CHRISTIANS DEVELOP THE CODEX: The Early Christian Codex

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 120 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

The scroll was the first form to receive writing which was in a format that could be edited by the author or scribe and was used in the Eastern Mediterranean ancient Egyptian civilizations. The parchment scroll that was used by Moses to pen the first five books of the Old Testament, which goes back to about the late sixteenth-century B.C.E. The codex (bound book) got its start by Latin authors in the first-century C.E. (widely used in the second-century), some 1,500 years after the scroll. The early Christians popularized the codex in the second-century C.E. Some would even argue that it was the Christians who invented the codex. However, it appears that Christians mainly began using the roll, or scroll, at least until about the end of the first century C.E. However, from the close of the first to the third century C.E., there was a struggle between those who encouraged the use of the codex and those preferring scrolls. Traditionalists, familiar and comfortable with using the scroll, were unwilling to give up deep-rooted conventions and traditions. Nevertheless, the popularization of the codex played a significant role in the displacement of the scroll. Nevertheless, the scroll continued to be used for centuries.

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Scrolls were used for literary works: continuous rolls twenty or thirty feet long, and nine to ten inches high. (Psa. 40:7) The text was written in columns, which formed the pages. (Jer. 36:23) Our English word “volume” literally means something rolled up. Imagine being in the synagogue of Nazareth, when Jesus was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, where he skillfully unrolled with one hand while simultaneously rolling it up with the other hand until he reached the place he wanted to read. (Lu 4:16-17; Isa. 61:1-2) The ink that was used on the surface of the scrolls had to withstand being rolled and unrolled. Therefore, special ink was developed. In addition, the Jews would discard any scroll that had too many letters missing from wear and tear. It was not until about the fifth-century C.E. that the codex finally outnumbered the scroll by a ten to one margin in Egypt. When we consider the surviving examples, we also see that the scroll had almost vanished by the sixth-century C.E.

Codex Book
A typical four-leaf quire can be formed from a single sheet of papyrus, parchment, or paper by folding and then cutting the sheet.

The Codex Book

A codex is a collection of ancient manuscript texts, especially of the Biblical Scriptures, in book form.[1] It is made up of sheets of papyrus or parchment inscribed with handwritten material, which is created by folding a single sheet of standard-sized pages, giving the scribe two leaves or four pages.

The first codices were made with waxed-coated wooden tablets. The people of Greece and Rome used waxed tablets before the Christian era. Schoolboys were sometimes given waxed tablets on which the teacher had written letters in model script with a stylus. Today, we have the blackboard (UK) or chalkboard (US), which was originally made of smooth, thin sheets of black or dark gray slate stone. In the early part of the 20th century, schoolchildren even had smaller slate tablets. They had a reusable writing surface on which text or drawings could be made with sticks of calcium carbonate, i.e., chalk.

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Roman wax tablet and stylus
Roman wax tablet and stylus

To make the waxed tablets of Jesus’ day, one would slightly hollow out a flat piece of wood and fill that void with wax. These tablets were also used for temporary writing like modern chalkboards. They were also commonly used for corresponding with others. Greenlee writes, “They were also used at times for legal documents, in which case two tablets would be placed face to face with the writing inside and fastened together with leather thongs run through holes at the edges of the tablets. In one of his writings St. Augustine mentions some tablets he owned, although his were made of ivory instead of wood.”[2] An example of temporary writing is found in the Gospel of Luke. Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, who had temporarily lost the ability to speak, was asked what name he wanted his son to have. Luke 1:63 (NASB) reports, “And he asked for a tablet and wrote as follows, ‘His name is John.’”

Polyptychs [pol·yp·tych ˈpälipˌtik] is an arrangement of three or more panels with a painting or carving on each, usually hinged together. Some were discovered at Herculaneum, an ancient Roman town near modern Naples that was destroyed along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E.

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In time, sheets of foldable material replaced rigid tablets. The codex has been viewed as the most significant advancement in the development of the book, aside from the printing press.[3] Some of the earliest surviving codices were made of papyrus, being preserved in the dry sands of Egypt.

When we consider the thought of unrolling and using a scroll as opposed to the codex, we can likely think of many advantages of one over the other. The codex can contain far more written material; it is much easier to carry and more convenient. Some in the early days of the codex even mentioned these advantages but were slow to move away from the long use of the scroll. Again, the Christians played a major part in the eventual death of the scroll. Their evangelism would have been far more cumbersome without the codex.

The Codex Gigas, 13th century, Bohemia.
The Codex Gigas, 13th century, Bohemia.

