What happens when Scripture is performed?

Presence-Dusty-BibleA notable feature of a number of contemporary debates in the church is the lack of well-informed use of Scripture. It’s not unusual to hear one party or other either trot out a proof text, or write Scripture off on the basis of such proof texts—or hear views expressed which demonstrate basic lack of familiarity with the biblical witness. This phenomenon appears to be accelerating with the current debates in the C of E about sexuality.

In part this comes down the reduction and diffusion of engagement with Scripture, starting with their training, on the part of leaders in the church—and this will get worse as initial training includes less and less focus on knowledge of the Bible. But it is also the result of a decline in the study of Scripture, perhaps in small groups, within congregations. For some churches, there has simply been a loss of interest. For others, Bible study groups are seen as inward-looking and dull, and are displaced by ‘missional’ activity or a focus on experience.

But the most obvious sign of this change is the loss of reading Scripture as part of public worship. I am constantly amazed at the paltry amount of Scripture actually read in evangelical churches—when ‘middle of the road’ Anglican churches will hear five or more passages in the course of a liturgical service. Now, simply hearing Scripture read is no guarantee that we understand it, still less that we live it out. But it seems to me that hearing Scripture read is a necessary pre-requisite to the other two. And doing this together, in public worship, engages the breadth of responses and perspectives not present in other contexts. I suspect that, for most churches, this has become a greater challenge for online services; I would be surprised if any church has continued with same engagement they had with the live reading of Scripture.

This raises a real practical challenge, one we are reluctant to admit to: for most people, listening to endless Bible passages read is so boring!

I was confronted with this several years ago when leading the all-age part of a Sunday service. (We always had the first 20 minutes with all ages together, so we could praise, confess, pray, read Scripture and learn from it all together before doing this in separate groups.) The reading set was Matt 25.31–46, the parable of the sheep and the goats. The passage fills one column in English translations, and my immediate reaction was ‘Oh my goodness—it is so long! How on earth will I keep the attention of the children?’ (Children show you if they are bored; adults just sit their politely waiting to the end to tell each other how bored they were.)

Then it struck me:

Did anyone ever complain that Jesus’ teaching was boring?

In fact, did anyone who listened to the gospels or letters when they were first being read ever think that they were boring? Difficult to understand, perhaps (2 Peter 3.16); but boring—never! What have we done to the reading of Scripture to make it so dull?

So I decided to do what Jesus did—to simple teach, to ‘perform’ the passage. I set aside an hour and a half on the Saturday evening to learn the passage, and on the Sunday morning simply removed my collar, rolled up my sleeves, and without any announcement, started: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and his angels with him…’ I learnt four important things:

  • Jesus’ teaching is far from dull! Everyone was gripped; those on my left were particularly engaged by the second half of the passage. The children did not move a muscle.
  • Jesus’ teaching is very easy to memorise, because it is very carefully structured. The ‘least of these my brothers and sisters’ are described by six terms, which come in three pairs, and are referred to with increasing brevity in the four repetitions (two by the king, two in response by each of the groups of sheep or goats).
  • It is easier to remember things than I thought. More than 20 years on, I can still remember the passage more or less word for word. Memory is a muscle which gets stronger with use.
  • Memorising the passage was a powerful way of dwelling in it, and as a result I completely changed my mind on what the passage was all about, as I explain here.

There are some good reasons to think that performance of texts was a key part of the practice of the early Christian communities.

We have the odd clue in the texts themselves. So Rev 1.3 includes a blessing for the lector (singular), the person reading aloud to the assembly, as well as to those who hear the lector’s reading. We know that letters would have had designated letter carriers (such as Pheobe in Romans 16.1), and there is some debate about whether this person would also be the lector, or whether this would be a local member of the congregation.

Secondly, the social context also supports this. Although many New Testament documents were written for further study (witness the careful structure in Luke, Acts and Revelation which would not be evident on hearing), in the first instance they would have been read out loud, not least because literacy would not have been uniformly high, and because copying manuscripts was a relatively expensive business. (Are the ‘attendants of the word’ in Luke 1.2 those who looked after the communities’ documents, including the first copies of the gospels?)

