The Bible is by far the most sold book ever. As this site says:

Bible Society’s attempt to calculate the number printed between 1816 and 1975 produced the figure of 2,458,000,000 – almost 2 and a half billion.

Another survey, for the years up to 1992, put it closer to 6 billion.

Nowadays, we could argue that most of Christians (families) own a Bible. But more importantly, most of Christians can read, which mean they, in principle, can read and study the Bible.

However, this has not always been the case. On the one hand, for most of the last two millennia, most of the people were illiterate. The existing data shows that literacy in now-developed countries started to improve only by the Enlightenment period, reaching +80% less than 200 years ago. Such levels of literacy in majority Christian countries of Latin America were only reached less than a century ago:

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On the other hand, the availability of Bibles, particularly before the invention of the printing press and the "Gutenberg revolution", was quite constrained. Before the invention of the printing press, bibles were manually copied, primarily by monks. This was a time consuming process, making bibles quite expensive. Thus, bibles were perhaps primarily available in churches, monasteries and some rich individuals' houses (who were the ones that could read, anyway).

So, the question I have is, how did the majority of Christians cultivated their knowledge of the Bible (OT and/or NT)? Probably, one of the original intentions of the writing of the gospels was to make Jesus' teaching and life more widely available for Christians across churches. With the establishment of the Canon of the Bible, this process became mainstream across the established Church (e.g. the commission of the Vulgate by Pope Damasus I).

My intuition tells me that most of Christians learned about the Bible by popular sayings, stories, and calendar celebrations (like Christmas). Those who attended a church service or Mass would learn also from the lectures and sermons. Is there a formal/historical analysis of this situation? Perhaps a book that goes through this?

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    This question may be a bit too unscoped, since many non-Catholics or non-Orthodox will say that the kind of 'Christians' who attended Mass were not and are not properly called Christians (to attend which—among other things, of course—is to admit of, to them, grevious anti-christian doctrines), and that a remnant somewhere outside of this were true Christians during this time, even though, well, there is no positive evidence for such. And, as the question rightly states, there was no accessible Bible to be had by any 'Bible alone' congregations, if we were to grant that they even existed. Nov 7, 2017 at 21:48
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    Your intuition is correct. Illiterate people learned the Bible 600 years ago the same way illiterate people learn it today (approximately 16% of the world population is illiterate). But, "all literate people learn the Bible primarily by reading it" is not true. We, too, learn much of it from experience, discussion, sermons, culture, holidays, plays, etc. And some (most?) of the knowledge is incorrect, as is always the case with humans.
    – Jason
    Nov 8, 2017 at 13:42
  • @JasonFry It seems that you have the beginnings of an answer, and the general preference is that answers don't belong in comments. Nov 8, 2017 at 14:54

4 Answers 4


How did Christians cultivate their knowledge of the Bible before mass-printing of the Bible?

There are several ways the poor and illiterate were able to cultivate a basic knowledge of the Bible prior to the advent of the printing press.

Some of the most obvious tools used by the faithful were stained glass windows, paintings, statues, story telling, missions, medieval mystery plays and the use of song.

We all know that the Poor Man's Bible is stained glass windows that could be found in many different churches and cathedrals.

The term Poor Man's Bible has come into use in modern times to describe works of art within churches and cathedrals which either individually or collectively have been created to illustrate the teachings of the Bible for a largely illiterate population. These artworks may take the form of carvings, paintings, mosaics or stained glass windows. In some churches a single artwork, such as a stained glass window has the role of Poor Man's Bible while in others, the entire church is decorated with a complex biblical narrative that unites in a single scheme. - Poor Man's Bible (Wikipedia)

Images above: Noah, Lamech, and Thara, from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England

Images above are of Noah, Lamech, and Thara, from the Ancestors of Christ Windows, Canterbury Cathedral, England.

Singing was one of the greatest ways to enhance one's knowledge of the Bible and it is explicitly mentioned in Scriptures.

1 Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. 2 The LORD has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. 3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. 4 Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; 5 make music to the LORD with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, 6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn— shout for joy before the LORD, the King. 7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. - Psalm 98:1-7

Story telling has a huge place in all this. It is recognized by historians and theologians that Israel's history was preserved by word of mouth.

