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Early Christians & the Codex: A Correction/Clarification

August 1, 2013

An academic pal pointed me today to an essay published a couple of years ago (but I don’t read everything) by Alan Jacobs: “Christianity and the Future of the Book,” which appeared online in The New Atlantis, accessible here.  I can’t comment on Jacobs’ reflections on modern technology, but I think it appropriate to correct his musings about the early Christian preference for the codex, as that’s a topic on which I’ve spent a good deal of time. 

Jacobs refers to my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), in which I devote a large chapter to the topic (pp. 43-93).  Authors are always grateful for such notices, of course.  But he seems to have ignored (or failed to grasp) a good deal of what I wrote there.

Jacobs posits four factors as disposing early Christians to prefer the codex:  economy, portability, “integrity,” and “sequentiality.”  But his proposal rests on a seriously faulty grasp of the relevant historical data.  So, I shall elucidate them briefly.

First, as shown many years ago by T.C. Skeat, the putative savings of writing a text on a codex are not all that much, and (as Jacobs notes) with others I’ve pointed to the wide margins, wide line-spacing, and large lettering of most early Christian codices as indicating that their copyists weren’t particularly concerned to save on writing material.  Moreover, the time and skills required to construct even a simple codex were additional to those required for a roll.  In the latter case, the material came from the shop all ready (sheets of papyrus already glued together to form a running length of material), and all that was required was the skill to write a text in nice columns.  For a codex, however, one had to learn a new means of estimating how much writing material would be needed, how to attach the sheets of writing material to one another, et alia.

Second, the only references to portability of codices in antiquity concern miniature codices (e.g., in the epigrams of the Roman poet Martial).  But we also have examples of miniature rolls too, likewise intended for portability.  So, small rolls could be just as portable as small codices, and there’s no firm indication that this was really a major factor in the preference for regular/larger-size codices among early Christians.

As to alleged “integrity”, by which jacobs seems to mean holding in one book physically various texts such as those that form a canon of scriptures, again, he misses the matter, and by a few centuries.  He refers to the great 4th-century codices (e.g., Sinaiticus), which allowed a complete Bible of OT and NT writings in one set of covers.  But in the initial period of Christian codex-preference (which goes back at least to the early 2nd century CE), the technology of codex-construction seems not yet developed to permit anything along these lines.  The initial Christian codices seem to have been mainly (or perhaps all) single-text books:  e.g., a codex of the Gospel of John or the Gospel of Matthew.   Our earliest clear examples of multi-text Christian codices come from the early/mid-3rd century CE (e.g., the Pauline codex P46, and P45, which includes the four Gospels and Acts, and P75, which contained at least the Gospels of Luke and John).  These are not likely the very first such experiments, of course; but they seem still to have been somewhat exceptional.

Indeed, well into the 3rd century CE it appears that Christians were still experimenting with how to make codices of sufficient size to accommodate multiple texts.  The Chester Beatty papyri (housed in Dublin) include examples of various contruction techniques:  “single-gathering” (numerous sheets stitched together in a single group), folded sheets stitched together concertina-style, and small numbers of sheets stitched together and then these in turn stitched together (the “multiple-gathering” codex form).  The last technique proved best in the end, and modern leaf-books continue to be made this way (in what are traditionally called “quires”).

So “integrity” (i.e., accommodating multiple texts) likewise seems not to have been a strong factor in the initial preference for the codex by Christians.

And the same goes for “sequentiality” (by which Jacobs means that the codex permitted fixing an order of texts).  I repeat:  The initial Christian codices tended to be single-text books.  So, no “sequentiality” of texts there.  Moreover, even after Christians developed codex technology sufficiently to accommodate multiple texts, we have evidence of different sequences preferred (e.g., several different orderings of the four Gospels). 

I thought I had made these matters sufficiently clear in my book, but it appears less successfully than I had hoped.  As I judged in that discussion, the supposed “practical” reasons for Christian preferring the codex just don’t fit the data.  And were the Christians the only people in the 2nd century to realize the supposedly “obvious” advantages of the codex?  Just a bit counter-intuitive, yes?

Finally, there is one further interesting fact:  The early Christians’ preference for the codex seems to have been markedly stronger with respect to texts that they treated as scriptures (e.g., OT texts, and those that came to form the NT), whereas they were somewhat less concerned about using rolls for other texts.  This, it seems to me, indicates that their preference for the codex was expressive of a desire to mark their own books, especially their copies of scripture-texts, physically, distinguishing them and identifying them as Christian books. (I’ve referred to the Christian preference for the codex as signalling an emergent early Christian “material culture.”)

