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  Why Did Jesus Sit to Preach?

"I read in Luke that Jesus stood up to read the scriptures, but then sat down to preach. We don't do that now. Are we less reverent with the scriptures than they were?"

The passage in question is found in Luke 4.16-20 where we read, "When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. . . .' And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down" (selected verses).

It is true that the custom in the synagogue was to stand to read the scriptures and sit to preach. For many who read this passage and compare the Israelite customs to ours today it certainly could seem that we are less reverent in the handling of scripture. But before we jump to conclusions let's examine the practice and the reasons for it.

In Jesus' day the Bible was written on scrolls rather than in codex form as we have today (bound like a book). Further, these scrolls were handwritten on parchment or vellum (specially prepared animal skin). They were written on pages of the chosen material like a book, but then the pages were sewn together side by side (see figure). These scrolls were very costly to produce, since they were hand made, and therefore tended to be quite ornate. Because of the cost of producing these scrolls by hand, only the wealthiest synagogues could afford more than a couple of them. As a minimum, each synagogue would own a copy of the Torah scrolls (the first five books of the Bible) since they contained the law. Most synagogues would also have the Psalms. However, any other books a synagogue owned would be a luxury. Therefore, the reader of the scroll may have stood to read out of pride and respect for these rare works.

However, the most likely reason the reader of the sacred scrolls stood was for the reverence they had for the writings. The works of the prophets and great teachers of the past have always been elevated in reverence in the Israelite tradition, and the older the sources the higher the esteem. Moses was considered to be the father of the law, and his words and the words he attributed to God were looked upon with the highest reverence, thus emerged the preeminence of the Torah. However, all the sacred books in the Hebrew Bible were revered and therefore the reader stood as a sign of respect.

But why did they sit down to speak?

In the rabbinic tradition, scriptures were worth commenting on. Because scripture was important, it was imperative that the people be able to understand it and apply it to their lives. In fact, it may be from this tradition where we get the biblical sermons we hear in churches today. In any event, after the scriptures were read the speaker would sit down to offer his commentary and interpretation on the passage. By sitting down the people would know the reading of scripture was finished and the words spoken from that point originated with the speaker, not from the prophets and writers of old.

Today, worship leaders generally read the scriptures while standing and continue to stand for the sermon as well. This isn't because they revere the scriptures less, but because the customs of our day suggest that important messages are delivered while standing. When making presentations almost all lecturers, professors, and teachers stand. And ministers have long joined this custom. And that's why ministers today stand not only to read the scriptures, but to preach as well.

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