The Codex and Christianity Revisited: New Research from Notre Dame

Posted by Clark Bates
June 5, 2019


This last weekend I was fortunate enough to be able to attend The Material Gospels conference at the University of Notre Dame.  This was a small gathering of like-minded scholars interested in the use of the New Testament, particularly the Gospels, as a material document.  There were six lectures overall, covering topics form the use of the codex in non-religious practices, the New Testament as a material artifact in early church practice, insights from a Syriac Gospel Palimpsest[1], the resistance of some Christian communities to the use of the codex, and a very enjoyable history of a particularly odd Latin codex, known informally as “Codex Bobiensis”.

There were several points made in these discussions that I wanted to relay here, but I believe I will devote this week’s article to the first two presentations made in the morning, and reserve a singular article later devoted to another presentation that I believe has ramifications for certain modern conceptions of the “Bible” and it’s relation to the person of Jesus Christ.  This week’s discussion revolves around the use of the codex in non-Christian culture, and how that might shed light on the reason for the Christian adoption of this fairly unused book-form for their sacred texts.

The Codex in Galen

The first talk of the morning was given by eminent scholar Clare Rothschild, titled “Galen’s De Indolentia and the Early Christian Codex”.  The bulk of this talk was focused on the work of Galen, roughly translated as “concerning the freedom from pain” which was written to an unspecified individual describing his response to a fire that destroyed a large portion of his library in 192 CE.  Galen himself was a medical researcher, living in the Roman Empire in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.  While the text is meant to be about how to overcome the pain of loss, particularly the author’s loss, the bulk of the text is a catalog of the library’s contents.

Among the many manuscripts that were destroyed, Galen recounts a “recipe” codex which contained various recipes for medicinal cures.  This catalog had been compiled by the author from physicians coming through Rome from all over the world.  They would trade recipes with one another during their interactions and Galen collected all that he had.  More fascinating than this early “Physician’s Desk Reference” is that the author had the forethought to organize the text by ailment, making it searchable for the reader.  Put simply, the physician could be presented with the patient and a description of the ailment, and the possessor of the codex would be able to turn to the applicable section for a remedy.  It is notable that Galen used a codex format for this type of book.

It may be worth noting at this stage that while the codex book-form is the common book-form today, this was not always the case.  Prior to the 4th century, the scroll was the most common book technology in mass production.  Much of the change from scroll to codex can be credited to Christian use, which I have written about here.  That being said, the codex was used in small amounts for various types of writing, yet prior to the 4th century the evidence of its use is fairly limited.  While it had, at one time, been postulated that Christians invented the codex, this is certainly not true.  It was also postulated that Christians used the codex to demonstrate that their texts were special or of high value.  While this has been an intriguing and entertaining thought, it no longer appears to be a sufficient explanation.  This is where Galen’s work adds to our understanding.

The Codex in Other Forms

Add to this the talk given by PhD candidate Jeremiah Coogan, “Navigating the Gospel: Nonlinear Access and Practical Use” and even more light is shed upon this fascinating transition in book technology.  Jeremiah’s research has revealed that, in general, two genres of book are frequently found in codex form: anthologies and legal texts.  Beginning with the second form first, while it is true that when a legal proclamation was made by the emperor, or a lower regent it was often read allowed in public on a scroll.  The reason for this, which can also be seen in early Greco-Roman art, is that a scroll carried a recognition of power.  When the scroll was unfurled before the people, the demonstration was significant in confirming the authority of the reader and the message contained within.

That being said, once this legal text had been read, and possibly displayed publicly, it would be removed from public view, but retained as a record.  The message contained on the scroll was then transferred to a page in a codex and stored.  These legal codices contained information that may need to be accessed, but often would not be something committed to memory or regularly read.  In essence, a legal corpus such as this would not be read like a novel, from front to back, but in segments.  It would not be read linearly.

In a similar way, anthologies were works like a modern-day encyclopedia.  Often these works would contain lists of items and brief descriptions below their title.  In one such work, the codex contained a list of birds, categorized by paintings of these birds, followed by a description of them.  The picture served as markers for where each section began and ended.  Additionally, there was an example of a magical text containing various incantations.  These incantations often began with headings describing what the spell would help with, but would also end with a particular marking denoting the end of the incantation before the beginning of the next.  In both examples, the texts often used, as with the example provided by Galen, were not intentioned for linear reading.

What Does this Have to do with the Bible?

