Like Books? Thank a Christian: How the Codex Supports the Canon

Posted by Clark Bates
July 24, 2017

 

It might seem like an oxymoron, but while a large portion of the earliest Christians were illiterate, Christianity itself carved out a niche for itself as one of the most “bookish” religions in the Greco-Roman world.  The sheer quantity of New Testament manuscripts available, with more still being discovered today, testify to this fact and provide a critical clue, for historians and theologians alike, as to how central canonical books were to the community of burgeoning Christians.[1]  So prolific was this literary dissemination, that it becomes clear that a commitment to an authoritative body of Scripture was a very early development in the Christian faith.

 

The Collection of Early Manuscripts

 

The “embarrassment of riches” that are New Testament Manuscripts aside, an often overlooked, but equally important historic feature is the habit of combining various New Testament books into a single Manuscript.  While it’s true that our earliest complete codices date into the fourth centuries, there are still connections between books in the earlier centuries that can be said to “anticipate what would eventually become the four New Testament collection units: the four Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, Acts/General Epistles, and Revelation.”[2]

An example of such a collection is the second century manuscript known as P75.  This manuscript was found in the 1950’s as one of the famed Bodmer Papyri and currently resides in the Vatican Library.  It’s dating is estimated between AD175 – 225 and contains approximately half of the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John.  A fascinating aspect of P75 is that the ending of the Gospel of Luke appears on the same page as the beginning of the Gospel of John rather than the following Gospel opening on its own leaf.  The remnants of this manuscript consist of 102 pages, but it’s surmised to have originally contained 144.  These missing pages are thought by some to have once contained the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as well.[3]  If the arguments for the additional Gospels is valid, it would make P75 one of the oldest four-Gospel codices, but even if it only contained Luke and John, we have a clear demonstration that the earliest Christian communities saw a need to combine the Gospels of Jesus Christ together, an early stage of canonical recognition.[4]

 

Christianity and the Codex

 

The most notable feature of early Christian manuscripts is that they are almost always in the form of a codex rather than a scroll.  A codex was created by taking a stack of papyrus or parchment leaves, folding them in half, and binding them at the spine.  In contrast to the more prominent and preferred form of book production in the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the scroll), a codex allowed for writing on both sides of each page.  A single-quire (binding) codex could hold up to 250 pages.

It was once suggested that it was the Christians that invented the codex, but this is very unlikely.  However, it was Christianity that first resorted to using the codex as its primary means of book production and mass producing it on a level completely unheard of in the surrounding world.  What’s more, various manuscript discoveries indicate that use of the codex was a widely established Christian practice in the early second century, and possibly even as early as the first.[5]  What’s remarkable about this is that Christians weren’t on the cusp of some new literary trend, but that while Christianity nearly exclusively utilized the codex for the production of its religious texts, the rest of the Greco-Roman world continued to prefer the scroll.[6]  In fact, the rest of the world did not begin to prefer the codex until after the fourth century, and this is likely due to its repeated use in Christian communities.

Why did Christians prefer such an unorthodox form of book production?

And what does any of this have to do with the New Testament Canon as we know it today? 

Certainly, we can recognize the pragmatic reasons for preferring a codex over a roll.  They could be written in compact form, were likely cheaper in some respects to a scroll, and made it possible to carry more books at one time than would be possible with scrolls.  However, these considerations would only account for a gradual shift toward codex production and not what appears to be the almost immediate and dramatic shift that exists in the manuscript evidence.  The most plausible suggestion, according to Canon scholar Michael Kruger, is that “Christians began to prefer the codex about the same time that the New Testament canon was beginning to take shape. . . it was able to do something a scroll could never do: hold all four Gospels in one volume.”[7] [8]

In a similar vein, it has been suggested that the codex was a perfect vehicle to transport a collection of Pauline writings.[9]  In both cases, there is a recognition that the Christian use of the codex is intimately connected to the development of a Canon.  The codex performed two critical functions for the early church:

 

  1. It allowed certain books to be physically grouped together by placing them in the same volume.

And,

  1. It provided a natural way to limit the number of books to those contained within the codex; acting as a safeguard.

 

In short, the Canon and the codex were married in such a way that a fixed canon could be more easily controlled and promulgated.  It became the means by which originally separate documents could be gathered together as one.  Therefore, the counter-cultural adoption of the codex is a sign that the earliest Christians were already linking some books together and excluding others.  The formation of the New Testament Canon was well underway by the turn of the century.  Long before Marcion, and long before critical scholarship allows.

 

“Bring the Parchments. . .”

 

Understanding this about the Christian use of the codex brings us to an interesting passage in the New Testament.  In 2 Timothy 4:13, Paul writes to Timothy, asking him to bring several things:

“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.”

2 Timothy 4:13 (ESV)

What’s puzzling about Paul’s request to young Timothy is his apparent distinction between “the books” (τα βιβλια) and “the parchments” (τας μεμβρανας).  This distinction suggests that the apostle Paul had two separate types of writings in mind.  The word for “books”, βιβλια in the Greek, is a common word used in reference to the Old Testament and likely refers to scrolls. [10]  The second word, “parchments” (μεμβρανας), is it bit more confusing.

