Sunday, June 28, 2015

From Scroll to Codex: Early Christian Book Technology

The following excerpt originally appeared in The Appalachian Theology Review, (an email periodical) on June 15, 2015.

      The Roman book was usually made from a papyrus plant that grew along the Nile River in Egypt. The papyrus plant was used throughout the Mediterranean to make sheets of writing material not unlike our modern paper. These sheets were then pasted together into long lengths of paper. A scribe would then write a work of literature in successive vertical columns from left to right. Then, the scribe would roll up the long length of paper with the writing on the inside. Today, this type of book is often referred to as a “scroll” and was the primary format by which cultured Romans wrote down their great works of literature.
The Roman Bookroll (Scroll)
     The style of script used by an ancient scribe was also formatted very differently than modern writing conventions. The letters were in all capitals and there were no spaces between words and there was no punctuation. In English, ITWOULDLOOKSOMETHINGLIKETHIS. Of course, this writing style was very difficult for a reader to comprehend and it took years of study for a Roman gentleman or lady to comprehend the text with ease. The use of this continuous script was not due to ignorance or lack of technological advancement. Ancient Roman tutors employed spacing and punctuation in their school texts in order to teach the more difficult continuous script used in their literary scrolls. Scribes also tended to use spacing between words and punctuation in documentary texts such as correspondence, receipts, contracts, and other non-literature documents.
     Romans also knew of an easier and more efficient way than the scroll to format their books. After long lengths of papyrus paper was manufactured, a scribe would cut out sheets and stack them on top of one another. This stack of papyrus sheets was then folded down the center and then stitched at the folded edge. The scribe could then write on both the outside and the inside faces of each page. This type of book is referred to as a “codex.” If the codex sounds familiar it is because it is the ancient precursor to our modern book.
     An elite Roman did not use the codex for works of literature, rather, they used the codex for informal writing. Taking notes, keeping records, manuals for instruction, school texts, and storing copies of correspondence were some of the uses of the codex.
The codex notebook
     In Roman society, there was a significant amount of cultural baggage that went along with the scroll and its lack of reading aids. The scroll was seen as an emblem of sophistication, education, and culture. Any use of punctuation or spacing between words in their great works of literature would have been viewed as an insult by a refined Roman gentleman or lady. Coupled with this, only a small percentage of Roman society could read at all.
An educated Roman couple
     A modern comparison could be made with the Opera. Its length of performance, the foreign language, and expense of attending make it difficult for the average American to access the Opera. But the difficulty of accessing the Opera adds to the sense of elitism and refinement that it provides. 
     The same was true of the Roman scroll. With its lack of punctuation and spacing, the scroll would have taken years to master and would have been difficult for the average Roman to access. This difficulty was, of course, the point and added to the sense of elitism, education, sophistication, and privilege. Wealthy Roman Villas often displayed paintings of the Lord and Lady of the house holding scrolls and writing implements. Similar images can be found on tombstones and sarcophagi. These images would have given the message that the Lord and Lady were educated and members of the elite strata of Roman society.
     At the turn of the 19th to the 20th century two British scholars, Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, over a period of several years, discovered the remains of thousands of ancient papyrus documents that were dumped in huge trash mounds outside of the ancient Egyptian city of Oxyrhynchus. Among these many documents were found the remains of the oldest copies of New Testament books.
  Scholars soon noticed that these copies of New Testament books had several distinguishing features that set them apart from contemporary Roman literature. First, it was discovered that every single copy of a New Testament book was bound in the codex format. And second, the scribes who copied the text often used spacing between words, implemented crude forms of punctuation, and employed reading aids. Therefore, in contrast to the elitist Roman scroll, the earliest copies of the New Testament were much more accessible to a broad array of less educated readers.
An early Christian gospel codex
     Because only a small percentage of the Roman population could read, we often see commands in the New Testament to publicly read the scriptures before a Christian congregation. The apostle Paul gave Timothy the command to “devote” himself “to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching” (1 Tim 4:13, ESV). Paul instructed the Christians at Colossae; “And when this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea” (Col 4:16, ESV). When John wrote Revelation, he understood that his prophecy would be read by one person standing before a congregation and so he gave a blessing to "the one who reads ... and those who hear" (1:3, ESV). In Rome at around 140 AD a Christian apologist named Justin Martyr described a Sunday morning Church service;
And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. (1 Apol. 67, ANF 1:186)
     The earliest Christians were primarily concerned with the dissemination of the scriptures, teaching, and discipleship. Therefore, at a very early point they adopted certain aspects of Roman book technology, that is, the codex format and reading aids, in order to better facilitate public reading and ease of access for those who had less education and reading ability. An elitist Roman from the upper crust of society would have viewed these early copies of the New Testament with scorn and not as sophisticated works of literature.
     What can we learn from these early Christians and their use of Roman book technology? Even though cultured Romans used books and literature as a way to marginalize a broad section of uneducated society, Christians used certain aspects of Roman book technology to do just the opposite. By using the codex format, spacing, punctuation, and reading aids, the Christians were able to bring the scriptures to the uneducated and marginalized segments of Roman society.

For a more detailed treatment of the bookroll and Christian codex see;

Timothy N. Mitchell, "Christian Papyri and the Ancient Church." Bibliotheca Sacra 173 (April–June 2016): 182–202.



Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.

______________. “Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the New Testament Canon.” Pages 27-39 in The Earliest Gospels: The Origins and Transmission of the Earliest Christian Gospels - The Contribution of the Chester Beatty Gospel Codex P45. Edited by Charles Horton. Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 258. Edited by Mark Goodacre. New York: T & T Clark, 2004.

Haines-Eitzen, Kim. Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Harris, William V. Ancient Literacy. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Hurtado, Larry W. The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006.

______________. “The Sociology of Early Christian Reading.” Pages 49-62 in The Early Text of the New Testament. Edited by Charles E. Hill and Michael J. Kruger. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Johnson, William A. “The Ancient Book.” Pages 256-281 in The Oxford Handbook of Papyrology. Edited by Roger S. Bagnall. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

________________. Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study of Elite Communities. Edited by Joseph Farrell and Robin Osborne. Classic Culture and Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Turner, E. G. The Typology of the Early Codex. 1977. Reprint, Eugene: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2011.