The Codex and Ignorance
One persistent commenter in response to my earlier posting about Christian preference for the codex has confidently posited things that only illustrate his ignorance of the data about ancient manuscripts. I shall, therefore, neither post his comments nor name him. Instead, I take this opportunity to correct his ignorance. There’s nothing wrong with being ignorant of some specialized subject–we’re all in that situation on this or that one. But it’s passing strange for someone so obviously inadequately informed then to make confident (even arrogant) claims based on his ignorance. That is not acceptable. But now to the corrections.
First, he incorrectly claimed that people must have used the codex much more regularly than the MSS data indicate, for otherwise how would they have made insertions of material into texts? Several errors here. For one thing, the way ancient texts were altered (by omissions, additions, other changes) wasn’t mechanically by physically adding or cutting out bits. Instead, it was in the copying process. Each time a given text was copied, there was the opportunity of making changes, either accidentally or deliberately. Texts on rolls could be changed just as easily as those on codices. The physical book-form had nothing to do with it.
Furthermore, as to codices, the earliest form seems to have been “single gathering” construction, a number of sheets laid on top of one another and then folded and stitched together. You couldn’t remove individual leaves, as each leaf was one half of a folded sheet. And on all the sheets, except the most inside one, one leaf had material from the early part of the text, and the other leaf had material from another, later part of the text. So, if you removed one sheet, you made two deletions, not one. And if you added a sheet or removed one, you would have to take the whole codex apart and then re-sew it together again. As for multiple-gathering codices, there also removing or adding leaves wasn’t an easy task. You see? One really needs to study the physical items closely before making claims.
Second, he claimed that, because the data on the Leuven Database of Ancient Books was heavily based on papyri from Egypt (where conditions more readily made for the survival of papyri), we can’t apply these data (particularly the obvious preponderance of the bookroll for literary texts all through the first three centuries AD) generally. In Rome (he claimed), things could be different, and he proposed that there the codex was more heavily used.
Well, again, ignorance is the mother of the claim. For we do have data about preferred bookforms in Rome and the West from the early centuries. For example, there is the library found in Herculaneum, which comprised a few hundred papyus bookrolls of literary texts that were carbonized in the eruption of Mt. Visuvius in 79 AD. So, wrong again. All actual data confirm that the bookroll was the preferred bookform for literary texts in this early period, East or West, Greek or Latin.
Martial’s famous Epigrams include mention of what he describes as an experiment of a local bookseller in preparing small, portable leather codices of his poetry for travellers. But it’s clear that this was a rather isolated experiment, and not indicative of any larger pattern. I’ve actually gone through the LDAB listing of all second-century non-Christian codices (there aren’t that many), and confirmed that they largely are workaday collections of recipes, astronomical tables, magical formulas, etc., with a few examples of copies of literary texts. My ill-informed commenter could do well to take the time to do such work before making further claims.
So, bottom line: The bookroll was overwhelmingly the preferred book form for literary texts all through antiquity till sometime in the 4th century AD, and continued to be used heavily even after that. E.g., per the LDAB, about 98% of second-century non-Christian copies of literary texts are bookrolls. By contrast, Christians overwhelmingly preferred the codex, with particular fervency for those literary texts that they treated as scripture.
For further reading:
On the ancient bookroll: William A. Johnson, Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).
On the ancient codex: E. G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977; reprint, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011)
On ancient libraries, including Herculaneum: George W. Houston, Inside Roman Libraries: Book Collections and Their Management in Antiquity (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2014)
On the basics: E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction (1968; reprint, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980)
And my own book: The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005)