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Christians and the Codex: Encore!

January 26, 2016

It is just a bit tiresome to have to make the same points over and over again about early Christians and the codex, but it seems necessary.  I laid out some matters in an earlier posting here, for example.  So in this posting I will simply list some key points briefly.

  • Christian preference for the codex is readily demonstrable from data that can be obtained open-access from the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (here).
  • This Christian preference was especially, notably strong for copies of texts used/read as scripture (copies of Old Testament writings, and Christian texts so used, over 95% codices).  For other texts (theological treatises, and other kinds), early Christians were comparatively more ready to use the bookroll (about 1/3 of copies of these sorts of texts are on bookrolls).
  • Modern references to the supposedly “obvious” advantages of the codex aren’t matched by any statements of Roman-era writers.  If the advantages of the codex were so obvious, why were the early Christians the only ones to perceive them?  It seems counter-intuitive to me.  The only ancient comments about the usefulness of the codex that I know are in Martial’s Epigrams, where he mentions a local bookseller who produced small codex-copies of his poetry, which he commends for taking on your travels.  We have examples of such small/miniature codices, and equivalent bookrolls too.  But the early Christian codices aren’t typically such small/miniature ones.  So, the Christian preference for the codex doesn’t seem to be explained as deriving from a preference for pocket-sized editions.
  • And the supposedly “obvious” superiority of the codex for finding particular passages in larger literary texts seems to me shaped too much by our greater ease with the leaf-book and our lack of ease with the bookroll.  Ancient Jews likewise pored over their sacred texts in minute detail and made reference to specific passages, but steadfastly preferred the bookroll.
  • Likewise, speculations about the relationship of the codex and the emerging Christian canon are typically misinformed and so erroneous.  The NT canon isn’t the product of preference for the codex.  In about the same period, Judaism established a canon, all the while firmly preferring bookrolls for their scriptures.  And the earliest fragments of codices seems to be from single-text ones, such as P52, a remnant of a copy of GJohn.
  • Well into the 3rd century, Christians were experimenting with developing ways to construct codices to accommodate multiple texts, such as P46 (Chester Beatty Library & University of Michigan), a copy of Pauline epistles, or P45 (Chester Beatty Library), a copy of the four Gospels and Acts.  That they were still working at how to construct codices to accommodate multiple works shows that the collecting of writings came first and the concern to copy multiple texts in one book came subsequently.  In short, the codex didn’t shape the emerging canon; instead, the emerging canon drove and shaped the development of codex technology among Christians.  And, by the way, Christians of the 2nd/3rd centuries seem to have been at the “leading edge” in codex technology.
  • So, the big question:  Why did early Christians so firmly and concertedly opt for the codex?  They left us no comments on the matter, so we scholars have to devise the best guesses that we can.  Personally, I side with the great papyrologist, Colin H. Roberts, in thinking that it was likely deliberate, to give early Christian copies of texts a marked form that distinguished them from the larger book-culture of the time.

From → canon

  1. Greg M. permalink

    Apologies for not recalling where I read this, but I recently read that perhaps Christians picked up the use of the codex from seeing ship’s captains use them for log books while they were traveling around the Mediterranean proselytizing. I can imagine a codex on a ship bobbing around the sea was much easier to handle than a scroll rolling around the cabin. Do you think there’s anything to this theory?

    • A new one to me! I know of no hard evidence that ship masters preferred/used codices, or what the heck relevance that would have anyway. Bizarre!

  2. H. Petersen permalink

    Did Christians adopt the codex or book, more quickly than pagans? Have you examined this opposing hypothesis: the possibility of bias in Christian scholarship. That wants to date Christian codicies earlier than strict history would warrant.

    There is at least, a possible motive for bias here. No doubt Christians today prefer to have early documents; helping them to verify Jesus as early as possible. So there is a modern preference for seeing Christian codices, as early. Even though general non-Christian history suggests their popularity came much later. Too late to be called early verifications of Jesus.

