IVP - Addenda & Errata - What's In Your Codex, O Theophilus? (Part Two)

November 14, 2011

What's In Your Codex, O Theophilus? (Part Two)

Well, we return again to our Theophilus and his codex. Why did the early Christians adopt the codex for their scriptural texts? Was there an initial impulse that set it off? We need to hang a sign over these thoughts that reads “We Don’t Know, But… .”

In addition to the practical considerations surveyed in the previous blog, there is the intriguing theory that a certain significant early Christian set the precedent of using the codex: Paul. If even the author of 2 Peter (a late dating would be 70-110) knew of Paul’s letters as a collection (“all his letters”) and regarded them as Scripture (2 Peter 3:15-16), might they have been bound in codex form? Might this codex then have taken on some sort of iconic meaning?

In 2 Timothy 4:13 Paul asks Timothy to “bring the cloak … , and also the books, especially the parchments.” The word for parchments, tas membranas (a loan word from Latin) could mean parchment notebooks, or codices. While the authorship of 2 Timothy is contested, even if it was written later than Paul, it could confirm that the author believed this is exactly what Paul would have had and requested Timothy to bring! That is, the author of 2 Timothy would have been familiar with Paul’s letters being bound in codex form. Did Paul get this codex ball rolling?

Harry Gamble in Books and Readers in the Early Church suggests Paul’s letters as being a likely impetus for the popularity of the codex (Gamble, 59-65). Given the acknowledged authority of his letters (evidenced by 2 Peter 3:15-16), if an early collection of Paul’s letters to seven churches (and there is interesting evidence suggesting such a collection, which by seven would suggest universality) originally and repeatedly circulated in codex form, this would surely have made an impression.

Gamble estimates that if this collection of letters was put on a roll, it’s length would be about 80 feet long! That would be “double the maximum length of Greek rolls and roughly three times what may be regarded as a normal length. Because the length of rolls was determined by custom and convenience, a roll of such extent is extremely unlikely. For a book intended to be read and studied and thus regularly handled, as an edition of Paul’s letters assuredly was, a roll of such length is plainly inconceivable. If Paul’s letters were transcribed in a single book, as the features of the earliest recoverable edition required, that book must have been a codex, not a roll” (Gamble, 62-63). In Paul’s letters Gamble finds both the motive and the materials coming together for a codex form. As he points out, people wanted “random access” to Paul’s letters, not “sequential access.” And the codex offered that random access!

So (if this is how it happened) it was a brilliant publishing decision, whether by the author or his “publisher”! And did it ever catch on. First for Christian scriptures and eventually spreading to become the universally recognized form of a book. At least until the past few years.

Just think of Theophilus walking down the street with his codex, easily identifying himself as a Bible-carrying Christian.

And here’s a thought: will ebooks alter—or perhaps virtually eradicate—our textual footprints as the centuries roll out from this point on?

Posted by Dan Reid at November 14, 2011 12:25 PM Bookmark and Share

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