In comparison to the scroll, the codex was also far more affordable, because both sides of the pages could be written on, getting more value for one’s money. Moreover, instead of having one book with each scroll, one could have the whole of the old or New Testament. The fact that one could find Bible passages far easier and faster added to the codex’s success. This was true for Christians, but also lawyers and the like. When we think of the early Christians, we are reminded that they evangelized to the point of going from 120 disciples in the upper room, to more than one million Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire at the beginning of the second century C.E. In addition, early Christians were evangelists, who used pre-evangelism, i.e., apologetics. They could have what we now call proof texts, easily located, to make their arguments to pagans and Jews alike. Then, the fact that the codex book had a wooden cover, making it more durable than the scroll, added to its advantages. Codices were useful, sensible, and likely practical for personal reading. The Christians of the third century C.E. had parchment pocket Gospels.

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Larry Hurtado, in his blog (The Codex and Early Christians: Clarification & Corrections), writes,

Bagnall offered figures (pp. 72-74) comparing the number of non-Christian and Christian codices from Egypt datable to the early centuries, also giving the percentages of Christian codices of the total.  His own data show, e.g., that Christian codices amount to somewhere between 22-34% of the total for the 2nd-3rd centuries CE.  Yet Christian books overall amount to only ca. 2% of the total number of books (codices and rolls) of these centuries.  Of course, there are more non-Christian codices, but the first point to note is that Christian codices comprise a vastly disproportionate percentage of the total number of codices in this period.

The very data provided by Bagnall clearly show that Christians invested in the codex far more than is reflected in the larger book-culture of the time.  That is, the early Christian preference for the codex is undeniable, and this preference is quite distinctive in that period.  Bagnall actually reached the same judgment, stating, “Christian books in these centuries (2nd/3rd) are far more likely to be codices than rolls, quite the reverse of what we find with classical literature.” (p. 74)

My second point also stands and is supported by Bagnall:  the early Christian preference for the codex seems to have been especially keen when it came to making copies of texts used as scripture (i.e. read in corporate worship).  For example, 95+% of Christian copies of OT writings are in codex form.  As for the writings that came to form the NT, they’re all in codex form except for a very few instances of NT writings copied on the back of a re-used roll (which were likely informal and personal copies made by/for readers who couldn’t afford a copy on unused writing material).  Here again, Bagnall grants the same conclusion, judging that, although they were ready to copy “the Christians adopted the codex as the normative format of deliberately produced public copies of scriptural texts” (p. 78), but were ready to use rolls for other texts (76).

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Skin of a stillborn goat on a stretcher (modern) – The J. Paul Getty Museum
Skin of a stillborn goat on a stretcher (modern) – The J. Paul Getty Museum

The Making of a Codex

The process of making a codex began with a dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or another animal hide. “The pelts were first soaked in a lime solution to loosen the fur, which was then removed. While wet on a stretcher, the skin was scraped using a knife with a curved blade. As the skin dried, the parchment maker would adjust the tension so that the skin remained taut. This cycle of scraping and stretching was repeated over several days until the desired thinness had been achieved. Here, the skin of a stillborn goat, prized for its smoothness, is stretched on a modern frame to illustrate the parchment making process.”[4] The first step for preparing the pages to receive writing was to set up the quires, i.e. a bundle of sheets of parchment folded together for binding into a book, especially a four-sheet bundle, folded once to make eight leaves or sixteen pages. Raymond Clemens and Timothy Graham point out that “the quire was the scribe’s basic writing unit throughout the Middle Ages.”[5]

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The Christian’s Use of the Codex

In the early papyri, we have about 66 papyrus manuscripts dating from 110-300 C.E. all of which are codices. Then, we have the two great codices, Codex Vaticanus (300-325 C.E.) and Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 C.E.) Now, to his point, we have several papyrus manuscripts dated to the second century and all of the them are codices. Specifically, there are only 14 of 871 pagan Greek manuscripts from the 2nd century C.E. that are codices, while there are only all Christian documents dates to the 2nd-century, and all are codices. Of the 172 Christian biblical manuscripts written before 400 C.E., 158 of them are codices, and only 14 are roles.

P52 (100-150), P90, P104 (2nd century), P66 (c. CE 150-200), P46, 64+67 (c. AD 200), P75 (175-200) P77, P103, 0189 (2nd or 3rd century), P98 (scroll), and another 5 papyrus manuscripts are dated to the 2nd century by Comfort and Barrett. All of these are codices.

