Why Did Early Christians Prefer the Codex to the Bookroll?

Early Christian manuscript books

icon-john-the-baptist

On this late Byzantine (c. 1300 C.E.) wood panel icon, John the Baptist is identified in the top right corner with his traditional epithet, “the forerunner (of Christ).” Though mostly depicted as a man of wilderness, this icon shows him as a calm and noble figure. The tied bookroll in his left hand demonstrates the persistence of the bookroll in visual arts long after this book form had been superseded by the codex. Damaged by woodworm and flaked in three of the corners, the icon is currently on display in the British Museum (#1986,0708.1). Photo: Public domain image, licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0.

The books of the Hebrew Bible were originally all written on scrolls. And the bookroll has remained the preferred book form in the Jewish liturgical use of the Torah to this day.

As the word suggests, “scroll” is a rolled up book, made up of any number of sheets (of papyrus, parchment, or paper) glued together to produce a horizontal row of writing support that can be rolled from either end. The word “volume” (from Latin volvere, “to roll”) still reflects this etymology, although the connection to the bygone book form is long lost.

When we say “book” today, we generally mean a tome of bound pages. Known as the “codex,” this common book form has always (over the past two millennia, anyway) looked the same—like any book on your desk. While the origins of the codex are not sufficiently explained, evidence shows that the preserved early Christian manuscripts are more often codices (plural of codex) than the then-established bookrolls. Why?

Some argue that the codex had a technological advantage in that people could check different Biblical passages within a bound tome more readily than they could in a bookroll, which had to be rolled from one side to the other every time someone wanted to look up a passage. Another practical benefit of the codex was in its alleged larger capacity that allowed for the inclusion in one volume of all four gospels or all Pauline epistles or even the entire New Testament. One unintended effect of the latter probably was that the codex invited the imposition of a fixed order to the books it contained. Of all early Christian manuscripts, this intrinsic order is most apparent in the established sequence of the books of the Bible.

Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

In his Archaeological Views column “Early Christian Dilemma: Codex or Scroll?” in the November/December 2018 issue of BAR, Larry Hurtado presents his answers to the intriguing question of why the early Christian texts are overwhelmingly (and progressively) in the form of a codex. A scholar of the New Testament and Christian origins, Hurtado diligently reviews the hard data on early Christian manuscripts, remarking on the growing percentage of codices among the identifiably early Christian texts.

christ-pantocrator-cefalu-cathedral

When pictured with a book, Jesus is often identified by the Biblical verse John 8:12 as “the light of the world.” More light still needs to be shed on the beginnings of the codex, as it remains unclear why the codex (and not the bookroll) was the preferred book form to record the early Christian texts. This mural mosaic of Christ Pantokrator (“Almighty”) in the Cefalù Cathedral, on Sicily, dates to the 12th century. Photo: Per-Erik Skramstad/Wonders of Sicily.

“It seems to me that the more cogent view is that the ancient Christian predilection toward the codex served to distinguish Christian books,” offers Hurtado his judgment on arguably one of the most culturally significant innovations of Late Antiquity—the transition from bookroll to codex as the standard book format.

rylands-p52

Tiny scraps are often all that remain of the early Bible manuscripts. This papyrus fragment (Rylands P52) likely dates as early as the second century C.E. Containing few verses from the Gospel of John, it is the earliest known manuscript of the New Testament. Photo: Public domain image, licensed under PD-old.

For a detailed account of the possible reasons behind the early Christian adoption of and preference for the codex, read the Archaeological Views column “Early Christian Dilemma: Codex or Scroll?” by Larry Hurtado in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

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Our free eBook Ten Top Biblical Archaeology Discoveries brings together the exciting worlds of archaeology and the Bible! Learn the fascinating insights gained from artifacts and ruins, like the Pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, where the Gospel of John says Jesus miraculously restored the sight of the blind man, and the Tel Dan inscription—the first historical evidence of King David outside the Bible.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The “Original” Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls

Book of Leviticus Verses Recovered from Burnt Hebrew Bible Scroll

The Aleppo Codex
The mystery of the missing pages in the oldest Hebrew Bible

What’s Missing from Codex Sinaiticus, the Oldest New Testament?

Posted in Artifacts and the Bible.

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  • David says

    I’m going to go with the idea in the article; it’s easier to compare texts by flipping pages in a codex.

    The Jews didn’t do this as much because most of their learning was verbal, and memorized.
    When the finally realized they needed to write it down, the Talmud was in book form, standardized so strictly that each page started with the same word across different publications.

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