Thirdly, some NT texts are evidently written for oral performance. Hebrew is perhaps the best example of this, but the letter of James, with the links between different sections based on word plays rather than logical progression, is another possible example. (The qualities of wisdom in James 3.17 are linked by alliteration, the first group starting with epsilon, and the second with alpha—something that is lost in translation.) And of course the gospels record Jesus’ teaching which was first offered as performance. Even where the gospels diverge on other details, they tend to converge when recording Jesus’ own words, suggesting that we are hearing what was said, even if in translation.

Fourthly, some scholars (such as Tom Thatcher) are arguing that we should understand that the gospels were widely performed prior to being written in a final form, which might explain some of the differences between early manuscripts. We might again find some hints of this in the text, such as John 4.6, where Jesus sits down at the well ‘in this way’ (omitted in most English translations)—though this interpretation is contested.

In their fascinating Grove booklet on Performing Scripture, David Seal and Michael Partridge note the importance of performance for Scripture as ancient literature:

A public reading of a text is likely to have involved some level of practice as opposed to a speaker delivering their speech, message or story impromptu. In ancient Hebrew writing, only the consonants of a text were inscribed, and the vowels were supplied by a uent reader. Greek writing also presented difficulties for the unprepared reader. Vocalization of ancient Greek texts required navigating through a river of letters since texts were written without any punctuation or gaps between words but were just a continuous sequence of capital letters. Thus, a speaker would need to be well acquainted with the work prior to reciting it before an audience, while dedicating some time to regular practice. To read aloud in public is likely to have required a much higher degree of comprehension by the reader than it does today.

It was from this kind of oral/aural environment that the Old and New Testament documents emerged. They were composed with their aural and oral potential in mind, and they were meant to be orally delivered or performed when they arrived at their destinations (see the mention of the lector in Rev 1.3). People understood the full meaning of a written text by experiencing it being performed. An ancient Israelite or a member of the early church would not only hear the words spoken, but they could also experience the characteristics of the speaker’s voice such as modulation, tone and volume. All these vocal features helped to convey the written or memorized message. There was also a visual component in the delivery of the text. The speaker’s facial expressions, body movement and gestures also enhanced and contributed to the words spoken. Thus, oral literature does not fully come to life until it is performed, using the appropriate and intended vocal variation and physical expression.

Fifth, in many ways the proof of the pudding is in the performing. When teaching John’s gospel, I used to take John 9, print it as a script, and get different readers to simply act it out in class, unrehearsed. It works perfectly! And the performance, with characters moving on and off stage, demonstrates its careful chiastic structuring. Watch this performance Hebrews 9 and 10 by Ryan Ferguson:

We watched this recently in our church ‘small group’ (which has grown to 16 during lockdown—much more manageable on Zoom!) and found it compelling, not least in the light of the evidence of ancient letter writing set out in the Bible Project video on how to read the NT letters in their literary form.

And some years ago the actor Alec McCowen filled a West End theatre with his performance of Mark’s gospel in the Authorised Version (which I remember watching on television one Christmas day afternoon as a teenager).

When in 1978 he gave his first public performance of ”St. Mark’s Gospel” for a nervous management in the northern city of Newcastle, there was definitive proof of the Gospel’s power to arrest and intrigue. The key moment came when a little old lady seized him after he had finished one evening and said with open astonishment what critics and audiences were soon to be repeating all over England and America: ”It was as good as a play.”

So, what can we do to make the reading of Scripture more engaging? Four things:

  1. Actually read it! Don’t put it on screens or print in service sheets. Include several readings of Scripture in your services, and get people to open their Bibles to follow the reading if they can. The same is true when meeting in small groups: don’t just refer to a passage, but listen to it read together, and follow in print Bibles.
  2. Train your readers to read well. This means planning who is reading carefully, letting them have the readings ahead of time, and offering some training in reading well. In the age of Zoom, it is especially important that readers are familiar with the get, and can make good ‘eye contact’ with listeners by looking at the camera.
  3. Occasionally find someone who is willing to learn and perform the reading without reference to a script. It is not as hard as you might imagine!
  4. Why not plan to put on a performance of a whole gospel as an evening events—perhaps replacing a Sunday evening service—for when we are able to meet again in person. Sell tickets to people who would not normally come to church.

