The Public Reader in the Church

The role of the public reader in the earliest diasporan Church, how the language changed over time, and the new problems it created.

The rite of tongues in the church is never static and evolves. By the thirteenth century, it transformed into the office of the public reader. The establishment of the late Medieval public reader only speaking in Latin also set up a later confrontation when the Reformation happened. It is amazing how the ebb and flow of the gift of tongues doctrine has caused such animosity and has resulted even in bloodshed.

Such a statement is new to most readers, some backtracking into the history of the public reader and its relationship with the gift of tongues is necessary.

The practice of public reading (Lector) is found occasionally in the New Testament writings,1 while the Catholic Encyclopedia states that it continued after this period: During the first centuries all the lessons in the liturgy, including the Epistle and Gospel, were read by the Lector.”2

The importance of the Public Reader

Literacy throughout the ancient Mediterranean world was small– only 10-15% of the population was literate.3 This means that public reading was a necessity.

The Public Reader in Earlier Christian literature

Justin Martyr

The first reference outside of Biblical literature was in the second century AD where Justin Martyr makes a scant reference to the continued existence of the public reader in his writing, Apology:

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;4

The text relates to public reading and instruction that parallels the Jewish rite and even a special sect called the Therapeutae described by the first-century Alexandrian philosopher, Philo. These both suggest reading and instruction.5 The Apostolic Constitutions outline that this was performed without the use of a special liturgical language unfamiliar to the laypeople.

The Apostolic Constitutions

The Apostolic Constitutions — a writing dated to the fourth or fifth century, but some parts could be much earlier, perhaps late second or third, attests that the Apostle Matthew instituted the office of public reader in the Church based upon the practice first established in the synagogue by Ezra:

Concerning readers, I Matthew, also known as Levi, previously a tax collector; the person who lays the hand on him that is elected a reader, and prays to God, let him say, “O God, the everlasting, the mighty in mercy and compassions, the one who has made manifest the structure of the world by the effects being actively carried out and by preserving the number of your elect. Who also now look down upon your servant, the person who is commended to read Your Holy Scriptures to your people, and give him the Holy Spirit, the prophetic Spirit. The one who instructed Ezra your servant for the purpose of being able to read Your laws to Your people, and now [the reader] beseeches on our behalf, make wise your servant and grant him the activity be accomplished without blame the work entrusted to to him, that he be shown worthy of a greater degree through Christ with whom the glory is Yours, and the reverence, and the Holy Spirit for the ages to come, AMEN.” 6

The Apostolic Constitutions outlined the duties and structures within the offices of the Church. The text names an apostle and designates a certain duty or function as its benefactor. For example, Bartholomew instructs about deaconesses, while Thomas informs about sub-deacons and Matthew of public reading. One should not take this as historical fact. It is simply a well structured literary device. However, the meaning here is not lost. It demonstrated that the rite of reading in the Church was inherited from its Jewish parent and was still being practiced in some modified form.

The Jewish rite of speaking and reading required the office of speaking in the religious language of Hebrew, and if necessary, an interpreter, was part of their faith structure. The Apostolic Constitutions demonstrate the early Christians adopted and modified it to suit their linguistic needs.7

The Office of the Reader

Harry Gamble, author of Books and Readers in the Early Church believed that the reader was an office of the minor orders of the clergy.8 This was considered the entry-level position into a clerical life.

This is corroborated by Cyprian of Carthage. He demonstrated in the middle third century that it had become a position that had at least entry status into the priesthood. The following quotation is from when Cyprian proclaimed the ordination of a certain person name Celerinus, on which he lavished praise:

To the Clergy and People, About the Ordination of Celerinus as Reader. . .

