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Early Christianity: A “Bookish” Religion

January 15, 2016

I’ve been asked to give main points from my Peter Craigie Memorial Lecture given earlier this week in the University of Calgary.  My lecture gives the gist of one of the chapters in my forthcoming book on distinctives of early Christianity, one of those distinctives being the prominent place of texts in early Christianity, making it a “bookish” religion.

  • From a very early point the reading of texts was a typical part of corporate worship gatherings.  This was unusual in the Roman-era setting for a religious group.  Indeed, the only analogy was the use of texts in synagogue gatherings.
  • In the production of new texts, likewise, early Christianity was remarkable and unusual.  By my count, there were at least some 200+ texts that we know of composed by ca. 250 AD.
  • The efforts at copying and dissemination of texts comprise a further distinguishing feature.  This trans-local dissemination of texts reflected and furthered the sense of early Christian circles being connected with other circles in a larger, trans-local fellowship.

In these and related phenomena, early Christianity was unusual and “bookish.”  That is, as some others have noted, it was a remarkable and distinctive “textual community.”

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22 Comments
  1. Bart Ehrman is due to release a book soon on Jesus before the gospels, where he will doubtless attempt to weave in current understanding of the strengths and inaccuracies of human memory. Reading this short post makes me wonder how much of this book will sit on the assumption that the first generations were primarily oral and the stories recounted were highly malleable over time. Any thoughts?

  2. Griffin permalink

    If the emphasis on a codex or book format was new, at least in religion, did its compilers, editors, experience any problems or felicities peculiar to this relatively new medium?

    I’m particularly interested in the possibility that the physical limitations on the size of any book, may have constrained the size of our canon. If it didn’t fit into one book without breaking the spine, it had to be left out, for instance.

    • Your assumptions are misinformed. The earliest use of Christian codices was for a single text, such as GJohn. It is only as Christians sought to put their growing body of scripture-texts into a single book that they experimented with various means of codex construction to accommodate them, as reflected in the 3rd century codices in the Chester Beatty collection. The codex expanded to serve the emerging “canon”, and was not a constraint upon the growth of the latter.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Are there actually extant copies of codices with single gospels or is it an assumption?

        Because from what I gather from Trobisch’s book, the earliest codices all seem to have collections of texts. He argues that the codex is one of the things that define the NT as a collection. If there are actual examples of codices with single gospels that would be detrimental to his thesis.

      • The remains of a number of earliest codices (e.g., P52) are commonly taken as one-text codices. There was no need for a codex to form a collection of sacred texts: Jews never needed it for their canon.

  3. Looking forward to your new book, Larry. This may be asking more than can be adequately answered in a comment response. Why were early Christians so concerned with textual production and dissemination? Were there certain theological presuppositions that were the foundations of their desires to produce and copy such texts? I suppose this has a necessary connection to Christianity’s theological/historical relation to Judaism, but my first question is probably big enough to tackle on its own.

    • Beliefs, teachings, doctrines seem to have been much more central and foregrounded in early Christianity than in Roman-era religious groups generally. Likewise, as texts in the ancient world functioned heavily to enable trans-local communication and dissemination of information, the strong trans-local ethos of early Christianity is linked to the high use of texts.

  4. This raises excellent points about the uniqueness of Christianity in the ancient world.

    My reservation is that “bookish” would seem to need careful definition. It would be easy for modern readers to conflate their own (mostly silent) use of text with the Roman interaction with it. The Roman world was textually active but that didn’t look anything like the way we use it.

    Is this addressed in your lecture and is that available online?

    • Well, silent and private reading were common in the Roman era (contrary to some earlier romanticized assertions). We have references to this, paintings of it, and even manuscripts clearly prepared for this usage. The use of texts in the Roman world wasn’t actually a world apart from modern usage, except that the reading out of texts in/to groups was much more common. But that was also much more common until the advent of radio and TV in the modern era.

      • This is originally what I thought until I encountered references to Space between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading, by Paul Henry Saenger. I recently acquired a copy and it’s on my list of stuff to digest. I’m interested in your take on his argument.

        Other possible limitations on silent and private reading would include overall literacy rates and the hand-produced nature of the media. A shopkeeper might have a functional command of written Greek in the marketplace but that is nothing like the reading and writing to which the modern world is accustomed. It also seems unlikely that many people other than church leadership (and possibly wealthy congregants) would have private copies of New Testament texts.

      • Steve: Yes, there were varying levels of reading-ability. And, yes, literary texts were often (perhaps even customarily) read aloud for group-enjoyment. But we know that people read silently and privately too, from textual descriptions, paintings, etc., and we know too that early Christians produced copies of their scriptures with various “readers aids” for those with more limited reading abilities.

      • In addition to Saenger’s book I will be looking at the other references you cited for Sean.

        To be clear I am not suggesting that people did not ever read silently. What I am questioning is whether it was the dominant mode of interacting with text. I am intrigued by the Younger Pliny’s description of his uncle’s study practices which appears to have involved the routine use of readers.

      • Steve: And my point isn’t that silent/private reading was the typical/dominant mode. How would we know? My point is simply that claims that silent reading was unknown in Roman antiquity are fallacious, and that there was plenty of private/silent reading.

      • Sean permalink

        Larry, could you recommend any sources (primary or secondary) on silent/private reading?
        Thank you.

      • Sean: see the following:
        –Bernard M. W. Knox, “Silent Reading in Antiquity,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 9 (1968): 421-35.
        –Michael Slusser, “Reading Silently in Antiquity,” Journal of Biblical Literature 111 (1992): 499.
        –A. K. Gavrilov, “Techniques of Reading in Classical Antiquity,” Classical Quarterly 47 (1997): 56-73.
        –Frank D. Gilliard, “More Silent Reading in Antiquity: Non omne verbum sonat,” Journal of Biblical Literature 112 (1993): 689-96.

        –Cf. Paul Saenger, Space Between Words: The Origins of Silent Reading (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1997). But, with some others, I think Saenger’s argument is not fully persuasive.

  5. Prof Hurtardo, I wonder if you could comment on the conclusion of Jürgen Becker (Schriftliche und Mündliche Autorität im frühen Christentum, Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2012) that the Christian community preferred the oral gospel over the textual well into the second century. It seems to me that it makes a significant difference to the hermeneutics of Gospel interpretation if we consider that first generation of readers/auditors as primarily an “oral community” rather than a “textual community.”

    • Becker appears to reflect a common misunderstanding of things, largely romantic in tone and based on a misunderstanding of a comment by Papias. It is a mistake to play off oral and textual in the Roman era. The two went hand-in-hand. Texts were typically read out (oral), but it was TEXTS (textual) that were read. The Roman era was more textually active than any previous or subsequent period until ca. the 17th century of Western Europe.
      The early Christian circles were more given to the production, use and circulation of texts than any other known religious group of the time.

  6. Do you interact with the claim that when compared to G-R religion it was unusually bookish, but not when contrasted against philosophical schools- particularly Platonic and Epicurean?

    • Yes. Philosophical circles produced & used texts, certainly. But, even so, the comparative amount of textual production and trans-local circulation in early Christianity is unparalleled.

  7. it was also unusual in its usage of codices so early.

    • Yes. I comment on this use of the codex in the lecture, and more extensively in my book: The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006).

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