Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Physical Form of Early Christian Literature

Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian TextsAlong with thousands of other people, I received an E-reader device for Christmas last year (2010). Somewhat of an Amazon addict, I was more than happy with my Kindle. Still, I’m also a bit of a bibliophile. Despite my love for Kindle, the feel, smell, and look of a real book still lights my fire. I also find my interaction with the text of a printed book is different than that of the surprisingly book-like Kindle screen. 

In many ways, contemporary readers are in a time of massive textual transition from printed and bound books to electronic texts. Print newspapers are dying out, magazines are being reinvented as web-based publications, and Amazon now sells more Kindles than anything else. Not to mention the rise of the blog. All of this prompts lots of questions about what the textual transition means. How does the form of a text influence how it is read, used, and valued? What unforeseen changes will electronic textuality bring about?

Now, consider how similar questions might be asked about the physical form of early Christian literature. For too long, scholars have failed to reflect on how the physical form of early Christian literature was different than modern print culture. This is unfortunate because as Harry Gamble observes, “All aspects of the production, distribution, and use of texts presuppose social functions and forces – functions and forces that are given representation, or inscribed, in the design of the text as a concrete, physical object” (43). Again, we return to Harry Gamble’s seminal book to describe the physical form of early Christian literature and its implications (chapter 2 of Books and Readers in the Early Church).

There are two significant textual transitions that are relevant to understanding ancient books. First, there was a shift from “the roll book (scroll) to the leaf book (codex), which transpired between the second and fourth centuries” (43). Second, to appreciate the modern reader’s distance from ancient book culture, the shift from handwritten books to printed books in the fifteenth century. In order to understand the first transition Gamble begins by describing the standard book form of Greco-Roman antiquity – the scroll.

Scrolls were typically manufactured out of either the papyrus or less commonly because of the cost parchment. Papyrus was produced mostly in Egypt from a papyrus plant found in marshes. Papyrus paper was produced by cutting the stalk of the plant into sections and then peeling the pith into strips. These strips would be laid side by side then overlaid with another crisscrossing layer of strips. The overlapping layers would be pressed together and dried into a single sheet (roughly 20-30 centimeters high and 18-20 centimeters wide). Then, about twenty sheets were glued together with the horizontal strips facing inward for writing. Producing parchment was more complex and expensive because it consisted of turning animal skins into a suitable writing surface. Papyrus was the standard until about the fourth century CE (47). During the beginnings of the early Christian movement, Jewish Torah scrolls were somewhat unique because they were commonly made of parchment rather than papyrus.

Typically, the inside of a scroll was the only part with writing on it. The text would be in columns ranging from 6-9 centimeters wide and 15-24 centimeters high (47). All of the texts were scriptio continua, that is “without divisions between words, without punctuation or accents, and without paragraphing, so that each column presented a monolith of characters” (48, pictured right with P46 an early manuscript of Paul’s letters).  

Despite the almost ubiquitous use of scrolls in Greco-Roman and Jewish book production Christians stand out. “Almost without exception," the early Christians did not use "the papyrus roll," but rather "the papyrus codex, or leaf book” (49). This is really quite amazing. Prior to the third century CE, nearly 98% of Greek books are scrolls, but Christian texts from the same time are almost all codices. This shows that “early Christianity had an almost exclusive preference for the codex as the medium of its own writings and thus departed early and widely from the established bibliographic conventions of its environment” (49). This begs the question, why did Christians find it necessary to use such a radically different physical form for their literature?

(Codex Sinaiticus)

It is interesting that Gamble points out how the codex was regarded as a less proper form for a book. It was more akin to a modern “notebook” than a properly bound book of distinction (49-53). Why would Christians latch on to this improper form to produce their literature?

A number of possibilities have been suggested. First, it could have been motivated by economics. Gamble estimates that the cost of production for a codex was about 25% less than a scroll. So, some have suggested the early Christian predisposition for the codex was an attempt to produce texts while lacking sufficient resources to do so. This suggestion flounders somewhat because the codices themselves do not portray unusually poor quality of text production. 

Second, it has been suggested that the primary motive for the codex was convenience. Much like the convenience of a modern e-reader, the codex was easier to use because it could be held in one hand. It was also significantly more compact (reducing the size of text by almost 50%). Codices could be more comprehensive containing large works in a single book, and easier to access at different points in a text. These conveniences are certainly notable, but the size of early Christian texts were generally not unwieldy enough to require a different form. As Gamble points out, “A gospel was brief enough to be easily contained in a roll of normal length, and as a narrative it was meant to be read from beginning to end” (63). Why then use the codex?

Gamble suggests that perhaps the predisposition for codices was the result of identifying with a Christian tradition – namely Paul’s letters. “Not only were Paul’s letters, so far as we know, the earliest Christian writings, they were also the earliest to be valued, imitated, to circulate beyond their original recipients, and to be collected” (58; cf. 2 Pet 3.15-16). A collection of Paul’s letters would have been most suitable in a codex form. The codex would allow a reader, for example, to conveniently begin with Colossians, a letter in the middle of the collection. In light of this tradition, a modified convenience/tradition theory makes the most sense of explaining why the early Christians used the codex as their book form of choice.

Unlike surrounding book culture, the early Christians were concerned to produce books that would be conveniently readable and accessible. It is also likely, that Christians were concerned to make books easy to travel. Following the missionary-letter-writing example of Paul, the early Christians used the codex as their primary means of producing books.

What do you think this says about how the early Christians read, used, and valued their books?

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