I’ve given a boat-load of the data for these matters in the relevant chapter of my Artifacts book.  Whatever the future of the familiar leaf-book in these days of e-books/readers (and I personally hope that it has a future), the early Christians seem to have been ahead of their time in preferring the leaf-codex, when pretty much everyone else regarded the roll as a much-superior bookform for literary texts.  Indeed, because they were ahead of their culture (and may have influenced it in this matter), they had to experiment themselves with developing the humble leaf-codex to serve the much more ambitious purposes that they (uniquely at the time) wished to pursue:  e.g., using codices for large bodies of text and multiple texts.

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  1. Larry, I have a fewqueries of my own to follow up on the good dialogue so far.

    1. You seem to slight Chris Cooper’s response in the name of a kind of historiographical minimalism. Everything you say in response seems true to me, and yet still beside the point: A technology might emerge that does a task BETTER, and can be recognized as such, without suggesting that previous technologies didn’t accomplish the task AT ALL. Of course we all know that previous Bible readers compared Scripture with Scripture. But if the codex helps us do that better–and can you think of a way in which scrolling would be better?–then that advantage would help explain a preference for codices, whether anyone in the extant documents actually remarks on what might be just obvious.

    2. Much of your argument hangs on what the earliest, “first-adopters” did with the technology. But, as Alan suggests, earliest use doesn’t then forbid us from suggesting why the technology caught on so well and what it was later prized for, especially when we do have examples later of the sorts of uses Alan suggests.

    3. All the experimenting with ways of producing codices of multiple books might be taken in the opposite direction from your interpretation: that this testing indicates strong INTEREST in eventually being able to bind an authoritative canon in an authoritative order, rather than a jumble of individual books. I don’t dispute your evidence, of course: just your conclusion from it.

    I share your historian’s preference to be able to document things in the sources: I, too, want to see someone actually SAY that he preferred doing it this way for these reasons. But, given the paucity of sources, we wouldn’t want to argue very often from silence, would we? Since no one actually said he was doing X for Y reason doesn’t mean we can’t plausibly infer from what we do know that he was doing X for Y reason, right?

    • John, Let me see if I can follow and engage your thoughts.
      –I wasn’t slighting Chris Cooper at all, simply noting that (a) we shouldn’t imagine that finding something in a codex was easier for ancients (who were more accustomed to rolls), just because it would be easier for us. That is, it’s the unexamined assumption that ancients found the codex more practical for finding passages that I’m questioning.
      –Yes, my argument with Alan was over what I took to be a claim about why the codex was adopted, and that’s the real historical issue, not what Christians (and the wider culture) did with codex technology thereafter. Obviously, once Christians committed to the codex (esp. for their scriptures), they then had to experiment with ways of constructing codices that would make them durable and serviceable. But the historical data indicates that the initial use of codices wasn’t for multiple texts. So “sequentiality” wasn’t a factor at the crucial early stage.
      –I don’t build primarily on the absence of statements from ancient about why the codex was used, but on the available data, i.e., the physical nature of the earliest manuscripts themselves.

      • I don’t see why we shouldn’t conclude that looking things up in codices was, and is, easier than scrolls, Larry. Some of us old-timers have used microfilm in research: Would you seriously suggest that scrolling through that was easier than looking through a book? And just because, yes, the ancients MIGHT have had ways of using scrolls that we don’t know about doesn’t mean, when faced with a prima facie case of technological superiority, that it didn’t occur to them, too.

        If I understand your original post, you are setting aside Alan’s arguments about how codices seem to be better than scrolls and thus why Christians likely adopted them in the ancient world because the first-adopters didn’t seem to adopt them for those reasons. Now an argument about why someone did something in history could go like this: (1) he says he did X for Y reason; (2) his actions seem to indicate he did X for Y reason; (3) contemporaries did X for Y reason, so likely he did, too; and (4) it makes sense to us that he did X for Y reason. You seem to be leaning pretty hard on (1), (2), and (3), reasonably enough, but giving short shrift to (4). I don’t know why.

        If you are intent on chastening claims that overreach, then fine: if someone says something more definitively than he or she should, then retraction and restatement is in order. But I wonder if you’re also now sticking to rather minimalist ground and missing the broader point Alan’s post was getting at: Christians DID adopt the codex, and the codex DOES manifest these advantages over the scrolls, so is it not reasonable to conclude that they adopted the codex for those reasons?

        YOUR reason, by contrast, is that “their preference for the codex was expressive of a desire to mark their own books, especially their copies of scripture-texts, physically, distinguishing them and identifying them as Christian books. (I’ve referred to the Christian preference for the codex as signalling an emergent early Christian “material culture.”)” If I understand you correctly, you are saying that the early Christians relegated their most important texts to a technology that was used by their contemporaries mostly for UNimportant purposes as a way to bring distinction to their most sacred texts? And not because of the suggestions Alan and Chris are making about how the codex actually suits various obvious purposes better?

