May 9, 2007
New Book Technology: The Story Behind the Book
Did you enjoy the YouTube movie “short” on “New Book Technology” the other day? There is a serious side to that, you know. Early Christians were in fact at the forefront of the early introduction of the codex, or what we call the “book,” in place of the scroll. Not that they abandoned the scroll (or roll), nor did Christians invent the codex, but there is a great deal of evidence that the codex early became the preferred medium for Christian Scripture. Why? We are not certain. But for the most recent codex, er . . . book, on the subject, take a look at Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins. No, this book is not from the IVP scriptorium, but it’s irresistible fodder for a “Behind the Books” blog, and it has some info that editorial types can geek-out on. (Another interesting book is Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church.)
Hurtado explores several features of the actual physical manuscripts of early Christian texts as a neglected resource for understanding early Christianity. Chapter two is devoted to “The Early Christian Preference for the Codex.” This is definitely a technical, scholarly study that is careful to avoid unwarranted conclusions, but I’ll hazard losing some nuance and offer some tidbits here:
For the most part, up through the second century the codex was reserved for texts Christians regarded as Scripture, generally those that would eventually make up the Christian canon. Other Christian texts too could be in codex form, but the preference of the codex for “scripture” is markedly pronounced. Up until the third century, more than 98 percent of non-Christian Greek books are rolls. But for that same period, nearly all Christian books are codices. By the fourth century, the rest of the world had caught on.
The early Christian preference of the codex for their texts is so pronounced and widespread that it requires some explanation. It wasn’t just the handy form of the codex that dictated it. It wasn’t ease of production, since the codex was more difficult to make than the roll. It wasn’t economics that drove it, since the savings (maybe 25 percent) were not that great. It wasn’t social status (a codex for common folks, rolls for literary folks). It seemed to have signified something, to have “semiotic” value. It almost appears that if in the second century you saw Urbanus walking down the street with a codex in hand, you’d take notice and assume he was a Christian.
Well, so how did it get started? In fact, how did it develop? As for the latter, it’s evident that Christians were experimenting with the technology of making a good codex, and particularly with the aim of jamming more scriptural books between two covers. So it’s not like the technology was just dropped in their lap fully developed, having been perfected in the big publishing houses of Antioch or Rome. At this point we can only speculate about the initial impetus for the “Christian” codex. Was it the form in which the first collection of Paul’s letters or a Gospel was “published”? Was it preferred by some technologically innovative and influential early Christian leader, maybe a geeky apostle? Did it have its origin in using these texts in early Christian worship? We just don’t know! It’s interesting to consider though, and maybe time and further research will answer these questions.
Meanwhile, think about this: In a significant respect, we owe our present-day book form to the initiative of the early Christians. Anyone want to go back to the scroll? Well, actually, I’m scrolling down a computer screen as I write. Is this an improvement? What has been lost? What has been gained? And notice how today we are experimenting with the best ways of using this new technology—but the goal is to emulate the printed page!
Now for a little self-indulgence: editors and publishers of Christian literature have a long history, and a cloud of unnamed saints in our tradition. I for one would love to meet some of them, and I’d give my laptop for a peek at a second- or third-century “Behind the Books” blog from a Christian scriptorium in Antioch, Alexandria or Rome.