We are a text driven culture. We are preoccupied with things like copyright infringement, and used to looking at computer screens. And so it is natural to assume, when one is part of a largely literate culture that ancient texts are like ours, and ancient readers just like us. We could hardly be more wrong on both counts. Consider for example this text here to the left from near Mt. Nimrud in Turkey. Here is a text with no punctuation, and for the most part no division between paragraphs, sentences, or even between words and all letters are capital letters. What sort of text is this? The answer is simple-- an oral text, one that can only be figured out if you sound out the syllables out loud, one by one. For if you are not already familiar with this text, there is no other way to decipher it. In a culture where the literacy rate is under 20% texts could only be read by a minority of the population anyway, and furthermore, literacy and texts were ways that the elite asserted their power and authority in an oral culture, especially when we are talking about the most important texts in any such ancient culture-- sacred texts.
If ancient texts are oral texts, meant to be heard, and never meant to be silently read, what then of readers? There has been a lot of loose talk about readers and the references to readers in the NT. And many of the usual deductions about such references are wrong, as we shall now point out.
Some scholars, on the basis of the occasional reference to ‘readers’ in the NT have thought that this signaled that Christians were some of the first to self-consciously be trying to produce books, or even literature meant for reading. For example, sometimes Mark’s Gospel has been called the first Christian book, in large part based on the reference in Mk. 13.14 where we find the parenthetical remark, “let the reader understand”, on the assumption that the ‘reader’ in question is the audience. But let us examine this assumption for a moment. Both in Mk. 13.14 and in Rev. 1.3 the operative Greek word is ho anaginōskōn a clear reference to a single and singular reader, who in that latter text is distinguished from the audience who are dubbed the hearers (plural!) of John’s rhetoric.
As Mark Wilson recently suggested in a public lecture at
 In a lecture delivered by him at a conference at