There is nothing in which a confessor can do more good to the brethren than that, while the reading of the Gospel is heard from his lips, every one who hears should imitate the faith of the reader. He should have been associated with Aurelius in reading; with whom, moreover, he was associated in the alliance of divine honour; with whom, in all the insignia of virtue and praise, he had been united. Equal both, and each like to the other, in proportion as they were sublime in glory, in that proportion they were humble in modesty. As they were lifted up by divine condescension, so they were lowly in their own peacefulness and tranquillity, and equally affording examples to every one of virtues and character, and fitted both for conflict and for peace; praiseworthy in the former for strength, in the latter for modesty.9

The text infers that the public reader had a prominent role that affected the mood and spiritual faith of the whole community and the person selected was under critical scrutiny.

The Catholic Encyclopedia states that the office of the public reader, known in Catholic circles as the Lector, had diminished after the first few centuries and transformed into a rite performed by a deacon.10 Nevertheless, the public reader in the church liturgy still existed.

It is at this point the reader is asked to make a logical jump here through time — partially due to lack of easy-to-find source materials and the effort required to find the more difficult ones. Generalities have to suffice until more material is available. Hebrew quickly vanished within the first generation of the Corinthian Church as the non-Jewish Greek adherents began to outnumber the Jewish ones. A second-century anonymous text covering II Corinthians claims that the Greek adherents had formally overtaken the Jewish ones by this time.11 Many other factors could have been involved in the change. The first one being the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome. It sent shock waves to the Jewish communities throughout the empire and “Jews in the Hellenistic Middle East found themselves in a truly precarious position.”12 They may have had to shed, or de-emphasize Jewish practices, including the public use of the holy tongue, to avoid punitive sanctions. The late first century was also the time Rabban Gamaliel at Yavneh “took a fateful step, one that was to have far-reaching historical consequences. They declared in unequivocal terms that the Jewish Christians could no longer be considered part of the Jewish Community nor of the Jewish people.”13 This alienation could have accelerated the loss of Jewish identity in the fledgling messianic communities as well.

This may have fast-tracked the public reading in Greek, and perhaps Latin in some instances. Later on, Latin overcame Greek in the Western portion of the Church while Greek remained in the Eastern. Latin became the sole authority in the religious life, which extended to civic and social affairs as well. It is not known when Latin became the dominant language of religion in the West, but it occurred.

Thomas Aquinas on the Public Reader

One of the greatest teachers on christian doctrine and philosophy, Thomas Aquinas, described the public reader and the use of Latin in the Church. He believed the gift of tongues was still in operation in the thirteenth-century church.

His lectures on I Corinthians on the gift of tongues appears as a theological oddity but has historical importance. He demonstrated the gift of tongues in the early church evolved to the public reader. The public reader in his era was only allowed to read in Latin. This limitation had serious political ramifications.

Here is his actual text on the role of the public reader and its equivalence to the historic rite of speaking in tongues:

“In the mouth of two or three, etc..” (Deuteronomy 17:6) but it must be noted that this habit for the most part is being served in the Church for we have the [public] readings and the epistles and also the gospels in the place of tongues, and for that reason it follows in Mass two are being delivered, because only two are being said whose antecedent is to the gift of tongues, specifically the Epistle and the Gospel.14

Aquinas then outlined how the public reader paralleled the gift of tongues and worked within the confines of the thirteenth-century church.

Accordingly in Matins many are done, in fact, you say three readings in one. For in the former times they used to read a nocturn the next three night watches separately. Now however they are being spoken at the same time but on the other hand the procedure is not only to be preserved in regard to the number of those who are speaking but as well in regards to the way [it is done]. And this is what he says, “and through sharing,” that is in order that those who are speaking are to follow in turns with one another, a fact that one is to speak after another, or “through sharing,” that is interrupted, specifically that one is to speak on part of a vision or of instruction and is to explain it, and afterwards another and explains the very thing being shared and so follows one after another. Preachers have become accustomed to preserve that way when they are to preach to men of an unknown tongue by means of an interpretation. And for that reason it says, “Let one interpret.” as a result he says, “if there will not be available, etc.,” he shows when it is not to be practiced with tongues, saying that the one who is about to speak is through sharing and the one ought to interpret but, “if there will not be available,” anyone [who is an], “interpreter,” that is who understands, [then] those who have the gift of tongues, “are to keep silent in the Church,” that is he is not to speak because he himself understands and this silence is to be manifested in prayer or in meditation.15

In other portions of his Corinthian’s teaching he strongly positioned Latin as the language of religious polity instead of Hebrew or Greek. He emphasized Latin as the fulfillment of the church having a universal influence.