        Seriously? Like they couldn’t have just marked their most sacred texts with crosses or fishes (I jest only in part), but instead picked a technology that had NO OBVIOUS ADVANTAGE over scrolls, and was NOT highly esteemed, as a mark of their (apparently very strange theory and practice of) “material culture”?

        If you can actually show that they did this for this reason–perhaps as a sign of a I Corinthians 1 mentality of choosing the weak things of the world to shame the strong?–that would be very cool indeed. But until you do, is it not reasonable to keep an open mind to the idea that early Christians, who were not bound to look at the world in strict accord with what bien-pensant thinking was in their culture, saw more quickly than others the way codices could help them in the several ways Alan and Chris suggest?

      • John: Perhaps just one more go at this, briefly, although for a fuller engagement with the subject I really do urge you to read my rather more extensive discussion of it in the chapter on codex in my Artifacts book.
        –Your #4 is a fallacy: I.e., it’s a fallacy to make what became a later result of a given decision the reason for the decision. That Christians later developed multi-text codices, and marking schemes to compare passages in the Gospels (e.g., the Eusebian canons), etc., tells us nothing about what prompted the move to the codex in the first place.
        –I repeat: The earliest codices were not for multi-text purpose, so “sequentiality” wasn’t a disposing factor. Once devoted to the codex, they then explored ways of making the technology accomplish things such as containing a full Pauline corpus or all four gospels. But that was later.
        –Alan’s interesting project is fine, so long as he avoids the error I’ve mentioned above: It is interesting how the codex subsequently was developed along certain lines and may have enabled certain uses of scripture texts. But it’s a historical fallacy to assert these later developments as the causations for choosing to go with the codex.
        –My proposal (that the choice of the codex was motivated by “semeiotic” reasons) is an inference, but at least based on the relevant historical data: (1) The choice was made against the dominant cultural preference for the roll for literary texts (and Christians couldn’t have been ignorant of this); (2) the choice seems to have been particularly firm and consistent with reference to their scriptural texts, whereas for non-scriptural texts they were far less consistent in preferring the codex; (3) we know that Christians and Jews were in debate (e.g., Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho) over OT passages in which each side accused the other of tampering with the text (so Christians would have wanted to ensure OT texts that from their standpoint were “correct”).
        –So, yes, it does appear that Christians deliberately went against the dominant cultural preference for rolls, choosing a bookform that was then regarded as less appropriate for literary texts. So, they did so for one (or more?) of three possible reasons: (1) some sort of “obvious” practical advantage not perceived by any other group in antiquity (counter-intuitive in the extreme in my view); (2) they were so backward that they didn’t know that the codex was regarded as inferior by most people, or because the codex was more familiar to them as lower-class people (also not very persuasive); (3) they chose the codex deliberately, against dominant views. If the last (which I regard as most likely) is preferred, then this suggests that the reason was to “package” their texts (esp. scripture texts) in a form that marked them off.

      • Thanks, Larry. I think the issues are clear now–certainly they are clearer to me, for which I am grateful.

  2. Thanks for this very helpful post. I plan to consult your book on Tuesday. I am currently writing a paper for a course, the general topic area is innovation etc. Part of the argument I wish to make is that the community, in which Paul was working at least, was likely to be inherently more innovative. So I am encouraged by your last 2 paragraphs – even if the rest of the advantages might turn to sand.

    I am wondering about one other aspect of the advantage of a codex, which I don’t think is referred to in either blog post. It seems that a codex has a distinct advantage for the scholar in that it is far easier to refer back to an earlier portion of the text with a codex than unrolling a scroll. It seems a particular advantage for someone at pains to reconcile their contemporary experience and writings with ‘the scriptures’. This might almost be a sufficient reason for Paul to take on the innovation of codex, (assuming in 2 Tim 4:13 either biblia or membrana or both refer to codex /codices?).

    I believe this thought came to me originally from the article by Loveday Alexander, “Ancient Book Production and the Circulation of the Gospels”, in ‘The Gospel for All Christians’, 1998. (I don’t have a copy of the book handy so cannot confirm this).

    Interested in your thoughts if you have time.

    • Chris, Just two quick thoughts. First, it will seem to us easier to find a place in a codex because we’re accustomed to handling leaf-books. But how do you know that it was easier for people who were more familiar with using (and finding their place in) rolls? I don’t know that we have any statement by any ancient remarking on the matter. So, let us beware of making judgments about things from our cultural setting, and not allowing for the ancient one.
      Second, Christians were hardly the only ones in the ancient world who needed to find passages in books. How about ancient Jews, who searched the scriptures at least as diligently? Surely the Qumran texts show this, and they’re all rolls. Likewise, in learned circles of philosophers, etc., there would have been a need to consult and verify texts (although, of course, a lot of citation was from memory). The need to consult texts and find specific passages hardly distinguishes early Christianity. So I don’t see that this can serve to account for their preference for the codex.