    • You are seriously misinformed. The dating of papyri, all whether Christian or not, is done by experts in palaeography, using the same procedures for all, essentially comparison of the “hand” (the formation of the script) with dated examples, and other accepted dated MSS.
      For a recent review of the dating of NT papyri by two internationally recognized palaeographers, see: Pasquale Orsini and Willy Clarysse, “Early New Testament Manuscripts and Their Dates: A Critique of Theological Palaeography,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 88, no. 4 (2012): 443-74. Note in particular the table of proposed dates at the end. They date several a bit later than some other scholars, and a few others earlier. But in the main, no major differences.

  3. Larry, Of course the codex was the principal method of transmitting propaganda. The editing of Antiquities and the writing of War are two prime examples. Never mind that the historians of the day used the codex also to write their histories at the behest of their masters, the Flavians. How else would Josephus have interpolated 13.5.9 to the time of Antiochus (about Essenes, Pharisees and Sadducees) into Antiquities. So many witnesses you say to Nero being bad, that they must be believed! Well, I would remind you of a number of a number deaths at the time: Nero, Agrippina, Poppea, Burrus, Epaphroditus and Seneca. I find it much more difficult to accept that these were not murdered by the same elite who mocked Nero. Dirty business and the creation of the codex went together.

    • Geoff: I presume that you have some basis for your wild claim about “the codex was the principal method of transmitting propaganda”: Some actual manuscripts, for example? Some textual references to that effect? Or (as I suspect) your own imagination?
      Ancient writers used wooden-frame tablets (wax writing surface) often for making notes, drafting preliminary thoughts, etc., to be sure. But the published version of literary texts was a bookroll. Which we can establish if you care to consult the 14,000 plus items on the LDAB database.
      As for your final comments, I have no idea what you mean, “dirty business and the creation of the codex went together,” but, Geoff, it all sounds rather raving loony.

  4. mpzrd permalink

    Untouterd freethinking here, but am I right that the emphasis in Jewish scriputure study relied on memorization much more than in Christian communities? So the “random access” nature of the codex adds value for Greeks but not for Jews. … were they proof-texting even in those days?

    • No. I have no evidence that there was any fundamental difference in the way Jews and early Christians studied their scriptures. Both read and both memorized.

  5. Monika permalink

    Dear Mr Hurtado
    Thank you for your inspiring blog!
    I am currently writing about a ritual instruction for the revelation of the divine name. The text is very likely from Egypt and is of a very hybrid nature concerning its religious background, bearing traces of Egyptian, Hellenistic, Jewish and/or Christian reworking. The extant manuscript dates from approx. the midst of the fourth century CE and comes down to us in a papyrus codex. Could this lead to think about the composer of the manuscript as being socialized in a christian (of whatever couleur) milieu and seeing the text as being as important as any other liturgical text?
    Thank you!

    • To clarify: The early Christian preference for the codex extended to all their literary texts. E.g., about 2/3 of copies of non-scripture texts are codices. But this preference was particularly strong for scripture-texts, of which about 95% of extant copies from the first three centuries are codices. So, I’ve proposed this principle: A codex format doesn’t in itself = a copy of a text used as scripture; but a copy of a text in bookroll format = at least that copy wasn’t likely prepared for liturgical/scriptural usage.
      A further complication: BY the 4th century (as the LDAB database will show), the majority of all literary copies were in codex form. So, certainly at that point the codex form by itself didn’t signal a liturgical/scriptural copy of a text.

  6. István Pásztori-Kupán permalink

    Thank you for the quick reply. It appears that the second point would make the codex the more economical option for storing a text, since it can contain twice the amount of text safely without any written part being exposed (as it is the case with the outer part of the bookroll if you were to write on it, too). If papyrus was indeed expensive (as it is hinted at in the article below), and the first Christians were not particularly wealthy, is it possible that the economical advantages of the codex could at least influence their initial decision and they just stuck to it during later times?
    The article concerning the arguably oldest written fragment of the Gospel of Mark found on a mummy mask is below. Is this real? The posting is from last year:

    • Istvan: On the alleged fragment of GMark (a story now over a year old), see my posting last January: .

