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

November 9, 2011

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

Recently I’ve been reading Charles Hill’s Who Chose the Gospels? and rereading some of Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts. Both of these are excellent books with various interesting facets. And both have something to say about a topic that has intrigued me over the years: that the early Christians were very early adopters of a new technology, the codex, or book, as opposed to the scroll, or roll.

As Hill points out, the papyri evidence from Oxyrhynchus shows a clear preference for the codex when it comes to what we now know as the four canonical Gospels. On the other hand, the noncanonical “gospels” are somewhat more likely to appear as scrolls rather than codexes. Hill argues that for early Christians the codex was an indicator of the scriptural status of a text. And the mixed results for noncanonical gospels shows that the “votes” for their scriptural status were somewhat weak. And that’s in Egypt, where heretical Christianity flourished. What’s more, we are talking about the city dump, which is where the Oxyrhynchus papyri were discovered. We’re talking “raw” data that has not been selectively compiled by the “winners” of early church politics.

Still, we do not know why early Christians favored the codex for their Scripture. But we are not lacking possible explanations.

*The codex made it easier to access a text and consult various passages. Flipping pages and holding your place with a finger or two is far easier than scrolling through a long document (as computer users today have learned).

*The codex had a greater holding capacity than a scroll of manageable size. For one thing, the text could be written on two sides of a sheet.

*The codex may have been more portable than a scroll, and thus it might have appealed to itinerant evangelists. But this does not account for all of the codices that have been found. They weren’t all from traveling evangelists!

*The codex may have cost less. The savings on papyrus alone may have been 25% over the scroll. But there was the extra cost and complication of cutting papyrus sheets to size, making quires and binding them. And there is no indication of other cost-saving measures in early Christian codices (such as putting more words on a page or using smaller margins).

*The codex may have borne more similarity to the notebooks used in everyday business, and thus more familiar to socio-economic level of most Christians. By contrast, the scroll may have been associated with the upper and learned classes, and high-brow literature. But the notion that Christians belonged to the lower classes is outdated. And Jews and other religions used scrolls. Graham Stanton argued that the disciples of Jesus used one or more notebook devices to copy down saying of Jesus, and so the pattern was set. As interesting as this may be, it is quite speculative.

*Some have suggest that it was adopted because it could hold Four Gospels in one “book.” And while that is true, as I understand it, our first undisputed evidence for four bound Gospels + Acts comes from around AD 250 (P45, Chester Beatty), and there is generous evidence of earlier codices that seem to have had one, two or three Gospels.

One thing seems sure. While the Jews and other religious groups used the scroll for their religious texts, the Christian showed a marked and early preference for the codex for their Scriptural texts but not for their other religious texts (back to the scroll). So the effect would have been to distinguish these texts—perhaps prominently the Gospels—as Christian scriptural texts.

As an editor, all of this brings to mind a perennial question in publishing houses of our day: what size shall we print this book? Is it a mass-market paperback, a trade paperback, a 6x9 or a 7x10? Shall we publish it in paper or cloth? Shall we do it printed casebound? Or maybe even publish it only as an ebook! Whatever our choice, we are sending a subtle signal to our readership about the nature of the book. Will archeologists or codexologists two thousand years hence pick up the finer points? What messages are we still missing from the trash heaps of ancient Egypt? That is what Hurtado is pursuing in The Earliest Christian Artifacts.

Well, there is one more interesting theory as to how the codex became popular among Christians. And I will take that up in the next blog.

Posted by Dan Reid at November 9, 2011 10:09 AM Bookmark and Share

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