Shiell, William David. 2004. Reading Acts: The Lector and the early Christian audience. Boston and Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers, Inc.

“Early Christian authors wrote their works anticipating that they would be performed publicly” (1).

(Cf. Acts 15.31, I Thess 5.27, Col 4.16, I Tim 4.13–16)

Reading a text presupposed a skilled reader, the filter through which the audience interpreted the text. (6) “Because lectors were widespread in the ancient world, they followed a generally recognized pattern in performance of gestures, vocal inflection, and facial expression” (6–7).

The book of acts contains more references to gestures than any NT book (12.17, 13.16, 19.33, 21.40, 24.10, 26.1) with each form depicted in the art of the Greco–Roman world.

“A contributing factor to the widespread use of native languages and relatively low levels of literacy was the loose, unorganized education system during the late republican and early imperial Rome. Formal education was limited to large urban centers; and a full education from basic skills to full scribal literacy, was available only to the elite. Ironically groups of slaves achieved a higher level of education than most of the middle and lower classes.” (14–15)

Graeco–Roman “literacy” was the ability to read and write Greek or Latin. The native languages used by region were: Punic in N Africa (still in the 5th century); Latin, Greek and Tracian in the Balkans, but also Phrygian, Pisidian and Galatian Celtic; in the East: Aramaic, Phoenician, Syriac, Palmyrene, Safitic, Hebrew and Nabataen.

“Because Greek and Latin literacy was narrowly limited to a handful of individuals, likewise, only a select few could function in a role to disseminate the texts to audiences. The role of the lector in society fell primarily on the shoulders of slaves.” (31) Slave owners had a least one literate slave to teach their children. The lector embodied the person who wrote the text and allowed the audience to read the text.

Ch. 3, which is on the “conventions of Greco–Roman delivery” explains that the lectors followed the cultural conventions of delivery in drama, speeches and recitations, including the use of gestures, facial expression and vocal delivery (34).

G–R oratory fit the Aristotelian means of persuasion: rational argument, character building and emotional appeal–attic style to prove cases (reserved, plain and few metaphors), sophistic (conversational and tempered) to charm audiences and the grand style (drunk, mad, condensed) to influence people.

Conventions for gestures:

  • Hands and arms maintained good rhythm in delivery–too many were distracting, too few did not give a cue;
  • Alerting the audience: extend the thumb, index and middle fingers while folding the other two into the palm. Common when the orator was about to speak.
  • Exhorting, narrating, and arguing: middle finger against the thumb and extending the remaining three.
  • Evoking emotion: surprise, indignation, entreaty: right arm bent at elbow, hand extended with palm up.
  • Anger: clenching of hand and pressing it to the breast; also note mourning and distress.
  • Acclimation or adoration: raising hands above the head and to the right.
  • Grief: hand moved towards the cheek.
  • Insistence or emphasis: index finger pointing down; other four fingers closed in a fist.
  • Aversion: turning head away from direction hand was pointing.

Table 1, (91–92) is a summary of conventions of delivery from Rhetorica and Herennium: the tone (e.g. narrative), voice (e.g. jest, smile), gestures (e.g. quick arm movements), kind (e.g., daily speech) and response.

Table 2, (92–96) is a summary of gestures from Quintialian: section, part or trope; gesture; voice; rhythm, and setting.

Table 3, (97–100) is a summary of conventions of delivery in Greco–Roman art: gesture/scene/facial expression; medium/type; date; location; source.

Ch. 5: The performance of Acts in antiquity (pp. 137–200). There were 6 gestures that had rehetorical significance in speeches:

  • Silence for an amazed crowd (12.17: upraised right hand with little finger extended
  • A word of exhortation (13:16f): two fingers extended, thumb uplifted and fingers 4 & 5 folded
  • Motion to a rioting crowd (19:33): middle finger against thumb and extending to other three; hand moves forward to the right or left
  • Defense on the steps in Jerusalem (21:40): thumb and first two fingers extended, fourth and fith fingers folded into the palm
  • Felix’s gesture to Paul (24:10); right hand raised complementing nod
  • Motion at a defense speech (26:1): extended hand by placing tips of middle finger and thumb together, spreading other three and moving arms gently from right to left

Implied gestures: to exit a carriage; end a statement and turn to leave; nods of yes and no (backward nod); with demonstrative pronouns when there are no clear antecedents; conceding defeat (as in boxing) index finger upward; kneeling for pity; shaking out a cloak to reinforce a curse; saying farewell; praying; clasping hands in appreciation, reconciliation, pleading, showing congratulations;

Use of vocal inflection: address at Pentecost (2:14–40)

Dramatic scenes: talking demon and the sons of Sceva; presumptuous tribune and Paul (21:37–40; witty Paul and angry Ananias (23:1–11); ignorant Roman Jews and imprisoned Paul (28:17–31)

Sample text: Paul before Agrippa II (pp. 196–200).

For those who wanted to hear from departed leaders, lector imitated speaker’s actions and used gestures, sounds and words that fit the audience’s memories.

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