Faith Comes By Reading: Studies in Mark, Pt. 31

It is quite common these days to hear persons make the following argument (usually related, in some way to the issues of inerrancy, inspiration or the Bible’s authority): “Faith comes by hearing not by reading.” In fact, it is my belief that this point is argued so often that it has now become mainstream. Recently, I came upon it while reading an article by one of my favorite scholars. In the article, the scholar attempted to bolster this argument by saying things such as: 1) Jesus never said, “Faith comes by reading” and, 2) The culture of the New Testament was oral in nature and the literacy rate was below 10%. This is one of the reasons why Jesus never said that faith comes by reading.

However, I think when persons make such arguments they are doing so in a manner that is theologically and Scripturally irresponsible. Indeed, the New Testament alone suggests that in addition to faith coming by hearing (see the oft-cited passage, Rom. 10.17), faith also comes by reading! Before moving on to a few of these passages in Mark’s Gospel account, I want to offer some other New Testament proofs of this.

Firstly, I cite the Eunuch story in Acts 8 (see verse 28 and following). There, we encounter the Greek term that means “read” (αναγινωσκω) a number of times. Upon reading the story, the Eunuch understands what is written and gets up to be baptized as a believer. In the Eunuch’s case, faith came by reading.

In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, the apostle says, “In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ” (Eph. 3.4). I need not offer much exposition on this passage because it is rather straightforward. In another one of Paul’s letters, 1st Timothy, Paul exhorts believers to devote themselves to the “public reading of Scripture” (1 Tim. 4.13). In 2nd Timothy 3.16, we find Paul saying that every Scripture is useful (for myriad reasons). So, by default, if the Scriptures are not read and understood, they are meaningless. It goes without saying that for Paul, faith came by hearing and reading—as was true in all Jewish synagogues too.

Within Mark’s account, we find some statements that are not as direct as, say, 1st Timothy 4.13 but nonetheless suggest that, in addition to hearing, faith also comes by reading. For example, one indirect way of reading Mark as saying that faith comes by reading is to simply take note of how many times he cites passages from the Hebrew Scriptures (which he often sees as fulfillment passages). At 1.2, Mark already cites two Hebrew prophets. Evidently, he was familiar with these verses and evidently he located them in his work so that they might edify his “readers”.

Elsewhere in his work, Mark records Jesus as asking the religious leaders questions such as, “Have you not read the Scriptures?” (e.g. Mk. 2.25). The question assumes that if they had read the Scriptures then their frustrations and misunderstandings about Him might have never surfaced or perhaps, would have been corrected. To put it differently, instead of holding Jesus in contempt, they might have placed their faith in Him.

Another thing that we encounter in Mark’s work is Jesus repeatedly telling persons to keep quiet about Him. In addition to this, we find Jesus speaking in confusing parables. So, sometimes, even those who “heard” did not place their faith in Jesus. Sometimes, hearing did not lead to faith but rather often times confusion or a silencing. Jesus even tells a parable about the various types of people who “hear” the word and do not believe (though, some do).

I could multiply my examples of Markan and New Testament occasions of when “reading” brings about faith, however, I think what I have provided above is sufficient. One of the points that I am trying to make is that among our beliefs concerning the Bible (and thereby, it’s authority, inerrancy, infallibility, etc.), we cannot argue that faith only comes by hearing (which, when we do hear the Gospel, in most cases it is being read aloud). Instead, we should acknowledge that even in the Scriptures themselves we find cases where faith comes in many ways (e.g. encountering God personally, hearing, reading, etc.).

Thus, it is time to quit using the weak and unfounded argument that faith only comes by hearing—which I’ve offered proofs against in this post. We would be much better off in shaping our views of the Bible with different points and different proofs. Besides, how many persons have come to faith by reading? How many persons have had their faith strengthened by reading the Scriptures? How many people have been ready to commit suicide in a hotel room but stumbled upon a Gideon’s Bible?

The truth is, most of us live in cultures where reading is incredibly important (e.g. take note of what you're doing at this very moment in "reading" this blog). If we are going to contextualize the Gospel, we must take this into consideration and recognize that faith often comes by reading. Perhaps we should take Paul’s words to the Thessalonians with the utmost care and seriousness and likewise devote ourselves to the reading of the Scriptures.


  1. "It is quite common these days to hear persons make the following argument (usually related, in some way to the issues of inerrancy, inspiration or the Bible’s authority): “Faith comes by hearing not by reading.” In fact, it is my belief that this point is argued so often that it has now become mainstream."

    I think this is a valid argument depending on the context in which it is used. I recently used it against a man who suggested that without a belief in strict inerrancy, I had no foundation with which to believe in Christ. He cited Romans 10:17 in support of his position, but this verse doesn't have reference to a written NT and the word in question is referring to the word as it is spoken or preached.

    But I don't know many people who would argue that faith can't or doesn't come by reading -- to read or be read to is to hear.

  2. Nick,

    I read that post of yours. I must say that I have to disagree with you on this one. It is my thought that there is no context in which this argument works.

    By the way, you'e sounding lik you beleive only faith can come from "reading" a written NT. I don't share this view either (that is, if it is even a view you're espousing).

  3. "By the way, you'[r]e sounding lik[e] you beleive only faith can come from "reading" a written NT. I don't share this view either (that is, if it is even a view you're espousing)."

    That's not my view at all. I believe that faith can come by hearing the word preached, by hearing the word read aloud, by reading the word to yourself, etc. I also believe that faith can come from a direct witness of the Spirit.

    But the particular argument that I was dealing with from the gentleman in the chat room where the topic came up was that without an inerrant NT there can be no faith - Romans 10:17 was his 'proof' text.

    But I'm still going to have to say that the argument does work in certain contexts. For example, what did everyone do before scripture? Before the first writing of the Tanakh was relegated to paper where did faith come from? It couldn't have come from 'reading' scripture, could it?

    BTW, would it be possible to find out which article you were reading that piqued your interest in this argument?

  4. Michael,

    I'm glad you had a fruitful trip to San Diego. My last week was spent at a Philantropy conference in Charleston learning how to raise money with FaceBook and text messages. I think I would have had more fun in California.

    Far be it for me to make the case that "reading" the scripture is unimportant. But I am not sure that making that case builds the case for widespread 1st century literacy. While Luke suggests that Jesus reads, I don't think that case has been made in Mark. In fact, I might think that Jesus' comment asking whether religious leaders had read might be laced with sarcasm, especially if they had raised the question of Jesus' authority when he didn't read. Mark's problem is that it appears that he doesn't read, or at least very carefully, as he doesn't have the details about David correct. Apparently one doesn’t have to be a priest to eat the bread. When we read the text, we find out that David doesn’t even raid the tent. And it is Ahimelech that gives him the bread, not Abiathar.

  5. Nick,

    If you email me at: halc dot 40dp at mailcity dot com

    I will give you the article info, I'd rather not say names in this instance.

  6. John,

    Thanks for you kind words.

    As per your comments regarding "widespread" literacy, I was not trying to make that case. I was simply entering into a conversation with someone who was making that argument. I do think it was probably 10-20 percent or less.

    As far as Jesus reading, I'll have to re-look at Mark for this.

    Pertaining to the David & bread eating scene, there are do seem to be some inconsistencies but I think those are on the surface. One reading of the Greek, however, wipes away those seeming inconsistencies and thus, Jesus did not get it wrong. I will try to explain this in another post; I should have already done this!

    Thanks for commenting, please keep up the challenging and engaging!