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The Bookroll vs. the Codex

November 7, 2013

I’ve posted recently (and previously) about the early Christian preference for the codex.  I’m currently working toward a commissioned article about earliest Christian reading (where, how, etc.), and was reminded of the wonderful study of the early bookroll (or “scroll) by William A. Johnson:  Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).

Based on his PhD thesis, this work is certainly the most detailed, best informed, and most reliable analysis of pretty much everything you can think to ask about ancient bookrolls.  And Johnson, thereby, corrects a number of common assumptions (and, unfortunately, assertions by insufficiently informed scholars).  E.g., as to typical length of bookrolls, Johnson shows the range was mainly 3-15 meters (a good bit longer than some have asserted), but with some running considerably longer still.

As a related matter, he even shows how big an item a papyrus bookroll of varying length would be.  As examples, he notes (p. 150), “a 7.5-metre roll is, then, roughly the same diameter as a can of soda pop; a 10-metre roll roughly the same as a wine bottle; a 20-metre roll slightly smaller than a 2-litre container of Coca-Cola.”  So, contrary to some assertions, a goodly-sized bookroll wouldn’t at all have been “cumbersome” to carry.

Likewise, he observes that “mixed” rolls, i.e., containing more than one text, were common enough, containing, e.g., multiple books of Homer or various individual works (p. 151).  So, as I wrote in an earlier posting, it is an error to think that the codex was preferred by Christians because of some supposed superiority in containing multiple texts.

There are lots of other fascinating observations (well, fascinating to geeks like me), and I hope that anyone interested in texts, transmission of them, reading, and the “manuscript culture” of the Roman era will work through Johnson’s book.

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  1. Thank you for this very interesting post, and especially the mention of William Johnson. Do you know if anyone has attempted to answer the question asked in chapter one of his book about the “relation, if any, between the format of the bookroll and its contents”? It would be interesting to have a look at.

    A contribution to the discussion about the length of the scrolls is of course Tov’s chapter 4c in his “Scribal habits…,” where he mentions scrolls in the Qumran material measuring up to 25–30 meters, which I am sure you are aware of?

    • Yes, I am aware of the long rolls (Tov suggests there may have been Pentateuchal rolls, containing all five books on one roll).

  2. Geoff Hudson permalink


    Does Johnson say how long a typical letter was?

    • No. But from many other studies of ancient Greek letters (several thousand survive), they were typically brief, on one sheet of writing material.

      • Geoff Hudson permalink

        Larry, thanks.

        Could you say how many words there might be on one sheet of writing material? For example, 400 to 800?

      • Geoff, It would depend on the size of the “hand”. But most letters transcribed amount to anything from a few lines to maybe 1/2 page of a modern book. For examples, see the volume in the Loeb Classical Library series: Select Papyri: Private Affairs, Trans. A. S. Hunt, C. C. Edgar (Cambridge,MA: Harvard University Press, 1932), 268-395 (about 80 examples).
        As today (e.g., email, or in an earlier day paper letters), most were to the point, basic information, requests, acknowledgements, greetings, updates, etc.

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