread eastward, was the average person able to examine the Bible for themselves, or was it taught solely by those in authority?  And for today, how much is the reading of Scripture a part of the life of the Orthodox Christian?  Has this changed over the years?

Thanks for the info. 

Offline CDHealy

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Re: accessibility to Scripture?
« Reply #1 on: Wed Feb 12, 2014 - 09:01:04 »
First of all, we need to remember that access to Scripture, in terms of everyone having their own copy of the Bible, was just simply not a reality in anyway until well after Gutenberg invented the printing press in about 1450, when it became more economically feasible for the lower classes in society to actually own a copy of the Scriptures.  And by that time we also have to take into account literacy rates.  The phenomenon of every family (or individual) having their own copy of the Scripture is very recent in historical terms.

So "access" to Scriptures, from a historical standpoint, has to be defined differently.

Orthodox, from the very begining, have always translated the Scriptures and liturgy into the language of the people they are evangelizing.  And as the Russian mission in the 1700s in what is now Alaska shows, they also worked very hard to make social and cultural connections to those peoples in communicating that Gospel.

Through history, the typical way that a Christian would have access to the Scriptures would be in the worship services.  The Orthodox liturgy is itself almost entirely quotations of (or paraphrases of) Scripture, primarily Psalms.  Additionally, large sections from the New Testament and the Gospels were read at the normal Sunday service, and during certain feastdays (such as the Saturday right before Easter) large portions of the Old Testament were also read.  So for an Orthodox Christian, they were (and are) essentially immersed in Scripture and Scriptural allusions and phrases throughout the service.

Further, although literacy rates were higher in the East than in the West (generally speaking), even so, we have to remember these cultures were primarily oral cultures.  They would hear and listen to the Scriptures and memorize them.  The many examples we have from history of Christians who could recite large portions of the Scriptures is emblematic of that oral culture.

As to how individuals would "test" or "authenticate" specific biblical teaching, they would do so by comparing such teachings with what had always been taught (how ancient was the teaching, did it go back to the Apostles?), taught everywhere and by all (is this the universal teaching of Christians around the world?).  There was no such thing as each person taking authority upon themselves to say what Scripture "really" meant--such is the definition of heresy.

Furthermore, Christians could tell whether or not a teaching was part of the apostolic deposit of faith by whether it "held together."  Did a specific teaching make sense given what else a Christian knew to be true?  Even in the ancient Christian world, everyone knew about "prooftexting" with Scriptures--pulling out a verse here and there to "support" an argument, without considering either the context of the verse or the context of the doctrines of the Christian faith.  So, if Christians heard a particular teaching, and also heard someone quote a Scripture to "prove" that teaching, they knew that they could examine that teaching by comparing it to what they already knew.

The early Christians knew that no one has ever been given the authority to read the Scripture and on their own authority to declare that their particular teaching was right and everyone else was wrong.  Further, the early Christians knew that there was no such thing as being able to understand the Scriptures on their own apart from entire Church's input and understanding.  The early Christians knew that the Bible wasn't like the Koran (to borrow an anachronistic example) that God simply delivered miraculously to one man at one time.  They knew that God gave the Bible through his Church (both Israel and then the Church).  It was the Church that determined which books were Scripture.  From the standpoint of the individual Christian apart from a canon there is no Scripture.  So there is no reading of Scripture "on one's own."  There is only reading Scripture within the Church, and can only be understood within the framework of what the Church has taught.

As to today: the Orthodox typically have continued interacting with Scripture as it was done for centuries.  That means for individual Orthodox, and despite the vast prevalence of and ease of access to one's own copy of Scriptures, there is not a lot of personal reading of the Scriptures or of resources for the indivdiual Christian in reading the Scriptures.  (To be fair, this is not uncommon among ALL Christian groups; biblical literacy isn't that great even among evangelicals.)  What "saves" the Orthodox in this regard is that they get so much Scripture in all their services, both from the liturgy as well as from Scriptural readings.  The average Orthodox Sunday liturgy will have a couple of dozen of verses (whole sections), and sometimes entire chapters of the Scriptures (most often New Testament epistles and the Gospels) read in the service.  This is far more than the handful of verses one might get in a typical evangelical service.

I will say that there are signs that this is changing among Orthodox in the U.S., and this is, in my opinion, in large part because of the large number of evangelicals that have been coming into the Orthodox Church in the last 30 years (among some Orthodox groups in the U.S. half the clergy are former Protestants/evangelicals).  There are many new resources printed in English for Bible reading and study, much at a non-technical "lay" level.

This is a longish answer, and I apologize, but your question assumed some things that aren't true, so I needed to speak to those, while also answering your question.  If there is anything else I can do to clarify what I've written, or to better address your question, let me know.

May God bless you.

Offline KarenCelia

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Re: accessibility to Scripture?
« Reply #2 on: Wed Feb 12, 2014 - 11:10:13 »
Thank you so much for the excellent explanation!  It's such a different perspective than I'm used to, so it's been quite a learning curve.  I came across an interesting article in an old National Geographic magazine about the Byzantine Empire and the "Rome of the East", and it made me realize that I have a huge gap of knowledge in this area.  I think my high school history books missed it, favoring more European history.  It's been interesting to read about Cyril and Methodius as well, and the spread of Christianity eastward.  Was I correct in understanding that this became the basis for the Russian languages?

Completely off the topic, but do you happen to know where the halos around people heads came from that I see so much of in Orthodox iconography?

Thanks again!