(Some parts of this previously published in 2015 and 2018)

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27 thoughts on “What happens when Scripture is performed?”

  1. I was once in an audience of a professional actor performing the Gospel of John. I can still recall parts of that experience today. He practically tore his tonsills out yelling “Lazarus!! Come!!! Out!!!!)”.

    I try and teach that one important way of approaching the text is as a director. How would we director our actor(s) to enact this section. What emotion is there? How would this be said? What do you want the audience to be impacted by?

    There was also a very good reading of Matthew’s gospel put on TV with actors in black with a blank background performing the text. I can’t remember who did it, but it was very good.

  2. Is another clue to presentation the little parenthetical comment in Matthew 24:15, “let the reader understand”? I wonder if this is a comment to the one who reads the Gospel out loud and then explains it to the hearers, in a parallel to Nehemiah 8 (a three hour bible oral/aural bible study!) where the Levites “read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”

    • Interesting I never thought of that. Always assumed it simply meant whoever reads this part needs to understand the reference to Daniel.

      • Post-Gutenberg, I think we are too ready to think that the normal way of encountering the Scriptures is through reading the text for oneself. For most in the ancient world, texts were encountered by having them read. I found it interesting that when Richard Burridge was drawing comparison between the Gospels and the 1st century equivalent of a biography (a ‘bios’), he said that the latter would be read out while the rich reclined eating their dinner.

    • We have his ‘Reading the Bible between the lines’ Its an every day devotional. Thanks for this little piece from him. Good stuff.

  3. So do we, Steve, both NT & OT, and good they are too, centering on Christ. Inciteful.
    Timothy and Kathy Keller’s daily devotions in Proverbs is also deep- sea- diving -wise, for today.

  4. I’m going to be totally heretical here. Last time I read The Acts of the Apostles I got the distinct feeling when I reached the end, that I should find a blank page to follow on with the title: ‘Notes’ or ‘Journal’. It was as if the cannon of scripture does not end; we are expected to add our own story of adventure.
    Not that we should endlessly add to scripture of course but that we should in some way be so alive and fresh that our church services recount contemporary doings. We should also record not just church accounts but Church Acts. I’m ashamed to say I’ve got nothing to add at the moment.

    • I’m presently re-reading Acts. And when it was first written, Theophilus (Acts 1: 1) would have known exactly what Luke was communicating and about the meanings, the locations and Paul’s (then) present situation. Theophilus could interact with the text in the world that then existed. But one perspective that has recently struck me about Acts is that in recent times it has yet again become somewhat of a textual interactive experience. It is as though all the detailed descriptions of the voyages, ancient locations and sites were placed there by Luke to say to the original reader, see for yourself.

      Paul seems to do the similar thing in 1 Corinthians 15: 3-7 when he mentions the eye witnesses to the resurrection “of whom the greater part remain to the present”. As though the original readers could track down these eye witnesses and see for themselves.

      And the story continues…

  5. At the risk of “Bah Humbug”…….good public reading of Scripture and performance are two separate things & should not be confused. I cannot imagine Paul telling Timothy “devote yourself to the public Performance of Scripture”.

    Since the late 1980’s when for 3 years helping lead a church plant, we had to have a ‘dramatised gospel reading” I have tensed at the scriptures being acted and over dramatised since – they always feel to me, affected, and often the em-Ph-As-iS is all over the place and distracting.

    I have watched the whole of one gospel acted by a professional actor, which was a clever act, and very much revealed the skills of the actor. But I fear the medium overtakes the message, and puts the ‘actor’ front and centre.

    I think I understand Ian’s point of wanting the reader to so read as to elucidate the message, and God forbid we be dull handling his word, but for me fake accents, faux emotions on display, and a subjective weighting on certain words can all detract. Far from letting Scripture speak, we are hearing it interpreted and overlaid by the personality and perspective of the reader.

