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Christians and Book-Burning in Late Antiquity

February 26, 2018

I’ve just finished reading Dirk Rohmann, Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity (De Gruyter, 2016; Baylor University Press, 2017), a detailed and wide-ranging study of the effects of Christianity on the survival of classical literature.

Since at least Gibbon (19th century), there have been claims that the “triumph” of Christianity led to the wholesale destruction of the literary heritage of “pagan” antiquity.  Rohmann, therefore, sets out to conduct an analysis that is a free as he can make it from either this sort of anti-Christian animus or simplistic Christian apologetics.

Rohmann’s main theses are (1) that the state-sponsored burning of books is first attested in Diocletian’s order to destroy books owned by Manichaeans, Egyptian alchemists and Christians (early 4th century AD); (2) that thereafter, as Christianity acquired cultural and political clout, ecclesiastical leaders and Christian rulers turned the tables and at various time sought to suppress or destroy some pagan texts; (3) that the writings that Christian leaders opposed were those that were associated with anti-Christian efforts, those that were regarded as supporting heretical teachings, and those that were thought to be inhabited by demons that could lead readers into heresy and/or sin; (4) that more ancient writings were lost through neglect and the failure to copy them than were destroyed actively; and (5) that the actual events and actions were typically localized (and so limited), various (and so not systematic), and often symbolic (and so, in themselves, not all that effective).

The period that Rohmann focuses on lies outside my area of competence, and so I shall have to defer to other historians of “late antiquity” (especially 4th century and thereafter) for a judgement on his specific analysis of relevant evidence.  But I think that Rohmann’s work deserves the attention of scholars of that period.

Unfortunately, however, in the early pages of the book, I note some puzzling errors, especially concerning book formats.  For example, Rohmann states (p. 1) that “ancient codices were mostly made out of parchment.”  Perhaps he meant this to characterize codices in “late antiquity,” for it surely is incorrect in the earlier centuries, in which most codices by far were constructed of papyrus.  It really is only in the 4th century AD that the the dominance of parchment as the preferred writing material is in full flow.

In another passage, Rohmann states “by comparison to papyrus, parchment codices could keep more content and allowed for easier cross-referencing . . . (p. 11).  But, again, he either doesn’t understand the matter or has stated himself badly.  For the writing material makes no substantial difference to the amount of writing, whether papyrus or parchment.  I presume that he’s garbled a claim made by others that, in comparison with the bookroll, the codex could accommodate more text and was easier to cross-reference.

I should also indicate, however, that this claim is dubious.  Ancient bookrolls could accommodate pretty much the amount of text desired, as evident by the Isaiah scroll from Qumran (7.34 metres/24 feet long), or other scrolls from antiquity even much longer, as much as 15 metres.[1]  Granted, by the 4th century AD codex construction had progressed to allow the whole of the Christian Bible to be included in a single codex.  But the Christian preference for the codex preceded this by as much as two centuries, and (with a few notable exceptions) the earliest Christian codices tended to contain relatively modest amounts of text (e.g., a single Gospel).  So the Christian preference for the codex was not based on its putative capacity to contain larger bodies of text.

In yet another passage we seem to have a related confusion.  Rohmann points to two “dominant cultural trends of Late Antiquity . . . the emergence of Christianity as the state religion and the transcription of ancient texts from papyrus to parchment, a process that can be linked to Christianisation” (pp. 15-16).  Yet again, he either misunderstands or mis-states the phenomenon in question.  The process that may be linked to “Christianisation” in the 4th century AD and thereafter is the transition from the bookroll to the codex, not a change in writing material.  Granted, it so happens that in the same period parchment was becoming the more frequently used writing material, but this had nothing demonstrable to do with Christianity.  For Christians had been happily using papyrus for centuries!   What Christians preferred, especially for the texts that they treated as scripture, was the codex bookform.[2]

As I say, I hope/trust that Rohmann’s discussion of attitudes and actions toward pagan literature in Late Antiquity is more accurate and sound.  You can’t be an expert in everything, as I know well.  But it is unfortunate that these errors about early bookforms and writing material mar this otherwise impressive study.

[1] The master-study of the ancient literary bookroll is William A. Johnson, Bookrolls and Scribes in Oxyrhynchus (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2004).  For a summary treatment, William A. Johnson, “The Ancient Book,” in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, ed. Roger S. Bagnall (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 256-81.

[2] See my discussion of the matter in Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts:  Manuscripts and Christian Origins (Eerdmans, 2006), 43-93.