Offline trifecta

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Re: accessibility to Scripture?
« Reply #3 on: Thu Feb 13, 2014 - 18:58:37 »
Hi Karen,

CD always gives thoughtful answers, but I can't resist chiming in a little here.  Everything he said is right, I'm not disagreeing.  I just want to stress that in today's world, we place a lot of value in the written word, but in the ancient world, the oral tradition had much more respect than writing.  There were no copyright laws and people doubted that what was written may have been forged.  We even have a couple of references of Paul and John in Scriptures noting that they wrote it themselves and not to add or substract from it (in Revelation).  The church was the only trusted source and Paul alludes to this in I Tim 3:15.

As for the haloes, they are common in our iconography.  Firstly, let's call them mandorlas (which means almond, because some mandorlas are almond-shaped, although most I've seen are round.)  Haloes remind me of angels and kid's Christmas pageants.  Just my preference.  Mandorlas are probably what you think they are--and more.  Icons are a physical representation of the spiritual world. They are not meant to be exact physical recreations of earthly things--indeed, they purposely do not. The mandorla is seen from a heavenly viewpoint.  The light of the world shines through Christ, his Mother, and all the saints.  Therefore, they are depicted with mandorla, a type of heavenly  light seen only from spiritual eyes.  I like to think that those mandorlas are real but we can't see them.  (Indeed, some have claimed to have seen mandorlas around the head of holy people--search St. John of Shanghai for an example).

Mandorlas are usually gold and here is an interesting thing to look for:  When Christ, Mary or saints are depicted on earth, the gold of the mandorla stands out from the rest of the image.  But if the entire background is gold, the scene probably takes place in heaven and the mandorla is gold on gold and not as noticeable.

Hope this helps.

Offline Adamski

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Re: accessibility to Scripture?
« Reply #4 on: Thu Mar 26, 2015 - 21:02:35 »
Hi there!  I'm trying to learn a bit about the history of Orthodox Christianity.  I'm having some trouble finding information on one thing in particular.  I'm curious to know how accessible Scripture was to the average joe in the early church.  As Orthodoxy spread eastward, was the average person able to examine the Bible for themselves, or was it taught solely by those in authority?  And for today, how much is the reading of Scripture a part of the life of the Orthodox Christian?  Has this changed over the years?

Thanks for the info.

In the west there is a saying if one knew how to read and write they knew how to read and write Latin and there wasn't many who knew who to read and write basically it was only monarchs and clergy

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Re: accessibility to Scripture?
« Reply #4 on: Thu Mar 26, 2015 - 21:02:35 »



Offline winsome

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Re: accessibility to Scripture?
« Reply #5 on: Fri Mar 27, 2015 - 05:16:31 »
First of all, we need to remember that access to Scripture, in terms of everyone having their own copy of the Bible, was just simply not a reality in anyway until well after Gutenberg invented the printing press in about 1450, when it became more economically feasible for the lower classes in society to actually own a copy of the Scriptures.  And by that time we also have to take into account literacy rates.  The phenomenon of every family (or individual) having their own copy of the Scripture is very recent in historical terms.

 If I can just add a few more points
 
For Bibles to be made available to the masses you need 4 things:
 
1. The moveable type printing press
2. Cheap paper
3. A literate population
4. A stable language
 
As you said the invention of the moveable type printing press is attributed to Gutenberg at around 1450. His first book off the press in 1455 was a Bible. The cost was almost a years wages for a master craftsman (in paper – 2 years wages for the parchment version).
 
However for cheap books you need more than just a printing press. You need cheap paper, produced in commercial quantities.
 
 The first paper mill north of the alps was not built until 1390. The first commercially successful paper mill in England was built by John Spilman in Dartford in 1588. So it took some time before the cost of even a printed Bible came down.
 
As well as literacy rates you also need a stable language.
 
William Caxton, who was the first person to print a book in English, related, in his preface to Eneydos (1490), how a group of London sailors headed down the Thames for Holland, and finding themselves becalmed went ashore and asked a local farmer’s woman “for mete  and specially he axed for eggys. Shee looked at them blankly and answered that ‘she coude speake no frenshe’”. They had travelled only about 50 miles.
 
Caxton, born around 1415~1422, himself noted “And certainly our language now used varyeth ferre [far] from that which was used and spoken when I was borne.”

A century later from Eneydos the poet George Puttenham said that the English of London stretched not much more than 60 miles from the city. Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, written at the end of the 14th century was written in the London dialect and is recognisable as English today – because of course in the end the London dialect prevailed over the others. But here is something written on the Kentish dialect of Chaucer’s time:
“And vorlet ous oure yeldinges: ase and we vorletep oure yelderes, and neo us led nazt, in-to vondinge, ac vri ous vram quaede.”

Recognise it? It the last sentence of the Lord’s prayer beginning “And forgive us our trespasses.….” (and I had to substitute two letters for the nearest equivalent in our modern alphabet).
 
 

Offline winsome

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Re: accessibility to Scripture?
« Reply #6 on: Fri Mar 27, 2015 - 05:18:03 »
Hi there!  I'm trying to learn a bit about the history of Orthodox Christianity.  I'm having some trouble finding information on one thing in particular.  I'm curious to know how accessible Scripture was to the average joe in the early church.  As Orthodoxy spread eastward, was the average person able to examine the Bible for themselves, or was it taught solely by those in authority?  And for today, how much is the reading of Scripture a part of the life of the Orthodox Christian?  Has this changed over the years?

Thanks for the info.

In the west there is a saying if one knew how to read and write they knew how to read and write Latin and there wasn't many who knew who to read and write basically it was only monarchs and clergy

Indeed!
 That great scientist Sir Isaac Newton wrote, and published, his major work (Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica) in 1687 in Latin so that it could be read by scholars throughout Europe. It wasn’t until the third edition in 1726 that it was translated into English (source Wikipedia).