    The examples linked above leave one impressed by the performer and the performance but do they elucidate and excite and awe before the text?

    • ‘The examples linked above leave one impressed by the performer and the performance but do they elucidate and excite and awe before the text?’

      Well, I can only report the response of congregation and group: yes.

  6. ‘This phenomenon appears to be accelerating with the current debates in the C of E about sexuality.’

    The seeds of confusion have been sown from the pulpit to the pew.

    If there is no difference between male and female then why should sexual orientation matter?

    If there is no difference between sex and orientation then why should being transgendered matter?

  7. Good article. Here are a few thoughts, which I hope are in keeping with the intended meaning of the article.

    It’s a superb discussion on whether or not the original letter deliverer would have been the lector. When you consider that many of Paul’s letters were originally written out by someone else as transcripts of Paul’s original spoken word, for the Scriptures to be read out seems to be intrinsically part of the texts. And when you consider that Jesus Himself read out Isaiah (Luke 4: 16-21) in His local Synagogue, and He was the Word, there must be something in the Biblical texts that are meant to be publicly read out.

    My comments on the section of this article that reads “So, what can we do to make the reading of Scripture more engaging?”

    1) “Actually read it!” I agree that people should read and on that note, I personally think people should bring their own Bibles to Church, rather than simply pick up a pew Bible on the way in. A persons own Bible should be the daily part of a believers life. In my opinion, to use a Church Bible simply encourages people to view the Bible as something people mainly read when they go to Church.

    My problem in that area is that I personally struggle with the NIV, I prefer a much more grand narrative. I find the more the grand narrative the more I am inspired to study the text.

    2) “Train your readers to read well.”. Absolutely. The public reading of Scripture should be a delight to all believers.

    For an example; David Suchet’s reading of ‘The Gospel According to Mark’ in St Paul’s Cathedral is outstanding. Likewise, David Crystal’s reading of William Tyndale’s translation of ‘Saint Matthew’s Gospel’ is also excellent. It is recorded in the original pronunciation.

    4) “Why not plan to put on a performance of a whole gospel as an evening events…”. That might work but sometimes I think the text gets trivialised by modern settings and adding comedy and silly costumes to the narrative.

    Personally, I would cherish the very idea or going to Church just to hear one person/s read out the each Book or Letter of the New Testament for the whole evening. Let the Scriptures lift souls into another world.

    In my opinion, there are a number of extremes: in one sense, I think too many Churches over emphasize preaching, as though the Biblical passage is a support act for the sermon. Why not just read the Scripture all night, and let the text speak for itself.

    The reference to some Scriptures being “Difficult to understand, perhaps (2 Peter 3.16)” for the original readers, is mainly stated in the context of “unlearned and ignorant people” who twisted them to their own destruction. Personally, I think that the Scriptures are easily understood when each entire book or letter is read from start to finish, without the clutter of too many interpretations. The confusion starts when people make the words and interpretations/arguments of preachers as Scripture. They muddy up the text.

    But Tyndale’s original English translation was done so that the “ploughboy” would know more of the Scripture than the pope or the clergy. It was not that the ploughboy would have more knowledge of the interpretations or the preachers rhetoric, but of the Scripture itself.

    Imagine going to a cinema to watch a movie and all you got was snippets and then a commentary. What use would there be in that? Surely it would be better to let the movie speak for itself and take the viewer into another realm.

    As said Peter “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2: 2) he did not say ‘desire the interpretation of the word, but the word itself.

  8. Hi Simon, What’s your struggle with the NIV? Just curious.
    I agree with everything you say, especially about the plough boy. When I re-read Revelation a few years ago and got to the bit about there being a blessing for ‘he who reads’ I immediately took courage. I realised this was not just the province of professional theologists, it was for me.

    • Hello Steve, When you say “I realised this was not just the province of professional theologists, it was for me.” I think that’s wonderful.