To begin, the Greek word μεμβρανας is not actually a Greek word.  It’s a transliteration of the Latin word membrana from which we derive the English word “membrane” or “skin” and refers to a parchment codex.  While this confirms that Christians were indeed using the codex for documents in the days of Paul, placing its use to the latter half of the first century, the question we are left with, is what was on these parchments?[11]

Several suggestions have been proffered, some more compelling than the others.  It’s a known fact that early Christian communities often carried small documents known as testimonia, which were collections of Old Testament proof-texts supporting the Messianic claims of Jesus.[12]  Therefore, some have suggested that Paul is asking Timothy to bring him Old Testament scrolls and testimonia, perhaps for evangelistic purposes.  Another, more appealing, suggestion is that, given Paul’s use of the Gospel of Luke in 1 Timothy 5:18, it’s possible that the parchments in question are the Gospel according to Luke and possibly even the other Synoptic Gospels.  The most intriguing suggestion, however, comes, again, from Dr. Michael Kruger.

According to Dr. Kruger, Paul’s parchments are actually copies of his own letters.  This might seem like an odd suggestion to us, but the practice of keeping copies of one’s own correspondence was quite common in the Greco-Roman world.[13]  We must remember that this is long before the days of photocopiers, emails or fax machines.  Once a letter was sent out to its intended recipient, that would be the end of it.  The only way an author could retain a copy for their records was to write two and retain one.  Not only does Dr. Kruger’s suggestion bolster the suggestion that the codex was used by Christians for collecting Paul’s letters, but it also proposes that Paul would have been one of the first to do so.  A tertiary aspect of this possibility is that it offers a reason why some of Paul’s letters have been lost to time (1 Cor. 5:9).  They were lost, because no copy was retained.

 

Conclusion

 

In critical scholarship, very little attention is given to development of the New Testament Canon.  At best, it’s considered to be the result of an ecumenical council, deciding what form of Christianity should continue.  At worst, it’s merely an historical accident in response to heretical teachings infiltrating a community.  Contrary to such views, the historic use of the codex paints an entirely different history of the New Testament.  Not only were the Christians of the 2nd and 3rd century already formulating the canonical compilation of books, the writings of the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 4:13 reveal one more detail:

At a very early stage, Christians conceived of their religious writings in two parts, the Old testament writings (τα βιβλια) and the newly produced Christian writings (τας μεμβρανας), or the “New Testament

 

While the E-reader might be the next wave in literary technology, the physical book has shaped the world for millennia.  While it would be too far of a reach to suggest that Christians created the codex, it’s a historical fact that it was Christianity’s prolific use of the codex that changed the world of literary binding.  The Christian use of the codex is responsible for the production of the modern concept of book binding and effectively changing the literary world, and for all of us who have enjoyed countless hours of leather-bound text, it is to the Christians that we should be thankful.

 

[1] The current estimate of NT MSS in the Greek language is 5,800.  If this estimate includes MSS from other languages, such as Latin, Coptic or Syriac, the total reaches closer to 24,000.

[2] Michael J. Kruger, Canon Revisited: Establishing the Origins and Authority of the New Testament Books, Wheaton: Crossway, 2012, 239.

[3] T.C. Skeat, “The Origin of the Christian Codex,” ZPE 102 (1994), 263-268.  It is suggested that while P75 is a single quire codex, other quires would have been attached, containing the other Gospels.
Graham Stanton, Jesus and Gospel, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 72.

[4] An additional point in support of the early collection of the Gospels is found in the very title: ευαγγελιον κατα Ιωαννην (The Gospel according to John).  A title such as this suggests that it is a message recorded by the author, not about the author, but also a singular message from varying sources. As Bauckham notes, “A Christian community that knew of only one gospel writing would not have needed to entitle it in this way.” Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, Grand rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, 302.

[5] Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex, London: Oxford University Press, 1987, 65-66.

[6] Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006, 44-53.

[7] Kruger, Canon, 249.

[8] It is worth noting that this claim is possibly substantiated in the writings of Irenaeus when he writes, “It is not possible that the Gospels can be either more or fewer in number than they are. For, since there are four zones of the world in which we live, and four principal winds, while the Church is scattered throughout all the world, and the ‘illar and ground’ of the Church is the Gospel and the spirit of life; it is fitting that she should have four pillars, breathing out immortality on every side, and vivifying men afresh.” Irenaeus, Against Heresies, III, XI, viii.  His prominent use of the number four in relation to the Gospels strongly suggests that he may have possessed a four-Gospel codex of his own.

[9][9] Hurtado, Artifacts, 69-83; Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995, 58-66.

[10] Luke 4:20; Gal. 3:10; Heb. 9:19; Josephus, Antiquities 3.74; 2 Clement, 14.2.

[11] If Paul had intended to say “parchment scrolls” he would have used the word διφθεραι.

[12] Martin C. Allbl, And Scripture Cannot Be Broken: The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections, Leiden: Brill, 1999.

[13] We find evidence of this practice in the works of Cicero and Plutarch.  In both cases, the reason for keeping these copies revolves around the need for re-sending them to recipients or being able to evaluate what was originally written in the event of a corollary reply.

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