As you read this article a profound series of processes are taking place in your eyes and brain. Approximately four times a second your eyes make extremely rapid movements, called saccades, moving your eyes from word to word. In the quarter of a second periods in between, visual information travels from your eyes to your brain, where words are recognized and compared to the compendium of known words already stored there. While all of this is happening, your brain is assessing the location of up-and-coming words, allowing you to seamlessly move your eyes onto the next word in the sentence. Reading is a phenomenally complex process that most of us do without even thinking about it. There is something very special about reading and we, uniquely, are the only creatures God created in this world that can carry out this amazing task.
The first mention of the word ‘read’ in the Bible is in the book of Exodus, Exod. 24. 7. The book of the law mentioned here, along with the ten commandments inscribed in stone, were clearly items that could be read.1 These, along with other written documents of the Old and New Testaments, emphasize the importance of the written word as a vehicle by which God has revealed Himself to humanity throughout history. Hence, there has always been a great need for humanity to learn to read in order to understand God’s mind and will. But what about people who have never learned to read, or experience reading difficulties such as severe dyslexia, or have suffered vision loss later in life?
In the days of the New Testament church, illiteracy would have been a big problem. For example, it is estimated that in Roman Italy at least a third of the population were slaves.2Several of the names of believers mentioned in the New Testament are most likely slave names, such as Secundus, Acts 20. 4, Tertius, Rom. 16. 22, and Quartus, Rom. 16. 23 (i.e., slave number two, three, and four, respectively). The high proportion of slaves in New Testament churches also meant there were high levels of illiteracy. Therefore, Paul instructed Timothy of the importance of publicly reading the word of God, ‘devote yourself to the public reading of scripture’, 1 Tim. 4. 13 ESV. Today, in parts of the world where literacy is low, regular and systematic public reading of the Bible is a useful strategy to help believers who cannot read.
Another way that can help is through using hymns and songs. Associating words with music can cause the words of a song to stick in our minds. Hymns and spiritual songs become very familiar to us with time and can continue to remind us of great spiritual truth throughout our lifetime. It is one reason why key prophecies about the person of Christ are found in the form of song in the Psalms.3 Lining out a hymn (called ‘precenting’ in Scotland) is a method that is commonly used when literacy rates are low, where a ‘precentor’ provides each line of a hymn just before it is sung.
Today more facilities are available to improve accessibility to the word of God than at any other time in history. These include the availability of text in a font size of choice on electronic devices for people with low vision, audio versions of the scriptures in numerous versions and languages, accessibility tools on almost all electronic devices and the availability of Bible teaching in audio and video format. There are also organizations, such as Torch Trust,4 dedicated to serving blind and partially-sighted people. Christian and secular organizations also exist that aim to improve literacy around the world.5
One final point to make is that every New Testament believer is indwelt by the Spirit of God. An important aspect of the life of faith for every Christian is the experience-based aspect of our walk with God as we encounter the events of daily life and are guided by the Spirit of God each day. A believer who struggles to access the scriptures may put greater emphasis on more experiential aspects of the Christian life. Such a believer may need encouragement and help, when passing through difficult times, by being reminded of the unerring and unchanging truth of God. The Lord Jesus said, ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away’, Matt. 24. 35.
Probably, Abraham could read, given that writing systems existed in Ur at that time.
W. Scheidel, ‘Human Mobility in Roman Italy, II: The Slave Population’, Journal of Roman Studies, 95. 64-79, pg. 170, 2005.
The details of the rejection, Ps. 118. 22, death, Ps. 22, resurrection, Ps. 16, and reign of the Lord Jesus, Ps. 24, were all prophesied in the Psalms and their words would have been etched in the minds of the Jewish nation.
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