Early Christian manuscript books
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 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.
“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.
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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This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on November 28, 2018.
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