Going back to the first-century once again, let us take a moment to deal with the invention of the codex. Was it the first-century Christians who invented the codex, or at least put it on the stage of the world scene?

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

The writing tablet of ancient times was made from two flat pieces of wood, held together by a thong hinge, which looks something like our modern book. It had its limits because of the impracticality of fastening more than a few such tablets together. The center of the tablet pages was slightly hollowed, to receive a wax coating. A stylus was the standard instrument used to write on these waxed tablets. The stylus was made of metal, ivory, or bone, and was sharpened to a point on one side while having a rounded knob on the other for erasing and making corrections. This was the oldest form of writing for the Greeks, who borrowed it from the Hittites. History and evidence credit the Romans with replacing the wooden tablet with the parchment notebook. The apostle Paul is the only Greek writer of the first-century C.E. to mention the parchment notebook.

2 Timothy 4:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left behind in Troas with Carpus, and the scrolls, especially the parchments. [Gr., membranai, parchment notebooks]

However, it should be recognized that the parchment notebook was not used for literature in the first two centuries before the Christian era (B.C.E.); this was done with the roll or scroll. Even though the codex was commonly used for books, the first indication that it was going to displace the roll came toward the end of the first century C.E.  (Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex 1987, 24) Thus, again, the Jews of the late first century C.E. and thereafter used scrolls, while the Christians used codices. However, many of the first Christians were Jewish and likely read their Old Testament from a scroll. Before becoming a Christian, the apostle Paul was a Pharisee and would have used scrolls. However, at least until about the end of the first century C.E. Christians used scrolls primarily.

Only a handful of manuscripts of the New Testament that are still in existence were written on scrolls (P13, P18, and P98). However, these were written on the backs of other writings, so they were not composed in the scroll form. P22 was written on a roll, and we await more research there, as it is a peculiarity among the group of papyri. All other New Testament manuscripts were written on codices. As there is evidence that the second-century Christians were trying to set themselves apart from the Jews, so they likely made the transition in part because they wished to be different. We say in part because it is quite evident that the first Christians grouped their writings together, the Gospels and Paul’s letters. The codex afforded them the means of doing this, while a scroll of the gospels would have been far too long and bulky, and finding a portion of desired text would have been difficult at best. For example, P46 dating to about 150 C.E., contained ten of Paul’s letters. P45 dates to about 225 C.E. and originally contained all four Gospels and the book of Acts. In the end, it can be said that the Christians adopted the codex (1) to be different from the Jews, (2) to have the Gospels and the Apostle Paul’s letters all in one book, and (3) because of the ease of being able to find a portion of text, and this made the spread of the good news much more convenient.

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We do learn a good deal from the New Testament. The apostle Peter writes, “… just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters ….” (2 Pet 3:15-16, about 64 C.E.) This shows how early Paul’s letters were grouped together. The apostle John wrote, “Though I have much to write to you, I would rather not use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to come to you and talk face to face so that our joy may be complete.” (2 John 12, about 98 C.E.) We see from this that John used papyrus in writing to a sister congregation. The Greek word chartou means “papyrus,” “a sheet of paper.”  The apostle Paul wrote Timothy and asked him, “when you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books [likely scrolls of OT books], and, above all, the parchments [codices].” (2 Tim 4:13, about 65 C.E) While it is thought by most scholars that Paul was talking about two different items here, it is quite possible that he was referring to only one, which is Skeat’s position. Let us look at the verse again:

When you come bring … the books, especially the parchments.

When you come, bring … the books, that is my parchment notebooks.

If the second version above is correct, Paul hoped to obtain some of his notebooks, possible rough drafts that he had left behind. The Old Testament books could have been located right where he was, but he would have been highly interested in unpublished works that he wanted to get out before his execution. Of course, this latter thought is the formation of judgments based on incomplete or inconclusive information. However, one thing is sure, that either Paul was asking for codices in complete book form or notebook form. This indicates that Paul was the first to have his books collected into codex form, and we can conclude that the Christians were using the codex at the end of the first century.

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[1] [Late 16th century: < Latin, “block of wood, book, set of statutes”]
[2] (Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism 1995, pp. 8-9)
[3] Colin H. Roberts; T. C. Skeat, (1983), The Birth of the Codex, London: Oxford University Press, p. 1.
[4]The Making of a Medieval Book” The J. Paul Getty Trust. Retrieved Monday September 15, 2014.
http://www.getty.edu/art/exhibitions/making/
[5] Raymond Clemens, Timothy Graham. Introduction to Manuscript Studies. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008, 14.

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