Why did early Christians prefer the codex, at a time when the bookroll reigned supreme in the wider culture? All through the first three centuries C.E., people overwhelmingly favored the bookroll (“scroll”) for literary texts.1 Indeed, it was the prestige book form of that time. But, from the earliest scraps of identifiably Christian manuscripts onward, it is clear that Christians differed in preferring the codex, especially for those texts that they most prized and used as “scriptures.” This is clear. But scholars continue to explore and debate why. Before we consider scholarly opinions, let’s take account of some key data.
Of all the second-century C.E. manuscripts (pagan, Jewish, and Christian) included in the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB), 2,326 (about 95 percent) are bookrolls, and 123 (about 5 percent) are codices.2 Among all manuscripts dated to the third century, the 1,522 bookrolls comprise 78 percent, and the 431 codices 22 percent.3 Clearly, the bookroll was the favored manuscript form for literary texts in these centuries.
Now, let’s look at the figures for identifiably Christian manuscripts of the same period. Of the 32 Christian manuscripts (of all texts) dated to the second century C.E., 22 percent are bookrolls, and 78 percent are codices. Of the 186 Christian manuscripts dated to the third century, 25.3 percent are bookrolls, and 74.7 percent are codices. So the contrast between the general preference for the bookroll and the Christian preference for the codex in these early centuries is clear, indeed, rather stark.
Moreover, this early Christian predilection toward the codex is even more evident if we note figures for manuscripts of those writings that Christians treated as scriptures. This is often overlooked but important. Among identifiably Christian copies of their Old Testament texts dated to the second and third centuries C.E., well over 90 percent are codices.4 As for copies of writings that came to form part of the New Testament, except for a small number on reused bookrolls, they are all codices.5 On the other hand, early Christians were somewhat more relaxed about using the bookroll for other texts, such as theological treatises and writings that we now often designate as “apocryphal.” By my count, about one-third of the extant copies of these various extra-canonical texts are bookrolls. In short, we see a clear Christian preference for the codex for these texts, too, but not quite as strong as with the texts that came to be included in the Christian Bible.
So why did Christians prefer the codex? One might suppose that this simply reflected a wider cultural move. We do, after all, see some growth in the use of the codex across the first few centuries C.E. Whereas codices comprise only about 5 percent of the total number of second-century manuscripts, about 22 percent of all third-century056 manuscripts are codices, and about 77 percent of all fourth-century manuscripts are codices.
But a closer analysis of the data raises questions. Across the first four centuries, identifiably Christian codices make up an increasingly greater portion of the total number of codices. Of the 431 third-century C.E. codices listed in the LDAB, 139 are Christian codices. If we strip out Christian manuscripts from the total number of third-century bookrolls and codices, bookrolls comprise 83.5 percent and codices only 16.5 percent. As for the undeniable preponderance of codices over bookrolls in the fourth century (and thereafter), this coincides with the “triumph” of Christianity and its pervasive influence on the culture of Late Antiquity. So it looks like the codex came to be dominant under the influence of Christianity in that period.
Another proposal is that Christians favored the codex because of some supposedly practical superiority over the bookroll, but this is hard to sustain. For example, there is sometimes the assertion that the codex was preferred because it could contain a larger body of text. But earliest codices actually contained modest-sized bodies of text, and ancient bookrolls could contain quite large amounts of text. Some have proposed that the codex facilitated finding “proof texts” or particular passages in texts. But ancient Jews were as keen on searching their scriptures, and yet they preferred the bookroll. The basic problem with any notion of some supposedly “obvious” practical advantage of the codex is that, except for Christians, it apparently escaped the notice of nearly everyone in the ancient world!
Another proposal is that Christians were more likely to choose the codex because they largely came from levels of Roman-era society in which workaday texts in codex form were more familiar, and literary texts in bookrolls less common. But this is where quantitative data are important. Christians favored the codex particularly for the texts that they used as scripture, the texts they most highly prized, and were somewhat more comfortable with bookrolls for their other texts. That is, the Christian use of the codex seems to have been intentional, and not simply a reflection of their unfamiliarity with bookrolls.
In the ancient Roman world, the preference for the codex was certainly unusual and distinctive. Christians would have known this, and so would others. I think that it is difficult, therefore, to view it in any way other than a deliberate choice. It seems to me that the more cogent view is that the ancient Christian predilection toward the codex served to distinguish Christian books. Indeed, the particularly strong Christian preference for the codex for copies of scriptural texts suggests that there was a special desire to distinguish Christian copies of these texts. Note that this tendency066 extended to Christian copies of Old Testament scriptures as well as copies of the Christian texts that were part of the emerging New Testament canon.
In a sense, the Christian preference for the codex was a countercultural stance. It stood on its head the dominant stance of the ancient book/reading culture, in which the bookroll was deemed the preferable and more appropriate form, especially for literary texts. But, to repeat the point, early Christians preferred the codex, especially for their most highly prized texts.
Then, also, as ancient Christians sought to include multiple scriptural texts in a single codex, they invested considerable efforts in devising various ways of constructing codices adequate for this. Indeed, it appears that in the third century C.E. Christians were at the forefront of experimentation with various techniques of codex construction.
The Biblical papyri housed in the Chester Beatty Library in Dublin vividly show us this. The Chester Beatty Gospels codex included all four Gospels and Acts; it was made up of folded papyrus sheets sewn together. The Pauline codex, however, was made of 56 papyrus sheets that were stacked and sewn together in one “gathering.” But, eventually, Christians settled upon constructing codices of multiple “gatherings,” each made of several sheets of writing material sewn to form what we now call a “quire”; these then were bound together to form the codex book. This is the basic technique used in making books to this day.
The ancient Christian preference for the codex exhibits a distinctive feature of early Christianity—and also appears to have helped to steer the subsequent history of the book.
Why did early Christians prefer the codex, at a time when the bookroll reigned supreme in the wider culture? All through the first three centuries C.E., people overwhelmingly favored the bookroll (“scroll”) for literary texts.1 Indeed, it was the prestige book form of that time. But, from the earliest scraps of identifiably Christian manuscripts onward, it is clear that Christians differed in preferring the codex, especially for those texts that they most prized and used as “scriptures.” This is clear. But scholars continue to explore and debate why. Before we consider scholarly opinions, let’s take account of some key […]