The Synagogue and the Church: A Study of Their Common Backgrounds and Practices (Part 7)

Reprinted with permission from As I See It, which is available free by writing to the editor at Read the series so far.

Chapter Five: The Public Service in the Synagogue and the Church (continued)

Bible Reading in the Church

While accepting the complete OT canon of the Jews, NT-era Christians also recognized additional written works as divinely-inspired and therefore authoritative. As the various Apostolic writings were composed and circulated, their authority was recognized and they began to be read in the churches in addition to the Old Testament Scriptures.

In 1 Timothy, Paul’s “textbook” on “church polity” (see 3:14-15), he instructs Timothy, proseche tei anagnosei, “devote yourself to the reading” (4:13). That this is the public reading of the Scriptures and not simply an exhortation to extensive private study is evident, first, from the presence in Greek of the definite article, “the reading,” that is, something well-known The article is similarly used in the references to the reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue, Acts 13:15; 2 Corinthians 3:14. Second, the two following activities, “the exhortation, the instruction,” are clearly public activities carried out in the assembly. Most commentators seem to understand the reading to be public and in the church, rather than private. Included in this number are Alford,1 Ellicott,2 Fairbairn,3 Van Oosterzee,4 Liddon,5 White,6 Lock,7 Robertson,8 Hendricksen,9 and Earle.10 On the other hand, there are those who understand the verse to mean private study, including Calvin,11 Gill,12 and Barnes13 (Clarke understands it of both public and private reading).14

Timothy knew the Scriptures from his infancy, apparently having learned them from his Jewish mother Eunice (2 Timothy 3:14, 15; 1:5; Acts 16:1). This could reasonably pre-suppose attendance at the local synagogue (or “place of prayer,” if the requirements for establishing a synagogue did not exist) and exposure to the weekly public readings from the Law and the Prophets. A similar practice in the church at Ephesus would be no novelty to Timothy.

Several of the New Testament letters contain explicit instructions for the public reading of the letter to the congregation. Colossians 4:16 states, “And whenever this letter has been read among you, see to it that it also is read in the congregation of the Laodiceans, and that you read the [letter] from Laodicea.” The public oral reading of the letter in a congregational setting is the most obvious way to fulfill this request.

The reference to the “letter from Laodicea” is of course not a letter written by the Laodiceans to the believers at Colosse, but a letter written by Paul to the Laodicean congregation, which they in turn were to forward to Colosse.15 Lightfoot remarks, “There are good reasons for the belief that St. Paul here alludes to the so-called Epistle to the Ephesians, which was in fact a circular letter addressed to the principal churches of proconsular Asia.”16 Whatever its identification, there is a strong apostolic admonition that the Colossian believers read among themselves not only the letter sent directly to them, but another from Paul sent to others.

Paul closes his first letter “to the congregation of the Thessalonians” with a strong admonition: “I make you swear by the Lord that this letter be read to all the brothers.”17 The letter was intended as instruction for all members of the congregation and was to be read to them all. While it does not expressly say that this reading is to be to the assembled congregation, “it is clear from the context that it is a public reading or a reading aloud that is alone thought of here.”18

In his second letter to the same congregation at Thessalonica, Paul urged them, “Now, if anyone does not obey our word through this letter, mark him so as not to associate with him, so that he may be ashamed.”19 The congregation is to be informed about the contents of Paul’s letter. The simplest way this could be done is for it to be read to the assembled congregation, as was in fact commanded by the apostle concerning his first letter to this church.

Paul’s other letters pre-suppose some kind of public reading. The lengthy list of people to whom Paul sends his personal greetings in Romans 16:3-16 anticipates a setting in which all will be present for the letter’s reading. 1 and 2 Corinthians and Ephesians in addition to 1 and 2 Thessalonians are specifically addressed to individual churches, while Galatians is addressed to a group of churches. As for Philippians, though it is not formally addressed to a church, nevertheless the recipients are identified as such in the body of the letter, as are the recipients of Colossians.20 In all these cases, there must have been some occasion or opportunity for the reading of this correspondence to the churches as bodies. This does not prove a regular and systematic reading of Scripture in these congregations, but it is not out of harmony with such a practice.

James wrote to his Jewish-Christian readers, “But be practicers of the word and not merely hearers,” (James 1:22). This suggests a continuation among these “Messianic Hebrews” of the synagogal practice of regular oral public reading of the Scriptures to the assembled congregation. It certainly is not out of harmony with such a practice.

The Apocalypse begins, just after its introductory colophon (1:1, 2), with a benediction for the recipients: “Blessed is he who reads and they who hear the words of this prophecy and who keep the things which are written in it” (1:3). Who is this anticipated reader, and who are the expected hearers? Their identity is not hard to find. John names his intended audience in verse four: “John, to the seven congregations which are in Asia.” This book, then, was designed for public reading in the Christian congregations in the Roman province of Asia. The singular “reader” and the plural “hearers” presupposes just such a scenario. The closing warning of the book supports this view: “I testify to all who hear the words of the prophecy of this book….”21 In addition, each of the letters to the individual churches in chapters 2 and 3 contains an admonition “Let the one who has an ear hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”22

While the direct NT evidence for the regular, systematic reading of the Scriptures (whether of the OT or of the NT) is meager, nevertheless, the instructions of Paul to Timothy to devote himself to the public reading (ostensibly of the Scriptures) along with the apostolic design and command that the newly-written NT letters be read to the church to whom they were addressed, and further that there be a public reading of letters addressed to other churches as well—all these support the idea that the synagogue practice of regular public reading of the Scriptures to the assembled congregation had its counterpart in the churches.

