The Codex and Early Christians: Clarification & Corrections
The prominence of the codex bookform in early Christianity is a well-known phenomenon. But there remain continuing questions, and also what I regard as confusion on some matters that make for mischief in historical analysis. I’ve treated the topic rather extensively in my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 43-93. Nevertheless, in light of a couple of subsequent publications, I think it necessary to reiterate and clarify a couple of things.
I start with reference to a recent essay: Stanley E. Porter, “What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? Reconstructing Early Christianity From Its Manuscripts,” in Christian Origins and Greco-Roman Culture: Social and Literary Contexts for the New Testament, edited by Stanley E. Porter and Andrew Pitts (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 41-70. At one point in this otherwise very helpful and impressively informed discussion, Porter deals briefly with the codex in early Christianity (p. 49). Referring to Roger Bagnall (Early Christian Books in Egypt, Princeton University Press, 2009, esp. pp. 70-90), Porter claims (p. 49) that Bagnall showed that the rate of adoption/usage of the codex in early Christian circles was no greater than in the larger culture of the time (2nd-3rd centuries CE). In a footnote (p. 49, n. 26) he claims that Bagnall “corrected” my own discussion, showing “that the Christian uptake of the codex was no greater than in secular literature.” But I must protest and correct matters.
Granted, Bagnall referred to my discussion as a recent example of what he calls “partly misleading” statements of matters (p. 77). But, as I pointed out in my review of Bagnall’s book (Review of Biblical Literature, 01/2010, available here), it is actually Bagnall who has given a bit of a misleading impression of things. My own key positions are these: (1) Christians of the 2nd/3rd centuries preferred the codex over the roll to a remarkable degree in comparison with the general book-culture of their time, and (2) this preference was especially strong for copies of those texts that they most highly prized and treated/read as scriptures. The data behind these two positions are entirely clear and easily verified. Moreover, Bagnall actually granted and underscored these two points in his own discussion.
Bagnall offered figures (pp. 72-74) comparing the number of non-Christian and Christian codices from Egypt datable to the early centuries, giving also the percentages of Christian codices of the total. His own data show, e.g., that Christian codices amount to somewhere between 22-34% of the total for the 2nd-3rd centuries CE. Yet Christian books overall amount to only ca. 2% of the total number of books (codices and rolls) of these centuries. Of course, there are more non-Christian codices, but the first point to note is that Christian codices comprise a vastly disproportionate percentage of the total number of codices in this period.
So it is in fact not at all “misleading” to say so, and Bagnall has not “corrected” me on these matters. Neither I nor others familiar with the data claim that Christians invented the codex or were the only ones to use this bookform. Nor have I claimed that the more widespread preference for the codex in 4th century CE and thereafter was caused by Christianity (although a few others have suggested this). But the very data provided by Bagnall clearly show that Christians invested in the codex far more than is reflected in the larger book-culture of the time. That is, the early Christian preference for the codex is undeniable, and this preference is quite distinctive in that period. And Bagnall actually reached the same judgement, stating “Christian books in these centuries [2nd/3rd] are far more likely to be codices than rolls, quite the reverse of what we find with classical literature.” (p. 74)
My second point also stands, and is agreed by Bagnall: The early Christian preference for the codex seems to have been especially keen when it came to making copies of texts used as scripture (i.e., read in corporate worship). E.g., some 95+% of Christian copies of OT writings are in codex form. As for the writings that came to form the NT, they’re all in codex form except for a very few instances of NT writings copied on the back of a re-used roll (which were likely informal and personal copies made by/for readers who couldn’t afford a copy on unused writing material). And here again, Bagnall actually grants the same conclusion, judging that “the Christians adopted the codex as the normative format of deliberately produced public copies of scriptural texts” (p. 78), but were ready to use rolls for other texts (76).
As to the reason(s) that Christian preferred the codex (especially for their scriptures), that’s a matter less clear or agreed. Bagnall expressed an interest in Kurt Treu’s speculation that early Christians inherited use of the codex from Jewish scribal tradition, but this proposal suffers from a complete lack of any evidence of pre-Christian Jewish use of the codex for literary texts. In fact, all pre-Christian Jewish literary texts are in bookroll form.
In a lengthy footnote (p. 49 n. 27), Porter offers several frequently made assertions about the supposed superiority of the codex over the bookroll, claiming that these were what attracted Christians to the codex. But I’ve discussed these matters extensively (The Earliest Christian Artifacts, 61-83), and I remain unpersuaded. To mention one counter-argument, if the codex was already such a supposedly superior bookform in the 2nd-3rd centuries, why didn’t everyone recognize this at the time? Why did most everybody continue to prefer the bookroll? Were the early Christians the only ones perceptive enough to see the supposed advantages of the codex? That seems just a wee bit counter-intuitive.
So, to correct in this instance Porter, Bagnall didn’t really correct my own discussion of early Christian preference for the codex, but essentially wound up agreeing with it. That Christian preference was unprecedented and unparalleled in the 2nd-3rd centuries CE.