      On the question of whether a supposed savings in writing material was a factor disposing toward the use of the codex, two responses: (1) The larger-than-usual lettering and line spacing, and the generous margins evident in earliest Christian mss suggest no particular concern to save on writing material, and (2) T.C. Skeat years ago calculated that the actual savings wasn’t 50% but closer to about 20-25%, for reasons he spelled out in this article: T. C. Skeat, “The Length of the Standard Papyrus Roll and the Cost-Advantage of the Codex,” in The Collected Biblical Writings of T.C. Skeat, ed. J. K. Elliott (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 65-70, originally published in Zeitschrift fur Papyrologie und Epigraphik 45(1982): 169-76

  7. Bee L. permalink

    But what, if not practicality and so forth, accounts for the smaller but still notable use of codicies by earlier, pre-Christian cultures?

    • If you survey the texts in codex form on the LDAB database, you’ll see that the form was used mainly for work-a-day texts such as astronomical tables, medical remedies, etc. There were some early experiments with putting literary texts in codex form, but it never caught on . . . until Christians took up the form.

  8. Thanks for this post, Larry. I read your chapter on the early Christian preference for the codex in The Earliest Christian Artifacts a while ago, but it was good to have this new summary, if only to see if your thinking has changed since you wrote the book, or if any new data has come in which gives a more satisfying understanding of why Christians adopted the codex so widely. Your preferred theory, in the last point in your post, seems to be different from what you say in Christian Artifacts (p. 80), where you side with an early, precedent-setting edition of Paul’s epistles in codex form. It could be just a question of emphasis, but it would be interesting to know if your thinking has changed at all. Thanks again.

    • There are two distinguishable questions: (1) What might have been the first and influential use of the codex form by Christians? (2) Why did Christians prefer the codex so firmly, and especially for their scriptures?
      To the first question, I suppose still that Gamble’s proposal is as good as any, and that’s what I dealt with in my Artifacts book. It’s the latter question that I focused on briefly in my posting.

  9. I’m interested in your claim that the advantages of the codex were not “obvious” and clearly they weren’t, but find the suggestion that Christians used the codex form as a mark of difference. Is there any evidence for this? I am not aware of any but this is after my “normal” period.

    Might the analogy of contemporary discussion of e-books and codexes offer some parallel, many today deny or minimise the “obvious” advantages of e-texts prefering the codex form with which they are familiar and which has a wealth of social status surrounding it?

    • There is to my knowledge no statement of any kind by any ancient Christian explaining the preference for the codex. So, all we can do is try to make intelligent inferences.
      I’m not clear what your question is about e-books etc. There is a roughly comparable matter of major differences in book-form, of course. But I see no indication of any group programmatically preferring e-books over traditional printed books. So, this isn’t really a comparable phenomenon.

  10. I believe I understand this, but what is the significance to the truth or untruth of Christianity?

    • No significance that I can see.

      • Donald Jacobs permalink

        Does any academic finding ever have any relevance to the truth or untruth of Christianity in your view?

      • In principle, yes, indirectly, but not directly so far as I can see.

  11. Jas permalink

    Yes. We do tend to think that the access of particular pages in a book must be quicker and more convenient than having to roll your way back and forth though a scroll. To us, it’s rather like the difference between choosing a song on a record or CD rather than on a cassette tape with its fast forward and rewind buttons! I’m sure the early Christians would have found it a little more convenient in codex form but I totally agree that it’s unlikely to have been the incentive that moved them to produce codices in the first place…

    …But rather than considering the imporvement in READING times, I’m interested in the possibility that the codex was originally exteremely beneficial when it came to WRITING copies of Christian texts to send to newly established churches. With a codex, different ‘scribes’ in a community could copy a few epistles each then combine their communal efforts into a single codex. You couldn’t do this with a scroll, so the codex would vastly speed up the production of material for relatively small-scale “on demand” provision.
    If Christians started out in this way, people would soon get used to having Christian writings in codex form in later generations.

    I don’t think we have any codices that date early enough to show whether they may have started out in this way do we? I’d imagine this sort of distribution would be early second century. Might anything support or dispel this theory? Whether or not LATER codices were copied by a single or multiple scribes doesn’t really contribute anything to this theory either way.