In the post-NT era, reference to such public reading of Scripture in the churches is more explicit. Justin Martyr, in his “First Apology” (before AD 165) describes a typical Sunday service in the church:

And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons. And they who are well to do, and willing, give what each thinks fit; and what is collected is deposited with the president, who succors the orphans and widows, and those who, through sickness or any other cause, are in want, and those who are in bonds, and the strangers sojourning among us, and in a word takes care of all who are in need.23

In this account of a typical mid-second century Sunday gathering of Christians, the public reading in extensio of the writings of the apostles and of the prophets (the latter of which may or may not mean the OT, though it seems probable) is given a very prominent place: at the beginning, and it occupies as much time as possible. Further, the “president’s” remarks are based on and directed toward the content of the portion read. They function, in essence, as his sermon text.

The “reader” spoken of by Justin may or may not have been a formal church “office” in his day. At a later date, as church practices became more formal and ritualistic, the “reader” (Greek, anagnostes; Latin, lector) did become a formal office in the church. Daniel Butler describes the situation that obtained in later post-NT times:

Tertullian is the earliest writer who mentions this office [i.e., reader] as a distinct order in the Church (De Praescr. c 41). It would seem that, at first, the public reading of the Scriptures was performed indifferently by presbyters and deacons, and possibly at times by a layman specially appointed by the bishop. From Tertullian’s time, however, it was included among the minor orders, and as such is frequently referred to by Cyprian (Epp. 29, 38, &c.). It is also one of the three minor orders mentioned in the so-called Apostolic Canons, the other two being the hupodiakonos [subdeacon] and psaltes [cantor?]. The Scriptures were read by the Anagnostes, from the pulpitum or tribunal ecclesiae. If any portion of the sacred writings was read from the altar, or more properly from the bema or tribunal of the sanctuary, this was done by one of the higher clergy. By one of Justinian’s Novels it was directed that no one should be ordained reader before the age of eighteen; but previously young boys were admitted to the office, at the instance of their parents, as introductory to the higher functions of the sacred ministry.24

All this, of course, goes very far beyond the NT practice and that described by Justin Martyr. Ultimately, a detailed cycle of Scriptural passages designated to be read on various days of the annual ecclesiastical calendar was developed.25


1 Henry Alford, The Greek Testament, vol. III, p. 342.

2 C. J. Ellicott, A Critical and Grammatical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, p. 78.

3 Patrick Fairbairn, Pastoral Epistles, p. 187.

4 J. J. Van Oosterzee, The Two Epistles of Paul to Timothy, translated with additions by E. A. Washburn and E. Harwood, in John P. Lange, ed., Commentary on the Holy Scriptures, vol. 11, p. 53.

5 H. P. Liddon, Explanatory Analysis of St. Paul’s First Epistle to Timothy, pp. 46, 47.

6 Newport J. D. White, The First and Second Epistles to Timothy and the Epistle to Titus in The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. by William Robertson Nicoll, vol. IV, p. 126.

7 Walter Lock, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, p. 53.

8 A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, vol. IV, p. 581, though he does not absolutely exclude the possibility of reference to private reading.

9 William Hendricksen, I & II Timothy and Titus, p. 158.

10 Ralph Earle, I Timothy in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 11, p. 374.

11 John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles to Timothy, Titus, and Philemon, translated by William Pringle, in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXI, p. 114.

12 John Gill, Gill’s Commentary, vol. VI, p. 609.

13 Albert Barnes, Barnes’ Notes on the New Testament, 1,149.

14 Adam Clarke, The Holy Bible with a Commentary and Critical Notes, vol. VI, p. 604.

15 See J. B. Lightfoot, Saint Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and Philemon, p. 242.

16 Ibid. Lightfoot discusses the various opinions concerning the identity of the “letter from Laodicea” and presents the evidence in a detailed note in the same volume, pp. 272-279.

17 1 Thessalonians 5:27.

18 George Milligan, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Thessalonians, p. 81.

19 2 Thessalonians 3:14.

20 See 1 Corinthians 1:2, 2 Corinthians 1:1, Ephesians 1:1, Galatians 1:2, Philippians 1:1; note the “overseers and deacons” (church officers), but especially 4:15; Colossians 1:2, 3:15.

21 Revelation 22:18a. Emphasis added.

22 Revelation 2:7, 11, 17, 29; 3:6, 13, 22. Emphasis added.

23 A Cleveland Coxe, ed., The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. by Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson, vol. I, p. 186. Emphasis added.

24 Daniel Butler, “Aganostes—Lector—Reader” in A Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, ed. by William Smith and Samuel Cheetham, vol. I, pp. 79-80.

25 For a very full treatment, see “Lection” by Samuel Cheetham and “Lectionary” by F. H. Scrivener in Smith and Cheetham, op. cit., vol. II, pp. 951-953, and 953-967, respectively.

Douglas K. Kutilek Bio

Doug Kutilek is the editor of, which opposes KJVOism. He has been researching and writing in the area of Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a BA in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an MA in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College and a ThM in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). His writings have appeared in numerous publications.