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  1. Daniel R Buck permalink

    Thank you for correcting Rohmann’s gaffes. I take issue with one of your statements, however, because I’ve never seen any evidence for it; to wit, that “by the 4th century AD codex construction had progressed to allow the whole of the Christian Bible to be included in a single codex.” Technically, Codex Gigas is a single codex, but so large and unwieldy–each leaf weighing over 225 grams–that one person could hardly even leaf through it, much less carry it. To be useful for public reading, a whole-Bible codex would have to be much smaller.

    • Both Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are dated to 4th century AD, and contained the whole of the Christian Bible.

      • Daniel R Buck permalink

        I recognize that Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are their modern names–that is a given. And I’ll even pass on the claim that each contained, in pristine condition, the whole of the Christian Bible. What I’m waiting on is evidence that either one existed, in pristine condition, as a single codex.

      • Daniel: Reading suggestions:
        –H. J. M. Milne and T. C. Skeat, Scribes and Correctors of the Codex Sinaiticus (London: British Museum, 1938)
        –Dirk Jongkind, “One Codex, Three Scribes, and Many Books: Struggles with Space in Codex Sinaiticus,” in New Testament Manuscripts: Their Texts and Their World, ed. Thomas J. Kraus and Tobias Nicklas (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 121-35.
        –David Parker, Codex Sinaiticus: The Story of the World’s Oldest Bible (London: British Library, 2009)
        –Patrick Andirst, ed., Le manuscrit B de la Bible (Vaticanus graecus 1209). Introduction au fac-simile, Actes due Colloque de Geneve (11 juin 2001), Contributions supplementaires (Lausanne: Editions du Zebre, 2009).
        –J. Neville Birdsall, “The Codex Vaticanus: Its History and Significance,” in The Bible As Book: The Transmission of the Greek Text, ed. Scot McKendrick and Orlaith A. O’Sullivan (London: British Library, 2003), 33-41.

  2. Larry, on page 71 of your book Earliest Christian Artifacts you write that according to Roberts and Skeat, the codex (and the nomina sacra): must have derived from some early Christian center with “sufficient authority authority to devise such innovations and to impose them on Christendom generally.” Roberts and Skeat suggested that only Jerusalem and Antioch qualified. You disagreed with this theory, saying “it naively assumes a scheme of ecclesiastical authority and centralization that is seriously anachronistic for the first and early second centuries CE.” That may be entirely true.
    Brent Nonbri thinks you could be wrong in your early datings by possibly at least 100 years. This would change your argument, because a real centre of authority then appears on the radar, Caesarea.

    • Geoff: Nongbri has queried the commonlly accepted palaeographical dates for P66 and P75, proposing that they can’t be dated more precisely than roughly 175-350CE. To my knowledge, however, he hasn’t (1) claimed that the earlier end of the spectrum is impossible, or (2) that the other early papyri have all been wrongly dated.
      And Caesarea doesn’t come into it. Do, please, read your sources more carefully before citing them.

      • Nongbri says (Jan 19, 2018) “We don’t actually know with certainty how many second and third century Christian manuscripts we have. There are actually very few pieces that can be dated on non-subjective grounds to the period before Constantine.” The trend of Nongbri’s work seems to be in the direction of proving that there are no manuscripts from the first, second and third centuries. His latest post (Feb 13, 2018) is about two fragments of a codex of Deuteronomy 2 and 3, P.Ryl.1.1. He says it was produced from what was originally a documentary roll cut into pieces and pasted together with the written sides facing. The document includes a readable date of CE 293. He suggests that the codex of Deuteronomy must have been written later in the fourth century. He further says that most would regard the codex as Christian.

      • Geoff: First, by “non-subjective grounds” Nongbri means by some means other than palaeographical expertise. That’s true of practically all copies of literary manuscripts of the ancient world! It’s not a problem particular to Christian manuscripts. He’s right to emphasize that palaeographical judgments vary among experts, and are always revisable in light of further data or closer analysis. But to say that “we can’t be sure of how many 2nd century manuscripts” we have doesn’t mean that we can be sure that we don’t have any!! Learn to follow reasoning more closely, Geoff, and stop reading things through your own agenda.
        Second, cast your eyes over the list of manuscripts in the Appendix to my book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts, which comprise a goodly number of items, biblical and non-biblical, palaeographically dated to the second or third century. We’d have to show that all of these items are wrongly dated! And Nongbri doesn’t intend or attempt that.
        The example that you cite (P.Ryl. 1.1) is irrelevant to the matter. It has always been dated to the 4th century, as in Joseph van Haelst, Catalogue des papyrus litteraires Juifs et Chretiens, no. 55.

  3. And the Qumran Cave 11 Temple Scroll (without counting possible fragments in a private collection) is 8.146 meters long.

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