(1 Thess. 5:27-28 ESV) 27 I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers. 28 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.
These are the last two verses of the epistle, and they present some interesting challenges.
First, Paul’s instruction to have this letter read to “all the brothers” strongly suggests that the church in Thessalonica met in multiple locations, likely houses, while remaining a single congregation under a single leadership. If they all met together every week, there’d be no other way to read the letter except to everyone. But if they had, say, 10 sites where they met, the letter would have to be passed from hand to hand and read over the course of at least 10 weeks. After all, Xerox wouldn’t invent the photocopier for quite some time yet.
We forget that letters were expensive because the papyrus they were written on was expensive. (Each sheet was made by hand from papyrus and then it was imported from Egypt.) Copying was done but not merely for convenience. Rather, a single letter would be shared within a single church — rather as the synagogues would have, at most, one copy of each OT book or book collection (some shorter books were often combined into a single scroll with other short books). And even the synagogues, supported by the entire local Jewish community, often could not afford the scrolls for the entire OT — leading to a strong emphasis on memorizing scriptures.
Paul’s letters quickly were recognized as scripture and treated with similar reverence. Copies were made for other congregations, and by the late 2nd century (100 or more years after they were written) they were gathered into collections. Before then, it seems that the letters circulated individually, but they clearly were very influential. Copies quickly spread across the Empire as the churches shared copies of these letters among themselves. Indeed, we even know of translations into other languages, such as Latin or Coptic (Egyptian language), in the late First Century. The early church clearly believed in the importance of providing scriptures to the church in the every day language of the members.
No individual would have had his own copy of the scriptures, unless he was very wealthy. And even then, he’d likely have paid to have a copy made to share with his congregation. Such things were far too precious to keep to oneself!
Second, it seems likely that whoever served to courier the letter to Thessalonica — a friend of Paul’s traveling that way, most likely — had discussed the letter with Paul and would know at least how to read the letter — as the original would have had no punctuation, no paragraphs, all caps, and no spaces between the words. The letter would have been very difficult to read to oneself silently. And so the custom of the day was to read the text out loud, even if alone. Hence, the letter would have been read to several house-churches, one at a time, likely with the expectation that at least some listeners would try to memorize the text. I mean, with 10 house churches and only one copy of the letter, memorization would have greatly facilitated the teaching ministry.
Also, it was an age of partial literacy. Many could read and write in Greek, but many could not. They could speak conversational Greek — the Greek of the marketplace — but weren’t Greek literate. Such church members were best served by hearing the scriptures read aloud.
Today, we see memorization as a step toward personal spiritual formation. For the early church, it was part of equipping the church’s teachers. That is, memorization was in service of the entire church rather than just the one student. The reading of the scripture in the assembly was not mere ritual — it was, for many, their only access to the scriptures — making memorization that much more vital.
If you were to read the Apostolic Fathers (Christian authors who lived during the apostolic age), you’d find that their letters are chockful of quotations from both the OT and NT, even though the NT had not yet been gathered into a collection of books and canonized. At such an early time in the church’s history, the reason that Clement of Rome, for example, could quote so much of the NT is likely that he’d memorized much of it. How else would a man be equipped to be an elder in such an age? (PS — I’m terrible at memorization. Fortunately, memorization won’t be on the Great Final Exam in the Sky).