ASK Commentary
June 18, 2006 

Faith Comes by Hearing

Commentary for June 18, 2006 — Reading and Writing in Ancient Times 

QUESTION: Could you please help me with the following, may be even doing an article about it: The Bible states that faith comes by hearing ... no problem with that, but, how do we then justify all the millions of copies of printed material that is circulated world-wide by so many? It does not say “Faith comes by reading ...” Yours in Christ Jesus our Lord, 

ANSWER: The verse you are referring to, of course, is this:

“So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.” 

Romans 10:17–18 (quoting Psalm 19:14)

It is impossible, of course, to know how many people are led to the Holy Scriptures by teachers in religious services, Bible studies, on television, on radio, or from tapes or CDs. In those cases the beginnings of faith are likely through spoken words and not words read. 

In that answer one would be correct, but that answer is incomplete. This is because once people are led to the Scriptures, faith does come by reading, of course. 

Most people in the world mouth the words when they read today. Some even say the words out loud. This mouthing of words is called subvocalization. This is defined by my American Heritage Dictionary as follows:

“To articulate or engage in articulation by moving the lips or other speech organs without making audible sounds, as in reading to oneself.”
Subvocalization is not ideal, but most readers do it. It limits the speed of reading, but that is how most of the world reads. Producing sound while reading slows your reading even more. 

The ideal situation is to vocalize in your mind without moving your lips or making a sound. The mind can vocalize much faster than you can move your lips or produce the sound. Subvocalizing in your mind produces the understanding necessary in your mind

Reading and Writing in Ancient Times

When the Old and New Testaments were written things were different than they are today. It is important to understand that in ancient times all written documents — without exception — were written to be read aloud. It was not until the Middle Ages that people began to read silently. This was because reading aloud, the old practice from antiquity, was the norm. In fact, people were considered extremely peculiar if they read silently. 

When someone “wrote” a book or a letter (the term for letter is “epistle” in the New Testament), the text was rarely penned by the author himself. The text was usually dictated orally to a man called an amanuensis. They were specialists or technicians of the writing art (just as many of the speakers were specialists of the spoken word or rhetoricians). Today we would call that penman a secretary and the process is termed dictation. The written text was first spoken, often using rhetorical rules and laws. On the receiving end, the book or letter was read aloud to reflect the oral nature of the author’s thoughts. 

In ancient times “rhetoric” was an extremely important philosophy in all cultures and societies, and not merely in the Hellenistic culture during Greek and Roman times. Rhetoric is the study of using language effectively and persuasively. It was once considered an art form worthy of very serious study and the practice of rhetoric was researched and practiced by philosophers and scholars around the world.

It is understood by most technical scholars that the Book of Hebrews is perhaps the finest example of ancient rhetoric that exists, as authored by the apostle Paul. This would mean that Hebrews was more like a sermon or an educational treatise than a letter. Indeed, Hebrews reads like a sermon, employing the finest rhetorical logic and forms to make the strongest possible argument.
Rhetoric was important in ancient times because everything, all histories, biographies, science books, everything, was written to be read out loud. Therefore all knowledge that was written was given orally. The knowledge was read (transmitted) orally to the audience. The information was received aurally by the audience. 

The production of writing letters or books was tedious and time consuming, not only in the process of physically writing with minimal ability for making corrections, but because the parchment or papyrus used as “paper” (depending on the part of the world) was both expensive and relatively fragile. 

Writing and copying a “book” or a long document was a major production. Not many copies were made. If numerous copies of documents were made, such as the Gospels or the epistles, those copies demonstrate the great importance of those documents to several audiences. 

Many if not most of the people in the audiences could not read or could not read well. Therefore, for the greatest number of people to receive the important information, it was convenient to read aloud a letter or book to transmit the information to a group of people at one time. This is exactly the case of the “circular letters” of Paul. Originally one document was written and then passed to another ekklesia. Only later were hundreds of copies made. 

Later the apostles Paul, Peter, John, and their associates gathered together and selected the documents that make up our New Testament. That selection process, and the subsequent copying process, was done during the lives of the New Testament apostles. This process is demonstrated in Dr. Martin’s book Restoring the Original Bible (available free online at http://www.askelm.com/restoring/index.asp, and also in book form for purchase). 

The Codex 

It is thought by some scholars that the gradual replacement of the scroll form of “book” by the codex form of book promoted change to silent reading. I personally believe that reading within the environment of increasingly large formal church buildings and scholastic monasteries which valued silence also led to the decline of vocal reading and an acceptance of silent reading. See the article “Adoption of the Codex Book: Parable of a New Reading Mode.” This site discusses the role of the codex in the change of reading habits, including the development of page spacing, paragraph division, and word division, all later designed for the eye and not for the ear. There is another interesting website about ancient reading titled “Historical Development of Writing and Reading.” 

Dr. Martin wrote briefly on this topic in his article “The Divine Names and the New Testament,” citing Prof. Paul J. Achtemeier’s excellent article, “Omne Verbum Sonat: The New Testament and the Oral Environment of Late Western Antiquity” in Journal of Biblical Literature, 109/1 (1990) 3–27. I will write a future detailed article about Achtemeier’s article and sources in the future. 

Conclusion 

The Scriptures were written to be read aloud by their original writers. This is what was meant by “faith comes by hearing” because that was the experience of every person in New Testament times. When the Word of God was preached it was received aurally by the various audiences. When someone read Scripture in the synagogue, it was read aloud (such as when Jesus read Isaiah in Luke 4:16–21), and the audience heard it aurally. When the inspirational letters from the apostles were read to the ekklesias they were read aloud and heard aurally. 

In all of these instances (and the entire Old Testament also), the audiences heard the Word of God being spoken by someone reading the text out loud. From that hearing, they believed, and faith came to them as it was given to them by God. Thus, indeed, “faith comes by hearing.” This concept is reiterated by Paul in the Book of Galatians:

“This only would I learn of you, Received you the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? …  

He therefore that ministers to you the Spirit, and works miracles among you, does he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” 

Galatians 3:2, 5

This means, of course, that the Scriptures on tape or on CD are an excellent way to study the Bible, especially when read with your Bible open, read with the eye, and reinforced by the hearing of the ear. It is excellent simply to listen to the Word of God. The ASK website has linked several excellent websites that maintain different translations of audio Bibles (http://www.askelm.com/resources/linkxm.asp). Another way to find audio Bibles is to search for “audio Bible” on any internet search engine. 

I hope this is helpful.

David Sielaff
david@askelm.com

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