“Regular public reading of the Torah,” Wikipedia (as of today) reports, “was introduced by Ezra the Scribe after the return of the Judean exiles from the Babylonian captivity.” The original source for this claim was certainly not the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, which report a public reading of the Torah (so we think) but make no mention that the practice did or should continue, whether on a regular or irregular basis. Rather, the Wikipedia article repeats a claim popular today – whose origin I have not tracked down – that conflates at least two rabbinic traditions. One of these traditions, in the Palestinian Talmud, Megilla 4:1, attributes the regular reading of the Torah on Shabbat mornings to Moses. Another, in the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Qama 82a, ascribes to Ezra the beginning of regular Torah readings on Shabbat afternoon and Monday and Thursday mornings. I suspect that earlier scholars were uncomfortable with ascribing any part of the practice to Moses, so simply assimilated that claim to the Ezra tradition.
The more interesting question, though, is whether it is true. It turns out that there is no – none – evidence for the regular public reading of the Torah until the first century BCE to first century CE, and even then our information is very fragmentary. A single inscription from a synagogue in Jerusalem seems to mention the reading of the Torah, but how often, how much, and in what form is not stated. In the New Testament, the synagogue is portrayed as a place of teaching, although in very few cases is it explicit that what is taught is the Bible, and in even fewer that it was read aloud. Our evidence instead seems to point more toward the second or even third centuries, CE, when regular Torah reading (especially in Palestine) may have started in some form.
This, then, leads to another question: If Jews were not hearing the Torah (or any other part of our Bible) read regularly, and if they were highly illiterate and in any case would have had limited access to biblical scrolls, did they know the Bible at all? If so, how and how much?
Outside of Judea/Palestine, at least in the first century CE, the Bible was probably better known than inside. The Torah had been translated into Greek centuries earlier and several other books were translated over the course of time. These books all became the inspiration for a rich cultural production that drew upon them. Even if someone never heard or read the Bible itself, they may have read Philo or Artapanus, and thus learned parts of it in an ad hoc fashion.
But in Jerusalem that was not the case. The priests and other ritual experts largely controlled access to it, and they would have disseminated knowledge through (1) the teaching of short selected passages; (2) the deployment of certain oracular or prophetic passages to prove a point; or (3) practical use of passages, e.g., to heal a child or write an amulet. Surely people would have known some stories that can be found in the Bible, but their knowledge of them would have been secondary or tertiary and learned orally. Knowledge of the Bible would have been spotty at best and almost never sequential. This would change for many in late antiquity with the institution of regular readings in the synagogue, but that change was yet to come.
So now, would anyone like to make the appropriate changes to Wikipedia?