      John Wesley once wrote “In all cases, the Church is to be judged by the Scripture, not the Scripture by the Church. And Scripture is the best expounder of Scripture. The best way, therefore, to understand it, is carefully to compare Scripture with Scripture, and thereby learn the true meaning of it.” (Popery Calmly Considered.)

      By Church, Wesley was referencing the whole congregation.

      In response to the question of my struggle with the NIV, you could say it is simply personal preference. Other times it could be that I think it is too easy to read or not grand enough or ancient sounding. I sometimes hear it or read it and think, yes, that’s good translation. Other times in Church I truly struggle to respond to “This is the Word of the Lord” with “Thanks be to God”. Sometimes I just remain silent.

      I personally read much older English versions, Tyndale, Geneva, KJV and even the 1882 revision or the RSV, or for modern translations I use the NKJV. I believe there are about 17 verses not present in the NIV, which for me, I do not recognise anyone’s authority to leave them out. The ESV also excludes certain verses. But I do find it curious, as Melvyn Bragg pointed out, that the fall in C of E attendance proceeded the exclusion of the KJV.

      Sometimes I read Paul or the Psalms in the NIV and think yes, that’s good. It might simply be my own personal preference, but I just don’t take NIV serious as the actual Word of God.

      What do you think? Do you like it?

      • I’m afraid, being neither a biblical scholar, nor a linguist, the NIV is good enough for me. I like the one I have, the 1983 version. Example: In it God says in Rev. 7 v15 ‘he will spread his tent over them’ whereas in the latest iteration it says ‘shelter them’. The first invokes the story of Ruth and Boaz and fits the theme of Jesus the Bridegroom. I have a gut feeling, it seems right. The example I give pulls more scripture in to point to Christ; the latter just seems generalised. But hey, I only nit pick when it affects the bee in my bonnet at the time. I’m not very good at being theological.
        BTW I started out with the RSV; perhaps I should look at it again some day.

      • There are usually good reasons for ‘leaving out’ certain words or verses, based in the most reliable Greek manuscripts. It could be argued the KJV has added to Scripture because of the Greek MS it was based on. Daniel Wallace did an article on bible.org which you might find interesting.


        • Hello, the KJV was actually a revision of the 1568 Bishops Bible which served as a base text. Both translations were done by the Church of England. Earlier English translations also had the verses. These include the Coverdale Bible, the Great Bible, Matthews Bible, Taverner’s Bible. The Geneva Bible also included them. All these translations were done by persons in the Church of England.

          Tyndale actually used the 3rd edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Some estimate 80-90% of the New Testament in the King James Version is the work of Tyndale.

          Any argument that says “the KJV has added to Scripture because of the Greek MS it was based on” is not ‘actually’ correct. I say this because the King James Version was based upon earlier versions. The Latin was also consulted, which I believe also contains the verses. To assume or conclude the excluded verses were not part of the original texts is not very definite unless you assume the earlier versions are closer to the originals because of their alleged age, yet we don’t actually have the originals to prove that. Later manuscript copyists could have easily had access to earlier manuscripts. The earlier known manuscripts could easily be personal copies made by monks rather than actually scholarly transcripts.

          But again, as I say, I am only speaking from my own conscience. I have tried to review the evidence, but I am not convinced and my conscience is convicted. Even when I do exposition of the texts, I find something is missing when certain verses are excluded.

  9. I’ve only just got around to looking at the video. I’m impressed! I’ve memorised Revelation 1. This has encouraged me to memorise some more. What I will do with it remains a mystery. Thanks Ian.

  10. I resonate deeply with this post! We’ve really been devoting more attention recently to the dynamism of our public readings. I’ve recently been leading a study group on Revelation which has taken seriously the imagination engaged in dramatically reading its content.

    One question, though… what evidence is there for your claim that there is only a “paltry amount of Scripture actually read in evangelical churches”? I’ve been in evangelical churches for more than 20 years that have always read large sections of Scripture in every service, with many sermons often including a great deal more.

    • I think it will depend on your context. In the UK, most evangelical churches that I have visited tend to have one reading, or perhaps two at best. They no longer read the psalms, and often don’t read the OT much in public. And long readings are not the fashion!


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