By the middle of the 5th century BC religion and history were taught simultaneously through storytelling. These topics were made fascinating by way of the storyteller. Their lessons were taught through exciting recounts of miracles, by games of question and answer, and by visible reminders (Nelson 2002, 332). They explained the meaning of the great feasts to them and showed them how each of the customs that they observed had holy significance (Daniel-Rops 1962, 128). Even a simple pile of rocks became an object lesson for the retelling of the crossing of the Jordan River. Fathers told their children of all the wonders that God had done for his people. The Scripture was the foundation of all morality. Therefore, to study and learn it was to grow spiritually (Ward 1987, 150). - STORYTELLING: A SOURCE FOR REDUCING BIBLICAL ILLITERACY

Another way to enhance the knowledge of the Bible was through Medieval Mystery Plays or as some call them Miracle Plays.

Mystery plays and miracle plays (they are distinguished as two different forms although the terms are often used interchangeably1) are among the earliest formally developed plays in medieval Europe. Medieval mystery plays focused on the representation of Bible stories in churches as tableaux with accompanying antiphonal song. They told of subjects such as the Creation, Adam and Eve, the murder of Abel, and the Last Judgement.2 Often they were performed together in cycles which could last for days.3 The name derives from mystery used in its sense of miracle,4 but an occasionally quoted derivation is from ministerium, meaning craft, and so the 'mysteries' or plays performed by the craft guilds.

Spanish mystery plays

The Misteri d'Elx (in English, the Elx Mystery Play or Mystery Play of Elx) is a liturgical drama dating from the Middle Ages which has been enacted and celebrated every year without any known interruptions. Commemorating the Assumption of Mary, it is played on every 14 and 15 August in the Basilica de Santa María in the city of Elx (also known as Elche). The prohibition of theatrical plays in churches by the Council of Trent eventually threatened to interrupt the yearly performance of the Misteri, but in 1632 Pope Urban VIII issued a special permit for its continuation. In 2001, UNESCO declared it one of the Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. - Mystery play (Wikipedia)

In the Middle Ages many story and legends abound about how plants and to a lesser degree animals got their names associated with various biblical events, saints or religious truths of one sort or another:

Blessing Basil Leaf in Honour of the Holy Cross

St. George's mushroom

  • Thanks! Do you know of any book dealing with these issues in an accessible way?
    – luchonacho
    Nov 16, 2017 at 13:49
  • @luchonacho Not off hand, but I am sure that some do exist. There is a private Catholic library (seminary) close by that I have access to. I will check it out when I can.
    – Ken Graham
    Nov 16, 2017 at 23:10

Timeframe: Mid 4th century onwards

If by "the Bible" you mean the Bible as we have it in its current form (albeit in some cases missing the Deuterocanon), then the time period we must consider is from the mid-4th century onward. The first enumeration of the books of the Bible we know of by any Church Father is that of Athanasius of Alexandria (ca 296-373) in his 39th Paschal Letter, written around 367 AD. The first local Church Council to formalize the canon was the 3rd Council of Carthage in 397 (in Canon VI). The canon of Scripture would not be formalized for the entire Church (i.e. all five ancient Sees - Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) until the 7th Ecumenical Council in 787.

The majority of Christians learned about the Bible from Church services

It is sometimes overlooked that the motivation for creating a canon of Scripture in the first place was to normalize what was being read in Church. The canon established by Carthage described the books of the Bible as those which "must be read in the Church." Athanasius wrote at the end of his list of books that he was directed "by the need and advantage of the Church."

The canonization of Scripture for Christians more or less coincides with the formalization of written Church services. In the east these include the Liturgy of James, the Liturgy of Basil, and the Liturgy of John Chrysostom, all of which date from the mid to late 4th century (although the Liturgy of James is thought to have roots dating to the 1st century).

What all first millennium Liturgies had in common - east and west - was a portion called the Liturgy of the Catechumens (sometimes called Liturgy of the Word) and a portion called the Liturgy of the Faithful (sometimes called Liturgy of the Eucharist). The Liturgy of the Catechumens was that portion of the Liturgy devoted to reading and expounding on Scripture, including a Gospel reading, an Epistle reading, and several excerpts from the Psalms. Its origin is in the Temple and synagogue services of the 1st century, which the very earliest Christians continued to attend (see, e.g., Acts 2:46;3:1). The very term "the Bible" (Greek τὰ βιβλία - tà biblía) was coined by John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constaninople, during one of his homilies on Matthew, sometime around 386 (biblon, the singular, was a nickname given to a bound collection of papyruses - named after the Phoenician port of Byblos where many such papyruses originated).