But why do they [the priests] not give the blessing in the common [tongue], that they may be understood by the people and adhere themselves more to them? It has been said that this had been done in the early church, but afterwards, the faithful ones were taught and knew what they heard in the common office, the benedictions take place in Latin.16

He reinforced why Latin was the official and only language of the church.

A contrary argument. It is the same to speak in tongues and to speak clearly enunciating [the Latin words] to such a degree for the uneducated. Since then everyone is to speak clearly enunciating in the Church, that all is being said in Latin. It appears that it is madness in the same way. One ought to say to this: Madness existed in the early Church on that account because they were unacquainted in the custom of the Church, consequently they were ignorant of what they should do here unless it was to be explained to them. But certainly in the present all have been educated. Although from this point everything is being spoken in Latin, they still know what is taking place in the Church.17

Thomas Aquinas’ opinion and the role of the church reader represents an era in church polity that would come to the forefront three centuries later. The earliest Protestants pushed for the public and personal readings of the Bible and other texts in the local language—a position vehemently opposed by the Catholic Church. The argument even made it into the Protestant Bibles and birthed the revolutionary and later misunderstood words unknown tongues. More on this can be found at The Unknown Tongues in the English Bible.■

  1. Luke 4:16, Acts 13:15, I Timothy 4:13
  2. As found at New Advent’s website under Lector
  3. Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven: Yale University. 1995. Pg. 4
  4. Translated by Marcus Dods and George Reith. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 1. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. . The Greek is found at MPG. Vol. 6. S. Justini. Apologia I Pro Christianis. Chapter 67. Col. 429
  5. The Works of Philo Judaeus. The contemporary of Josephus, translated from the Greek By Charles Duke Yonge. London, H. G. Bohn, 1854-1890. (75) to (80)
  6. Translated from: Didascalia et Constitutiones Apostolorum. Franciscus Xaverius Funk. Volume 1. Paderbonae. 1906; VIII: XXII. Pg.526 See also, Apostolic Constitutions Book VIII:22. MPG Vol. 1. Col. 1117ff. Translation is mine. An alternative English translation by James Donaldson can be found at the New Advent website.
  7. This statement is covered by many articles in the Gift of Tongues Project, especially throughout the Tongues of Corinth series.
  8. Harry Gamble. Books and Readers in the Early Church. New Haven: Yale University. 1995. Pg. 218
  9. Translated by Robert Ernest Wallis. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 5. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1886.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. .The Latin can be found in: MLT0004-Cyprianus. Epistolae. 34:4. Cooperatorum Veritatis Societas. Excerpta ex Documenta Catholica Omnia.Pg. 29
  10. As found at New Advent’s website under Lector
  11. MPG Vol. 1. Clement. Epistola II Ad Corinthios. Chapter 2. Col. 333
  12. Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Volume II. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 371ff
  13. Gedaliah Alon. The Jews in their Land in the Talmudic Age. Volume I. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press. 1984. Pg. 307
  14. Thomas Aquinas, translated by me from Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 390 lc6. For the full English translation and link to the actual Latin, see: Aquinas on Tongues I Corinthians 14:27–33
  15. Thomas Aquinas, translated by me from Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 390 lc6. For the full English translation and link to the actual Latin, see: Aquinas on Tongues I Corinthians 14:27–33
  16. Same as above. Thomas Aquinas, Lectures. My translation from Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc3. For the full English translation and link to the actual Latin, see: Aquinas on Tongues I Corinthians 14:13–17
  17. Thomas Aquinas, translated by me from Reportationes 088 R1C cp 14 Pg. 388 lc3. For the full English translation and link to the actual Latin, see: Aquinas on Tongues I Corinthians 14:23–26

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