BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

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in his left hand demonstrates the persistence of the bookroll in visual arts long after this book form had been superseded by the codex.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.


In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

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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In the free eBook Paul: Jewish Law and Early Christianity, learn about the cultural contexts for the theology of Paul and how Jewish traditions and law extended into early Christianity through Paul’s dual roles as a Christian missionary and a Pharisee.

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?


This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 28, 2018.


9 Responses

  1. Carl Carter says:

    These documents were hand copied by scribes. An error on a page is more easily dealt with than a whole scroll

  2. David Lebofsky says:

    Ms. Spalding is on the right track. 1st Century Christians were evangelizers following Jesus command and example. The Codex would allow easier discussion and teaching. As today, those following those same commands have produced easy to read and study Bibles.

  3. Edward J. Morse 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.

  4. Allan Richardson says:

    Jewish liturgy evolved to accommodate the use of scrolls, by designating Sabbath readings from the Torah to be in sequence; hence, the scroll can be closed by rotating both handles toward the center, keeping the position of the scroll approximately where it will be needed next week, before returning the scroll to the Ark.

    Early Christian liturgy was not that standardized, and the Christian scriptures were used more for study than for public readings. Also, writing on both sides, more portable, and easier to hide from police, and lighter.

  5. Helen Spalding says:

    A codex can be loaned a page at a time for a fellow Christian to study. Persecuted Christians today do that very thing — pass pages of the Bible around the community.

    Pages are easier to hide fm hostile pagan authorities than is a scroll.

  6. Bin Hamajima says:

    I once read that codices are more economical because you can write on both sides, which means you can write about twice as much in one volume. Could it be one reason?

  7. Peter says:

    Robert, please indicate what Mithraic texts were included in the New Testament…and what are the early Church writings to which you are referring.

  8. Robert S Fritzius says:

    One (hopefully not) reason for the transition from scrolls to codex would be that Constantine the Great, working through the offices of Eusebius of Caesarea, combined early Church and Mithraic texts to produce what is now the Christian New Testament. For that to succeed the original source materials had to be destroyed. Fahrenheit 451 crews of the day would have had a simple mantra, “Burn Scrolls!”

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9 Responses

  1. Carl Carter says:

    These documents were hand copied by scribes. An error on a page is more easily dealt with than a whole scroll

  2. David Lebofsky says:

    Ms. Spalding is on the right track. 1st Century Christians were evangelizers following Jesus command and example. The Codex would allow easier discussion and teaching. As today, those following those same commands have produced easy to read and study Bibles.

  3. Edward J. Morse 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.

  4. Allan Richardson says:

    Jewish liturgy evolved to accommodate the use of scrolls, by designating Sabbath readings from the Torah to be in sequence; hence, the scroll can be closed by rotating both handles toward the center, keeping the position of the scroll approximately where it will be needed next week, before returning the scroll to the Ark.

    Early Christian liturgy was not that standardized, and the Christian scriptures were used more for study than for public readings. Also, writing on both sides, more portable, and easier to hide from police, and lighter.

  5. Helen Spalding says:

    A codex can be loaned a page at a time for a fellow Christian to study. Persecuted Christians today do that very thing — pass pages of the Bible around the community.

    Pages are easier to hide fm hostile pagan authorities than is a scroll.

  6. Bin Hamajima says:

    I once read that codices are more economical because you can write on both sides, which means you can write about twice as much in one volume. Could it be one reason?

  7. Peter says:

    Robert, please indicate what Mithraic texts were included in the New Testament…and what are the early Church writings to which you are referring.

  8. Robert S Fritzius says:

    One (hopefully not) reason for the transition from scrolls to codex would be that Constantine the Great, working through the offices of Eusebius of Caesarea, combined early Church and Mithraic texts to produce what is now the Christian New Testament. For that to succeed the original source materials had to be destroyed. Fahrenheit 451 crews of the day would have had a simple mantra, “Burn Scrolls!”

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