    Hope you can point to some evidence that may help support my logic/theory – or throw a spanner in the works 🙂 Thanks

    • The earliest extant codices seem to have been copied individually by one copyist, not the cooperative work of several. No, there’s no correlation that would account for the Christian preference for the codex. And it was no easier for multiple scribes to contribute to a codex than to a bookroll.

  12. Thanks Larry: this is a useful summary. Your opening is ‘It is just a bit tiresome to have to make the same points over and over again’, which suggests something or someone has provoked you to write this—I’m intrigued as to what (or who) provoked you to provide it since (as you say) you’d said much of this earlier.

    • Steve: Just a few comments that always come in, as after my posting about my Calgary lecture.

  13. Donald Jacobs permalink

    What are the reasons for thinking P52 was from a single text codex?

    • OK, Donald: The size of the writing, the line-spacing, original page size (ca. 22 x 20 cm), and the known extent of the text (GJohn) would require a codex of a at least 33 sheets or ca. 130 pages, just to accommodate the GJohn. It would have been most unlikely, and impractical for the original codex to include other large literary texts. OK?? Really, you could even find such basic information in the Wikipedia article:

  14. István Pásztori-Kupán permalink

    Dear Larry,
    A very comprising and easily understandable explanation! Thank you again. I would have a rather weird question, which at the same time betrays my profound ignorance concerning the whole matter: could or might have the so-called visual or photographic memory play any role in choosing the codex over against the bookroll? Is it possible that the pages of the codex could be seen more as “visual units” than the “columns” within a bookroll, so the visual localisation in one’s mind of a particular passage was easier? Or is this simply my construction, since I am obviously used to the book and not to the bookroll? Perhaps rabbis would contradict me saying that the columns in the bookroll are still better “visual units” than the book pages, the more so since you can always see any two or even three columns side by side, which is impossible in a book?
    Well, I may have already given the refutation of my argument. But I send the question anyway. 🙂

    • Istvan: I suspect that your suggestion is, as you too suspect, framed by the modern familiarity with using the leaf-book, and our lack of familiarity with the bookroll. One thing to note: In a number of early Christian codices, the text is presented in two narrow columns, which had the effect of making the page look more like a bookroll with its tall, narrow columns. So, I don’t think that ancients saw the codex a more useful for visual memory.

      • István Pásztori-Kupán permalink

        Dear Larry, thank you for the clarification. Two other ideas popped into my mind, which again may well have been answered long ago (as I said, I am very ignorant in the field). Here they are:
        1. Is there any research done or do we have some practical experience concerning the relative durability (i.e. preservation of the quality of the writing, blurring of letters/characters etc.) of the codex vs the bookroll? Is there any difference? What I mean is that the actual writing on the pages/scrolls could be worn out or blurred over time not only by the movement of the reader’s finger during reading, but also by the friction caused by the pages/scrolls as they are rubbed against each other during scrolling/pagination? I would assume that turning the individual pages of a codex (i.e. normal pagination) would cause less friction between individual pages than scrolling a bookroll, where the back (i.e. unwritten part) of the scroll is inevitably rubbed against the text with variable force, depending on how tightly does the reader want to “pack” the bookroll, i.e. how big the papyrus-cylinder(s) will become in the end before being stored again. I am not saying that this may have been a factor in preferring the codex, but am curious whether someone has bothered experimenting with it.
        2. My second question touches the issue of carrying the written Word in one’s luggage. If one travels on foot or even rides on a camel/horse/donkey etc, the question of weight and size of the luggage is important. If we have the same amount of text (e.g. the four gospels), which version would be more economical to contain it in terms of physical size and perhaps weight: the bookroll or the codex? Do we know whether they wrote on both sides of the pages of the codex and/or on both sides of the bookroll? Sorry for the length of my comment, but I am really interested. Thanks again.

      • Istvan: A brief response. To your #1 question, I don’t know of any study of the matter. But it would be relevant only for prolonged use of a text, over years no doubt. So, not likely a factor in choosing one or the other bookform.
        As to your #2 query, you wrote on both sides of the leaf of a codex, but usually only on the inner surface of the bookroll. We also have examples of re-used rolls, with a different text written on the outer surface. These latter seem to have been largely by/for personal study/usage.

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