Learning & Literacy in Paul’s Churches

If you’re one of the 2 people out there curious about the kinds of things I’m exploring in my doctoral program, here’s an essay from my last seminar on scribes and literacy in the ancient world. This essay addresses the question: “To what extent did literacy play a role in the spiritual development of Paul’s converts?” Enjoy or ignore!

Andrew Clarke in A Pauline Theology of Church Leadership provides an overview of teachers in Paul’s churches. He asserts plainly: “For Paul, teaching is of supreme importance and a key function of the leader in the church.” Clarke summarizes:

He is confident that the Christians in Rome are competent to instruct each other (Rom. 15:14); he urges Christians in Galatia to point out each other’s shortcomings (Gal. 6:1); he encourages the Christians in Corinth to judge each other’s behavior to ensure that it is consistent with the gospel (1 Cor. 5:12; 6:1-2). In 1 Tim. 3:2, an essential qualification of the overseer is that he can teach; similarly, those elders who are also overseers should be rewarded for laboring in the message and teaching; Timothy is urged bot to command and teach those in his congregation (1 Tim. 4:11-13); and older women are urged to teach younger women (Tit. 2:3-4). Additionally, both in Rom. 12:7 and 1 Cor. 12:28-29, Paul refers to those who appear to have the office of teacher. This concentration and spread of references serve to demonstrate that Paul held the task of teaching in high regard, and sought to entrust the responsibility of instruction to others.

Moreover, Paul spent much of his ministry defending his gospel against threats to orthodoxy, and wasn’t afraid to call people and groups to account when necessary—as was the case with the Judaizers in Galatia and Peter for his flip-flopping position when it came to eating with Gentiles. Paul’s churches allowed for the operation of the charismatic gifts of prophecy and tongues, but all such things were to be tested carefully.

Paul’s churches were likely filled with many illiterate folks, which raises a central question of this essay: “To what extent did literacy play a role in the spiritual development of Paul’s converts?” H. Gregory Snyder argues in Texts and Teachers in the Ancient World that “access to Jewish scripture was brokered by a relatively restricted number of literate individuals” and that “under conditions characterized by low literacy, scarcity of texts, and restricted access, an individual who could provide access would have found an eager audience.”

Paul was such an individual, who took his training and expertise in the OT Scriptures and reinterpreted it all in light of the further revelation he had received regarding Christ. The Book of Acts details his pattern of going to the Jews of the synagogue first and trying to persuade them from the Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ (cf. Acts 18:4).

But what of the role of reading and question of literacy among Paul’s converts in their ongoing spiritual development? Snyder offers an intriguing picture:

It is somewhat surprising that we never find Paul urging his congregants to read and study scripture. In Corinthian gatherings, “one has a hymn, a teaching, a revelation, an ecstatic utterance, or an interpretation of such an utterance” (1 Cor. 14:26); perhaps the reading of scripture is simply presupposed, but nothing is said about it, either in the Corinthian correspondence or in the other genuinely Pauline letters. A verse such as 1 Tim. 4:13 (“until I come, give attention to the public reading of scripture”) is conspicuous by its absence from the genuine letters.

Snyder wonders if it is likely the case that “most of the scriptural interpretation taking place in Pauline groups was what Paul (or one of his delegates) provided, either in person, or by his letters which were read during meetings (1 These. 5:27).” If many (if not most) of Paul’s congregants were not of high status and therefore illiterate (cf. 1 Cor. 1:26), then we shouldn’t imagine his house church gatherings to look like a classroom with open books on their laps! In fact, Snyder even suggests “strictly speaking, scripture was of secondary importance for Paul: his central text is the master narrative of Christ’s descent, death, resurrection, and ascent as summed up in Phil. 2:5-11” and “ultimately it is Christ, not scripture, that is the axle on which all else rides.”

Paul took a practical and topical approach to explicating Scripture for his new converts and establishing their faith in the Messiah. Snyder believes “it is highly likely that Paul had at some point in his career prepared written notes on these subjects, derived form his own teachers or from his private reading” and “portions of these notes would have been incorporated into his letters or into his teaching.”

As a highly educated and creative text broker, Paul would have wielded incredible influence and authority in the early Jesus movement, comprised as it was of mainly lower class illiterates, and he would have at times even clashed or competed with other skilled “text brokers” and interpreters such as Apollos. This was nothing new for the young Jewish sect, as many Jewish synagogue attenders would also have had limited access to written texts.

Ultimately, what many illiterate (Jewish) followers of the Way had that made up for their lack of access to written texts was a rich tradition  of and aptitude for aural learning and memorization of the sacred Scriptures. The Jewish converts  in Paul’s churches would have had this storehouse of memorized texts to bring to their learning sessions with the Apostle as he attempted to teach them from Scriptures whether holding a written scroll in his hands or whether the texts were written on his heart. Consider the case of the Jews of  Berea who “cross-examined” the scriptures every day to see if his claims about Jesus were grounded in the Scripture (Acts 17:11).

We can offer the following basic conclusions when it comes to the importance of teaching and the issue of literacy in Paul’s churches. First, teaching was of utmost importance, and Paul saw as a most vital task the equipping of gifted and trustworthy teachers. Second, Paul himself, by virtue of his education and literate status, was a privileged “text broker” for the communities he founded (as well as others who came under his influence). Third, as such he wielded significant authority over how Scripture was interpreted, presented and understood by his congregants. Fourth, most of Paul’s converts (both Jewish and Gentile) would have been from the lower class, illiterate and therefore without direct access to written texts of Scripture. Fifth, nevertheless, Paul’s primary mode of teaching and spiritual development would not have been detailed exposition of written texts (so familiar to us), but rather centered on telling Israel’s well-known and much memorized story as now finding its shocking fulfillment in the story of Jesus the Messiah — his incarnation, life, death, resurrection, ascension and awaited return.

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