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Galen and His Codices

March 12, 2019

In response my query to Jan Bremmer (a bibliographical phenomenon!) about a matter, he referred me to an article published some years ago now that discusses evidence of Galen’s attitude toward and use of the codex bookform:  Matthew Nicholls, “Parchment Codices in a New Text of Galen,” Greece & Rome 57, no. 2 (2010): 378-86.

The article draws upon a text of Galen’s that was discovered and then published initially in 2007:  “Περὶ Ἀλυπίας” (“On Consolation from Grief”).  In this treatise, Galen reflects on how to handle or recover from loss and grief, and he refers to his own great loss of much of his library in a fire that ravaged the Palatine Hill in Rome in 192 CE.

Among his books lost in this fire were a number of precious parchment codices.  This adds to our limited knowledge of the use of the codex bookform in this early period.  But it also largely confirms what previous evidence that we had.  First, these are parchment codices, which Galen refers to as διφθέρας πυκτάς (“parchment codices”), or in some cases simply διφθέραι (“parchments”).  These terms seem to have replaced the earlier term for parchment codices, μεμβράνας (“parchments”), which appears in 2 Timothy 4:13.

Second, the codices that Galen prized so much were books of medical recipes, not literary works.  That is, they were utilitarian products that one consulted, not texts designed for continued reading.  As I say, these things confirm what we knew before.  The additional factor, however, is that Galen refers to these codices as expensively bound books, valuable therefore.

The contrast with the early Christian evidence remains.  First, the extant early Christian codices (from the earliest period accessible to us) are, with only one or two exceptions, all papyrus books.  Second, early Christians preferred the codex for their literary texts, especially those texts that functioned as scripture in their gathered worship circles.  So, it appears that the early Christian usage of the codex remains distinctive, and the question remains how and why early Christians so quickly and fully embraced and preferred this bookform.

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12 Comments
  1. Rachael Hurtado permalink

    “the extant early Christian codices are, with only one or two exceptions, all papyrus books.”

    This is because parchment was more expensive than papyri, right?

    • In the early centuries papyrus was widely preferred for books, largely because it was so plentiful and easy to use. Parchment could be obtained only by slaughtering animals, which was done largely in temple rituals. Jewish texts from Qumran, by contrast, especially biblical texts, are on skin/parchment.

  2. Has anyone investigated the hypothesis that the apparently very early Christian books, might be simply redated to later dates; to square their occurence, dates, with other non-religious, large narrative books?

    • This and practically every other question you could imagine has been tackled. It’s not as though NT studies is some close-minded cadre of unimaginative people! NT manuscripts are dated the same way that manuscripts of other texts are, and by the same experts. So, arbitrarily re-dating the NT manuscripts isn’t called for, nor is it sound scholarship. The facts, acknowledged commonly in the papyrological guild, is that Christians preferred the codex before and when others didn’t.

      • Codices were apparently developed to make quick access, more convenient. It is much easier to open a book to the page you want, than to unroll a twenty foot scroll.

        Particularly this is a useful solution if you want to compare one part of a text, to another, to another. Or one gospel to another. As Biblical scholars do.

        Would this suggest that a referential, scholarly, literary, analytical, comparative mindset appeared very early in Christianity, and in Christianity in particular?

        As I recall, it was said that Christianity caught on early, particularly among the clerks in Rome; in the heart of the clerical world or profession, in other words. Where quick comparative cross-referencing was important.

      • Codices originated in wax tablets used as note-taking devices. Then small parchment notebooks, and even portable forms for some literary works (as noted by the Roman writer, Martial). They were also used for medical recipes and astronomical calculations, and other mundane purposes. The Christian appropriation of the codex also involved a programmatic development–for their most prized literary texts, which weren’t primarily used for “proof texts” but read out fully in gathered worship settings. I know of no information indicating a particular attraction of “clerks in Rome” for Christianity.

      • Thank you for your references, above. In addition to their speculations, adducing, I speculate that if Christianity was a literate religion, as you say, centered around a book, then it would seem natural for clerks to be heavily invested or involved. Or attracted.

        Reading from scrolls was traditional. And it was useful in reading large sections, continuous sequences aloud, in churches. But especially when it came to Christian scholarship and comparisons of far-strung texts, the codex or book form would be more useful.

        Comparisons of texts furthermore, would have been especially necessary during canon formation of course. When a new text, or gospel, most think, was often actively formed out of bits and pieces of several older ones.

        Cross-textual comparisons would also be useful in examining questioned or potentially apocryphal texts. Considering whether a given text should be admitted into the canon, would involve looking to see if various specific passages were completely consistent with accepted sacred texts. In this case, a codex would be extremely useful. Since it makes possible quickly flipping back and forth from one passage to another. Much as everyday ministers do today, when putting together sermons.

        So I speculate that possibly the book form became popular, not only because of its portability, but also because early clerics and scholars had liked it. They found it convenient for quick access to far flung passages. Which in turn is necessary in cross-textual, intertextual comparisons.

      • There is a major problem with your speculations: Jews used some of the same sacred texts, searched particular texts that they quoted, etc., and yet persisted in preferring the bookroll. Were Christians the only ones clever enough to fit your scenario? Not likely! No, it is difficult to submit some supposed “practical” advantage of the codex for literary texts. Otherwise, surely others would have seen that advantage too.

      • 1) Many religions are reluctant to adopt changes in anything relating intimately – and even somewhat peripherally – to their religion. Because often they have declared the old ways sacred. And often, unchangeable.

        Likely 2) references in the Tanakh to old “scrolls,” especially, would slow down the adoption of any innovation there, for Jews.

        3) But the Jews who adopted the new religion, or the new Jewish “brsnch,” of Christianity, Christians, on the other hand, revered “new” things to a higher degree. Like a “new covenant.” And they likely would have allowed more theological and technological innovations and even new holy books, to impinge even in areas close to, or even rather far inside, their religion.

        4) I might agree that congregations especially might balk at new books. But some Jewish Christian scholars – especially those who had seen Greek books and saw their practicality – could therefore be more flexible. At first behind the scenes. And then, gradually, in front of congregations.

      • Brettongarcia, You’re spitballing again!! You obviously don’t have competence in the subject and data, and your generalizing speculations are not worth much. Please, either take the trouble to acquaint yourself with the data (a lot of hard work entailed), or else desist from offering overly-confident but ill-informed easy answers.

  3. Wayne Brindle permalink

    Larry, do you have an earlier blog post on evidence that the μεμβράνας of 2 Tim 4:13 are “parchment codices,” as you say here? Were most parchments bound in codices at this time?

    • I haven’t blogged on 2 Tim 4:13, because it is widely accepted that the “membranae” in that verse likely refers to parchment handbooks or notebooks, i.e., codices. Most parchment books, however, were scrolls.

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