top of page

The Power of Reading Out Loud

In the follow-up after Jesus’ third post-resurrection appearance to his disciples, John records the familiar conversation between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus restores and recommissions Peter to gospel ministry. Throughout their conversation, Jesus’s main concern is to ready Peter for the reality and rigors of participating in Christ’s own ongoing mission to bear witness to the truth to the ends of the earth.

That conversation between Jesus and Peter begins, however, in an interesting and ambiguous way. John writes, “When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?’” (John 21:15 ESV). Within this question, there is a pronoun without an explicit referent (these). What are the “these” that Jesus has in mind and which Peter ought to love less than the Lord? At least four options are viable: 1) this is a comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus and the love that the other disciples have for Jesus; 2) this is a comparison between Peter’s love for Jesus over against Peter’s love for the other disciples; 3) “these” refers to the fishing gear nearby, including the net that wasn’t torn (cf. v11); 4) “these” refers to the fish that the disciples were eating for breakfast.

While I am inclined toward option 1 as most likely, I am also sympathetic to options 3 and 4. There is something attractive about Jesus forcing Peter to reckon with a comparison between his love for Jesus and his love for either fishing gear or fish. With respect to the fishing gear, the comparison would be between Peter’s call as an apostle and his former vocation as a fisherman. This comparison would highlight how important it is to have Jesus as one’s first love. With respect to the fish themselves, the comparison could be between a love for the things of this world and a love for Christ who transcends this world. Both of these options have theological backing, for Deuteronomy 6 calls worshipers of God to whole-hearted devotion to him, and Deuteronomy 8 warns worshipers of God against putting too much stock in material wealth and goodness because “man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD” (Deut 8:3 ESV).

What’s more, one scholar argues that the reference to fish is linguistically to be preferred on account of a literary technique called parechesis, in which the similarity in the vowel sounds of the words in v11 (which refer to the fish that were caught) connect with the same sounds in v15, thus disambiguating the referent-less pronoun “these.”[1] I am not completely convinced by the argument, though, because the parechesis in this instance would rely on the sounds of the case endings, which are severely limited and thus have the potential to introduce so much similarity in words that parechesis would be rendered meaningless as a literary device. Nevertheless, the author provides a helpful insight for us in the course of his argument as we think generally about works of literature and the power of speaking: almost all of what we read silently and individually today would have been read out loud in a group setting in earlier generations.

In antiquity, a practical reason would have prevailed alongside any others: texts were expensive and rare. Moreover, levels of literacy were much lower than they are today in the West. And while the prevalence of silent reading in antiquity is debated, it was at least hoped for and maybe even expected by many. Augustine, in his Confessions, notes that Ambrose’s silent reading was something of a disappointment for those who watched him read because they likely hoped that he would explain a writer’s meaning or a more complicated topic.[2] Setting Augustine’s comment alongside the argument that parechesis enriches if not also informs the meaning of a text, there was—and still is—great value in reading out loud in a group setting.

Building on this general observation about reading out loud, I commend the practice to everyone and encourage it as an opportunity to build knowledge and relationships. For anyone who is skeptical about the power of reading out loud, I refer to you a relatively recent book on the subject, The Enchanted Hour.[3] May we all appreciate the possibility that reading out loud might enrich our lives and relationships.

[1] Stephen J Smith, “Phonology, Fish, and the Form Τουτων: A New Approach to an Old Crux in John 21:15,” JETS 62, no. 4 (December 2019): 739–48.

[2] Augustine, Confessions, trans. Carolyn J.-B. Hammond, LCL 26 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 243.

[3] Meghan Cox Gurdon, The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction (New York: HarperCollins, 2019).

Recent Posts

See All

Memory and Imagination

A key concept in Deuteronomy 8 is memory. In v2, Moses challenges his hearers to remember God’s past activity, especially how he guided (and also provided for) them during the wilderness years. Again,

Not Being Conformed to This World

For the Christian, there is a close relationship between Deut 6:4-9 and Rom 12:2. To love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and might (Deuteronomy 6) is to reject being conformed to this world and i

Continuation to the End

With the end of John’s gospel, there is still a continuation of the story and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. Underlying all of the post-resurrection appearances of Christ in John’s gospel is a prepara


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page