The Church adopted a cycle of readings that repeated each year. A lectionary of Gospel and Epistle readings for Saturdays and Sundays may have been in place as early as the 2nd century, according to some scholars.1 Weekday readings were added later. The eastern (Orthodox) Churches today and western churches following the eastern rite continue to use an annual Gospel and Epistle lectionary that is probably well over 1,000 years old. Many of the writings we have of various Church Fathers are commentaries on these same Lectionary readings. John Chrysostom's homilies on Matthew, John, Acts, and the Pauline Epistles are one example. An example from the west would be the collection of Gospel homilies by Gregory the Great. Although later transcribed, all of these would have been intended originally to be heard, not read. (In some of John Chrysostom's homilies he even scolds people for going to chariot races rather than to church).

A sense of how pervasive Scripture was in early Christian Liturgy is found in Kallistos Ware's description of the eastern Church services:

During the course of Matins and Vespers the entire Psalter is recited each week, and in Lent twice a week; Old Testament readings occur at Vespers on the eves of many feasts, and at the Sixth Hour and Vespers on weekdays in Lent ... The reading of the Gospel forms the climax of Matins on Sundays and feasts; at the Liturgy a special Epistle and Gospel are assigned for each day of the year, so that the whole New Testament (except the Revelation of St John) is read at the Eucharist. The Nunc Dimittis2 is used at Vespers; Old Testament canticles, with the Magnificat3 and Benedictus4, are sung at Matins; the Lord's Prayer is read at every service. Besides these specific extracts from Scripture, the whole text of each service is shot through with Biblical language, and it has been calculated that the Liturgy contains 98 quotations from the Old Testament and 114 from the New.5

The earliest visual aids: Icons

Statues and stained glass have already been mentioned, but icons and mosaics are almost certainly the oldest non-verbal means of presenting and explaining Scripture. Eastern and western Church tradition holds that the Evangelist Luke himself painted one or more icons. The oldest surviving icon is that of Christ Pantocrator, dating to the 6th century and found at St. Catherine's Monastery at Sinai. Certainly there are many, many more older icons that are now lost.

"Icons", wrote Leontius of Antioch (4th c.), "are opened books to remind us of God". Kallistos Ware writes:

They are one of the means which the Church employs in order to teach the faith. He who lacks learning or leisure to study works of theology has only to enter a church to see unfolded before him on the walls all the mysteries of the Christian religion. If a pagan asks you to show him your faith, said the Iconodules, take him into church and place him before the icons.

1.J. Getcha, The Typicon Decoded (St. Vladimir Seminary Press, 2012), pp.53-54
2.Luke 2:29-32
3.Luke 1:46-55
4.Luke 1:68–79
5.The Orthodox Church, p.201
6.Ibid., p.32.


Copying this from my comment.

Your intuition is correct. Illiterate people learned the Bible 600 years ago the same way illiterate people learn it today (approximately 16% of the world population is illiterate). But, "all literate people learn the Bible primarily by reading it" is not true. We, too, learn much of it from experience, discussion, sermons, culture, holidays, plays, etc. And some (most?) of the knowledge is incorrect, as is always the case with humans.

Here are some examples: stained glass, icons, fast days and feast days, praying the hours, songs and hymns, paintings, and probably more that I'm missing.

Initially I put this as a comment because I have not cited anything and therefore someone could accuse these statements as being conjecture, but really I hope this passes everyone's common sense filter and I don't have to worry about citations.

  • Thanks. I am actually interested in reading about this myself, reason why I would prefer to get a reference of a book or article.
    – luchonacho
    Nov 11, 2017 at 9:14

The Church was well aware of the role of images and churches decorations in teaching the laity. The Decrees of the Council of Trent, Session 25 (4 December 1563), stated:

And the bishops shall carefully teach this,-that, by means of the histories of the mysteries of our Redemption, portrayed by paintings or other representations, the people is instructed, and confirmed in (the habit of) remembering, and continually revolving in mind the articles of faith; as also that great profit is derived from all sacred images, not only because the people are thereby admonished of the benefits and gifts bestowed upon them by Christ, but also because the miracles which God has performed by means of the saints, and their salutary examples, are set before the eyes of the faithful; that so they may give God thanks for those things; may order their own lives and manners in imitation of the saints; and may be excited to adore and love God, and to cultivate piety. But if any one shall teach, or entertain sentiments, contrary to these decrees; let him be anathema.

And if any abuses have crept in amongst these holy and salutary observances, the holy Synod ardently desires that they be utterly abolished; in such wise that no images, (suggestive) of false doctrine, and furnishing occasion of dangerous error to the uneducated, be set up. And if at times, when expedient for the unlettered people; it happen that the facts and narratives of sacred Scripture are portrayed and represented; the people shall be taught, that not thereby is the Divinity represented, as though it could be seen by the eyes of the body, or be portrayed by colours or figures.

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