      • Hi Larry, Thanks again for referring me to your book. I didn’t have time to read the whole thing but dipped into it, particularly chapter 2 on the Early Christian Preference for the Codex and chapter 3 on The Nomina Sacra.

        If I was to summarize my impression, although it may not have been your main aim, I think you provide ample evidence to me that Christians were relatively ‘innovative’, both technologically – with the adoption of Codices, and theologically – as they applied the piety of nomina sacra / nomina divina to both God and Jesus, and eventually to the Spirit too. So, the conclusion appears correct, even if we can’t explain the reasons. (I am not discounting your conclusion that it was done deliberately, and with distinct line of adoption as clear as that often seen between users of Macs and PCs!)

        The evidence you present, that the Christians used the Codices particularly for texts which would be ‘read’ out to others, in some ways reverses my argument. i.e. as I sat with your book on my lap trying to hold it open under the edge of the desk while I typed a quote or two, the advantages of a scroll for public reading started to appeal to me. My mind wandered to the other differences between scrolls and codices which might have been relevant. I speculate, with the mind of an engineer not a historian here, that perhaps there were other accompanying technologies which in some way discouraged early adoption by others but to which Christians were not as bound. Perhaps the shelves of libraries were designed for scrolls, perhaps there were public reading desks purpose built to hold them. I emphasize, speculation. But the fact that Christians were apparently experimenting with the best ways to create such codices, single-fold or gathered, suggests that they were indeed working at the forefront of the technology.

        I’m afraid I am probably both too simple and too old to answer the call for bright young PhDs to follow your paths. (Job 42:3) But I look forward to continued insights from the field and hope I can continue to engage at some level.

        xyrst (my own rebus / nomina sacra)

      • Thanks, Chris. There are actually a number of depictions of people reading in antiquity, both in groups and privately, notably including scenes of women reading. The ones that I’ve seen typically have people reading rolls. I do recall a school scene where a student is apparently reading out his assigned lesson from what looks like a codex (which was likely an early form of a school notebook, in the original sense of “notebook”!). Likewise, the scenes of scribes copying almost all show scribes seated (often on the floor) copying onto a roll.

  3. Rev. Bryant J. Williams III permalink

    Dear Larry,

    Thank you very much for this post. It does appear to me that Christians have usually been in the vanguard of pushing the boundaries of reading, learning about Christ, etc. i.e. Evangelism, Education and Edification. Thus, the codex was eventually the best way to do that. Today, it would be the internet with the blogs, etc.

  4. Larry — if I may — thanks much for all this, which will help me much in my further research on these topics. I think anyone who reads this should certainly defer to your judgment whenever we disagree, because you’re the expert in these matters and I am very much an amateur. But I’d still like to make a couple of points in response.

    First, something I definitely should have been more explicit about: when I write about “early Christians” and the codex, I don’t mean the earliest Christians only, but the whole history from the NT period up to Augustine. Essentially I am trying to make the most accurate generalizations I can, in an article for a general audience, about the first four hundred years of Christian use of the codex. That means that I have to say, for instance, that economy was a factor, but not always and not equally throughout the period and throughout the relevant geographical regions, as I try to acknowledge. I may have generalized poorly, or perhaps such generalization isn’t worth doing, but for what it’s worth that’s what I was trying to do.

    Second, you write, “I thought I had made these matters sufficiently clear in my book, but it appears less successfully than I had hoped.” You made your case very clear, but you were not the only scholar I consulted, and not all of y’all agree.

    My task in that article, and in the further research I have been doing — all too sporadically, I’m afraid — since then, is to try to understand the extent to which Christian faith and practice are formed by the particular technology of the codex, so I stand a better chance of understanding how current changes in textual technology might affect the Church in the future. That’s a very large task, and it requires anyone who pursues it to explore multiple fields of study and vast swaths of history, but I think it’s worth doing. Responses like the one you’ve provided here are very helpful to me as I push forward, so again, I’m in your debt.

    • Alan,
      Thanks for the gracious response to my blog-posting. I appreciate the breadth and complexity of your project, certainly, and wish you well in it. And, yes, not all who have looked at the matter agree (as will be clear in my references to and engagement with others in my own discussion of things in the Artifacts book. But the data I cite are not in dispute, and it was those data that I think you didn’t adequately consider in framing your proposal about why Christians preferred the codex. Anyway, I wish you well in your proposed project, and thank you again for your patient consideration of my slightly testy posting.

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