How this relates to the Christian use of the codex may already becoming clear to some readers, but I will attempt to explain it now.  Prolific and eminent scholar Larry Hurtado postulates that the Christians used the codex for the New Testament, and ultimately the entire Bible, as a way of demonstrating that it was of high value.[2]  The reason for this was largely due to the cost of producing such a work.  However, in recent years other postulations have been made.  Another, which I have written some about, was postulated by Hurtado’s former student, Dr. Michael Kruger, suggesting that the portability of the codex over the scroll was especially helpful when dealing with multiple texts intended to be carried together.[3]  In this way, the adoption of the codex by Christians may point to an early “canon-consciousness” within the body of Christ.  In other words, the use of the codex reveals that the church was already thinking of certain books as a “canon”, likely starting with the Pauline epistles.

If we now add to these theories, the data revealed by both Rothschild and Coogan, the selection becomes more complex.  While we might say these new positions are contra Hurtado and Kruger, having spoken directly to one of the presenters, I feel it is better to say that they are in additio to Kruger and Hurtado.  Coogan’s work in non-linear reading does find correlation in the Gospels when we consider that they are largely written in pericopes, or small stories.  While it is true that the Gospels can be read from beginning to end and constitute an overarching narrative, they are also written in such a way as to be read non-linearly.  In fact, many four-Gospel manuscripts contained pages at the beginning of each Gospel with a painting of the Gospel author.  Even today, as those of us who study these manuscripts search them, we scan the pages online, looking for those paintings as a way to find our place.  This is a form of non-linear reading and place marking by the compiler for just such a purpose.   All one must imagine is the way a standard church service approaches the text of Scripture.  A Gospel or Epistle is not read in its entirety but only a section.  It is then, in some churches, picked up the following week, or a new topic is discussed from another segment.  It is also known from manuscript evidence that Christian churches were using lectionaries (weekly assigned readings for the year) as early as the 5th century, and the position of “reader” in the church is reported as early as the 3rd century.  Additionally, per Coogan, there are possible lection marks in the 4th century Codex Vaticanus that may suggest early traditions of reading the New Testament in a non-linear fashion.  If this is true, the codex book-form would be extremely efficient for such purposes.[4]

Additionally, returning to Rothschild’s discussion, it has become clear that the use of a codex did not, in and of itself, represent that a text was more valuable than another, unlike Hurtado’s suggestion.  While it may still be true that the Christians viewed theses texts as sacred, something Christ Keith dealt with in his talk and something I will hopefully discuss in the near future on this website, their use of the codex would not necessarily symbolize this.  How this is known, comes again from Galen’s De Indolentia, wherein he mentions that his most valuable texts are actually contained on scrolls, not codices.  Therefore, scrolls and codices were interchangeable regarding the “value” one might place on a manuscript.  However, unintentionally, both Coogan and Rothschild’s work overlapped in many ways.  Both demonstrated rather effectively that a prime feature of the codex was its ease of use when seeking to find a specific place in a text for perusal.  If we consider how many of us approach the Bible in our own homes even today, it is rarely to read through it linearly but to access a specific place.  Not only are we accessing a specific chapter or verse, but a specific chapter and verse in a particular book.  Before us is a virtual library of 66 separate books, delineated by headings, much like the work cited by Coogan, from which we can scan and isolate a particular place for reading, evangelizing or preaching.  This form of nonlinear reading would be almost impossible by modern thinking if the codex book-form had not been proliferated by the Christian church.  And the evidence that continues to come to light suggests that this may have actually been one of the very things they intended.


As I grow more familiar with the work of the saints that have come before us and the care which they have painstakingly taken with the Bible that we often take for granted, I am increasingly humbled.  This text did not come down to us roughshod or by accident.  It was not thrown together with little thought or even in a rush to combat heretical teachings growing in the church.  The Bible in your hands exists because those who came before us were contemplative, spiritually guided, individuals always thinking of how the Word of God must reach the ends of the earth.  It was their ingenuity that has produced the remarkable text before you, and we must never take that for granted.

* Conclusions made in this article are the author’s.  It is not my intent to suggest that these conclusions were drawn by the presenters in their talks and I have sought to be clear within the article on this matter.


[1] A Palimpsest is a manuscript that was initially used for a different document than what is currently found on it.  It derives its name from the Greek word παλιμψηστος (palimpsestos) which means “scraped again”, referring to the practice of scraping the old ink off of the original document to reuse the material for another writing.

[2]Larry Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts.

[3] Michael Kruger, Canon Revisited.

[4] It should be mentioned that this form of non-linear reading in the Christian church was likely borrowed from the practice of the Jewish synagogue.  We read in Luke 4:16-21 of Jesus doing this very thing, and using a scroll for such purposes.  Because of this, we cannot stretch the link from the codex to the ease of non-linear reading too far.  A person trained in the use of a scroll and familiar with the text at hand could likely access a portion of it fairly quickly.  That being said, if multiple sections of different books were needed, as they would be in a lectionary situation, the number of scrolls needed would be cumbersome, whereas a single codex would be an improvement.

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