Most people in the biblical world had never read the Bible. This might seem like a shocking statement. It’s one of the more dramatic examples of how our lives as Christians are quite unlike the lives of biblical people. But once you give the assertion some thought, it becomes clear that it’s true.
The Bible was written in stages. The Old Testament wasn’t complete until the fifth century BC, roughly a thousand years after the exodus of Israel from Egypt. And even in the best scenario, after completion there would have only been one Bible for decades. Everything had to be copied by hand.
During the Old Testament period leading up to the exile (sixth century BC), the emphasis in Israel’s faith was the temple, its rituals, and the sacred calendar of holy days. Not only was there no complete Bible, but even the books that existed were the property of the temple and its priests. The average Israelite only read or heard snippets from it, such as the Shema, Israel’s creed (Deut. 6:4) or some of God’s commands. The Torah commanded people to “write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Deut. 6:9).
There were no synagogues in ancient Israel either. The synagogue came about during the exile after the temple was destroyed. Israelite priests could not possibly teach everyone house-to- house, as they had other assigned duties and the population was too large. For most of the Old Testament period, people learned biblical content from storytelling and from their parents (Deut. 6:7).
In New Testament times, things got a little better. Jews had their Bible, the Old Testament. It would have been very rare for someone to have a Torah at home due to the expense and labor of hand-copying. But chances were high you were exposed to more of the Old Testament through regular attendance at the synagogue than ever before.
The Old Testament (in Greek) would have been the Bible of the early Christians. The New Testament books were written in the first century AD between the late 40s and 100. But most of those were letters sent to individual churches. A church would have to copy the letter and send it to another church, where it would be read aloud. It also took a couple centuries for early Christians, led by the Spirit, to discern which of these new writings should be considered sacred, on par with the Scriptures they had inherited from Israel.
All of this leads to the fact that most biblical people were profoundly ignorant of what we think of today as the Bible. Most were not “having devotions” and “studying the Word.” We ought to be careful when criticizing something they said or did, as though they knew better. They may not have.
We have something they didn’t—and so we are more accountable.
— Michael S. Heiser, Brief Insights on Mastering the Bible: 80 Expert Insights, explained in a Single Minute (60-Second Scholar Series)
How to Use This Book
Brief Insights on Mastering the Bible will give your church members an uncomplicated route to better understand Scripture. It distills the insights of biblical scholars for everyone, in 80 easy-to-read insights that can each be read in a single minute.
This book could be a good fit for your Bible studies and small groups, or for your whole congregation. Learn more and get copies today.
P.S.: Michael Heiser has two other new books in the 60-Second Scholar Series: Brief Insights on Mastering Bible Study and Brief Insights on Mastering Bible Doctrine.