(Larry Hurtado): I want to flag up a newly published book by William A. Johnson (Duke University): Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), which provides a wealth of information relevant also to those of us interested in earliest Christianity. Essentially, Johnson focuses on the social settings, circumstances and conditions in which literary texts were read in the Roman period: the typical people, settings, and actions involved. This isn’t the place for a ful review, but a few tips to encourage others to consult the book.
Johnson shows that literary texts were typically read by/in elite social circles. Indeed, these texts served to reinforce the elite status of these circles. One of his most intriguing proposals is that the typical format of high-quality Greek literary texts (continuous text with no word-spacing, punctuation, etc.) was intentionally demanding and elitist. In an essay forthcoming in 2011, I’ve proposed that the format of early Christian manuscripts of scripture-texts reflect a contrasting aim of assisting readers of a wider spectrum of competence and social standing.
Johnson also discusses evidence of personal/private reading and group reading of literary texts, and the distinguishable purposes of each setting.
He discusses memorization and reading of texts, the memorization of passages of prized/valued texts being a marker of one’s sophistication and participation in elite culture.
It is also interesting that in the group setting, one person reading out to a group, there could be demands that a give passage be re-read, and discussion (even arguments) about the meaning of the passage. So, in these instances “reading” was a collegial and discoursive act. Does this offer some light on what may have happened in earliest Christian settings, when scripture-texts were read out?
Johnson also shows the interest of these elites in comparing copies of a given text with a view to having the most accurate copy. Should we think of earliest Christians as influenced at all by this concern as well?