Grabbing a cup of coffee and your Bible, you sink into your favorite chair and turn to a favorite psalm or the next passage assigned by a Bible reading plan. For some, especially since the Protestant Reformation and Gutenberg's printing press, this gets pitched as the ideal way to engage the Bible.
Read it by yourself, with no one else around. This is a quiet time for personal reading, just you and the text.
However, reading the Bible this way has only been an option for a few hundred years. People used to hear their Bibles read out loud, or they saw its stories displayed through paintings, icons, and other visuals in churches. The public reading of Scripture was the normal way people interacted with biblical texts from the time of Moses up through the New Testament era, and then for another 1,500 years or so until we learned how to print books.
Yes, the Bible was created long before books! Writers, compilers, and editors designed the Bible for public reading, which means the Hebrew Bible and New Testament are, together, one collection of communal literature.
Does this design say anything about how God wants us to learn? Or maybe whom God wants us to learn with? And what does that mean for our personal “quiet times” alone with the Bible?
Let’s take a look.
The First Public Reading of Scripture in the Bible
Israel experiences a great salvation event when God liberates everyone from slavery in Egypt. Almost like a whole-community baptism led by Moses, they pass through the waters safely (Exod. 14) and begin a journey through the wilderness on the way to the land God promised them. As they begin the journey, the Amalekites attack them (Exod. 17:8-16), but God delivers them and tells Moses to write the whole story down on a scroll. Immediately, he says Moses should read it out loud to Joshua, another Israelite leader.
First, write it down. Why? So you can read it out loud to other people. This practice started long ago but lives on, even to this day, through the oral retelling of the story and the communal memory it strengthens.
God leads the Israelites to Mount Sinai, where he invites them into a covenant partnership (Exod. 19-24). God gives Moses the agreements of the partnership, called the Torah (Hebrew: torah, instruction), and Moses shares the agreements verbally with the people and writes them down in their presence (Exod. 24:3-4).
The public reading of the Torah aloud becomes an Israelite practice. As an entire nation, they celebrate required weekly sabbaths and rhythmic, annual festivals where the Torah is constantly being read aloud and sung together. Men, women, children, and foreigners living as neighbors with the Israelites all gather together to listen to people read the Scriptures publicly (Deut. 31:10-13).
They listen to learn. They listen to understand. They listen to remember. They listen to be shaped by a communal experience of a common story.
The Israelites are no longer slaves in Egypt. God gives them a new identity as royal priests (Exod. 19:6). And he gives them a new story to live by. Every seven years, they remind one another of that story—where they came from, who they are, and the new future that they are called to live for.
The Practice Remembered and Forgotten
This practice of communal reading and hearing of Scripture is carried on throughout Israel’s history. When the people finally get into the land, they do this again. Joshua gathers the people together, and they all listen to the Scriptures read aloud in order to remember where they came from and how they could continue living as part of this new story (Josh. 8:30-35).
After Joshua dies, however, we don’t find any more stories of the people gathering together to hear God’s word. Instead, we watch as the people forget their story. And an entire generation emerges that doesn’t know their God or what he has done for them (Judg. 2:10).
Centuries later, a king named Josiah rediscovers the Scriptures (2 Kgs. 22-23). He is so excited that he calls Israel to begin this practice once again. And this sparks a renewal movement of the public reading of Scripture.
Years later, Ezra and Nehemiah gather the people together to hear the Scriptures read aloud to them. And as they listen, the people step back into their story. The Scriptures remind them of who they are and how they are to live—once again, through the public reading of Scripture (Neh. 8:8).
The Public Reading of Scripture in the New Testament
Reading Scripture aloud in community became a core part of Jewish life, and it still is. Every week, gathered in synagogues, Jewish women, children, and men listened as the Scriptures were read aloud (see Acts 13:15 for one example).
Jesus himself participated in this practice! He even launched his mission during the weekly reading of the Scriptures. Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah and told everyone the words were about him (Luke 4:16-30).
This tradition forms the pattern for the public reading of the apostles’ writing in early worship gatherings for followers of Jesus. For the Apostle Paul, this communal practice held particular significance, and he often reminded his friends to read his letters out loud to all who would listen (e.g., Col. 4:16; 1 Thess. 5:27; 1 Tim. 4:13-14).
Learning in Community
If God intended for these stories to be read aloud in the context of multiple voices, multiple experiences of life, and multiple ethnicities and socioeconomic circumstances, what might this say about how he wants us to learn?
Maybe when he says human beings "bear his image," in one sense he means that we learn about him by listening to and learning from each other. Maybe he's telling us that no single person could understand all God teaches in the Scriptures all by himself or herself. Maybe the big thing he's teaching actually has a lot to do with how we relate to others.
Every human being's perspective is limited, and that is not a bad thing! It is even good—because when no one has the full understanding of everything, then everyone needs one another in order to learn. Solo Bible study is helpful and fruitful, so we should keep doing it, but if we do not also read as a community, at the very least, we miss reading the Bible as it was designed to be read. It stands to reason, then, that solo-only Bible reading often (tragically) distorts or entirely misses what God is saying.
How Do We Increase Our Communal Reading?
One way is to simply read Scripture publicly during community gatherings, just like it was designed to be read. We can also listen to the Scripture in community by reading books from other Bible interpreters throughout history.
How did early Jewish communities and followers of Jesus understand various biblical texts? By designing Scripture this way, God seems to want us to listen to him and to converse with one another about what he says. So reading and conversing with others who are listening to Scripture will be helpful.
We can also read communally by reading cross-culturally from other contexts—different countries, ethnicities, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds—as well as different theological perspectives and traditions. In a true sense, every person is created and loved by God, so everyone is worth respecting and listening to. These are all ways to start hearing the Bible as communal literature.
So what about those personal “quiet times” for solo Bible reading?
Quiet, personal reading is a good thing, just like solo singing can be a good thing. But if a soloist is trying to sing music written for an entire choir, it will either sound crazy or it will ignore much of the music. Reading alone is helpful and intellectually easier, but we are likely to miss much of what God is showing. Pairing our personal reading with communal reading, even emphasizing the communal aspect, will move us toward a deeper understanding of Scripture.
And yes, communal reading does mean public, out-loud reading. As people have done for thousands of years, we listen to the Scriptures and talk about what we are hearing. Public reading and hearing leads to community dialogue.
Throughout the biblical story, God’s people met together to remember their story and who they were through the public reading of the Scriptures. And reading the Scriptures with other followers of Jesus reminds us of the story we live in—a story that has transformed the lives of millions of people, a story transcending and integrating every time, age, gender, and culture.
This is the fourth post in our series, The Paradigm, which summarizes the core ideas that shape the way biblical authors intended for us to read the Bible. To dive deeper into this topic, listen to the podcast episode, “The Last Pillar: Communal Literature.” For an overview of all the pillars of how to read the Bible as its authors intended, check out The Paradigm Study Notes.