Individual reading was known to early Christians

17 Nov 2021

Jan Heilmann, Professor of Protestant Theology, is studying the practice of reading in the ancient world. His research into the reception of early Christian manuscripts refutes a long-held school of thought.

Professor Jan Heilmann

Early Christian texts were read aloud during worship services. Any other form of reception would scarcely have been possible given that – contrary to common practice today – Ancient Greek manuscripts were normally written with no spaces between words.
Postulated by academic work on early antiquity, this hypothesis about works being read aloud prevailed for a long time. The issue was repeatedly raised in debates about reading habits in ancient times.
Yet there is a catch to the hypothesis: “New Testament texts such as John’s Gospel and the Gospel of Mark use a language that is easy to grasp, yes. They are theologically demanding, however, and their narrative structure is rich in cross-references,” argues Jan Heilmann, who took the Chair of New Testament Studies at LMU’s Faculty of Protestant Theology in May 2021.
He concludes that either the exegetical methods applied result in anachronistic approaches to the texts, precisely because the texts could not be understood by having them read aloud just once, or that we have a skewed perception of how the early Christians read.
Heilmann took this seeming contradiction as the point of departure for his research into reading habits in the ancient world – research that led him to discover new insights.

Borrowing methodologies from the digital humanities, he began by investigating words that describe reading. “I tried to find all verbs that conceptualized reading in ancient times – verbs such as lego in Latin,” the theologian explains. He then sought to systematize how ‘reading’ was described using metaphors, for example, in a variety of ancient sources. “In those days, readers could ‘race through’ texts. They could ‘eat or drink’ them, or ‘meet with’ them. Ultimately, Heilmann was able to assign more than 60 reading-related terms to a total of nine figurative categories.

Aspects of cognitive psychology also played a part in the professor’s studies, as did comparisons across linguistic cultures – such as with Thai, which also does without spaces between words. “People who have grown up with this kind of script can read it just as well as people who are familiar with systems more similar to our own.” Comparison with Latin and Greek is also useful, where distinct systems of word endings mean that spaces between words are not needed to read the texts.
Heilmann did not focus on text analysis alone, however, but rather placed his research in a wider historical context: “You can only understand ancient Christian texts if you also factor in the entire culture, including societal, religious history and economic aspects.”

The bottom line of his investigations? Even in ancient times, reading was a “total phenomenon”. In other words, the practice was much more multi-faceted and was exercised in far more varied contexts than our research had hitherto assumed. “There was definitely an ancient book market. There were critiques and revisions. And texts such as Mark’s Gospel were certainly written to be read by the individual, too,” Heilmann asserts. Accordingly, he says, it is not quite correct to assume that books were luxury products that only a handful of people could afford. “Books were handicrafts. They were widely accessible to those who knew how to read.”
The theology professor is convinced that our old ‘certainty’ that early Christian texts were read aloud is rooted in a culture-specific problem: an inference drawn from one system of writing – our own – and applied unthinkingly to another from a completely different culture. Heilmann attributes this assumption to the image of the ancient world inherited from early 19th-century Romanticism. “The advance of industrial development, industrial book production and the associated individualization was perceived as a loss. An attempt was made to offset this loss by recourse to the ancient world as a social ideal.” Before his appointment at LMU, Jan Heilmann lectured and conducted research at TU Dresden. In the winter semester 2020/21, he deputized for the Chair of New Testament Studies II at LMU, focusing primarily on the New Testament and Greco-Roman culture.

Heilmann studied protestant theology, history and German philology in Bochum and Vienna from 2004 through 2012. From 2010 through 2013, he served as research associate to the Chair of New Testament Exegesis and Theology, as well as working on “Dynamics in the History of Religions” in the Center for Global Cooperation Research (KHK) at Ruhr Universität Bochum (RUB).

The theologian sees his appointment at LMU as a tremendous stroke of luck. “Classical studies are extremely well organized at LMU, and there are all kinds of opportunities for scientific collaboration,” he says. “Very few universities can offer that.” Above all, he is pleased at how his research dovetails with the faculty’s focal areas. The Munich Center of Ancient Worlds (MZAW), likewise established at LMU, affords a wealth of interfaces to other disciplines. “My hope is that lots of events will be able to take place in the winter semester, giving me a chance to get to know my colleagues better.”

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