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Sunday, March 8, 2009

The Early Christian Codex

THE printed book is so much a part of our modern civilization that we take it for granted, and often forget that there was a time only two thousand years ago when books like this were practically unknown. Instead, scrolls were used for literary works, continuous rolls twenty or thirty feet long, and nine or ten inches high. Skins or papyrus sheets were fastened together to form this “roll of the book” (Ps. 40:7), and the text was written in columns, which formed the pages. (Jer. 36:23) Even our word “volume” literally means something rolled up or revolved, as upon rollers. So we can picture Jesus taking his stand in the synagogue of Nazareth and, on being handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah by the hazan or attendant, skillfully rolling the scroll off with one hand and on with the other until the required place was reached.—Luke 4:16, 17.

Then occurred a change. From small beginnings the codex rose until it almost eclipsed the roll. But what is a codex? The stem of a tree was called a “caudex,” and from this the name was applied to tablets of wood with raised rims, often covered with a coating of wax and written upon with a stylus, like the schoolboy’s slate. (Isa. 8:1) By the fifth century B.C.E. tablets of several leaves were being used, having strings passed through pierced holes to hold them together. Because these tablets looked like a tree trunk when bound together they were called a codex.

Imagine carrying around such bulky, cumbersome wooden tablets! No wonder the search was on for a lighter, more pliable material. The Romans developed the parchment notebook, an intermediate step between the tablet and the later book-form codex. As the style and material of the original tablet changed, it became a problem to know what to call the new format. In Latin usage the word membranae came to distinguish especially the parchment notebook,1 and this word was used by Paul when requesting “the scrolls, especially the parchments [membranas].” (2 Tim. 4:13) That Paul used a Latin word and even in a Latin sense would be only because no Greek equivalent existed to describe what he was calling for. Later the word “codex” was transliterated into the Greek language to refer to the book.


Where does the evidence gathered to date place the development of the codex? Writing in 1898, F. G. Kenyon, already assistant keeper of manuscripts in the British Museum, stated that “the rise of the codex was accompanied by the rise of vellum,” notably in the fourth century A.D., and that the papyrus codex was only an experiment that failed.2 Of course, until then very few papyrus manuscripts of the Bible had been discovered and the first three centuries A.D. were practically blank pages in the textual history of the Bible. Papyrus requires a very dry climate in order to survive the ravages of time and weather, and it is to where this ideal condition is found, such as around the Dead Sea and in Egypt, that the papyrus hunter must turn. How different is the picture today, then, thanks to the kind sands of Egypt! So much evidence has been unearthed in sixty years, especially from the town rubbish dumps of Oxyrhynchus and the ancient Fayum, that the gap of three centuries is virtually closed and the role played by the papyrus codex is better understood.

Most noteworthy is the fact that nearly all the Bible manuscripts of the Christian era found on papyrus are in codex form, and this led to the interesting conclusion that, “while classical writings continued for long to be circulated in rolls, the codex seems to have been regarded as specially suitable for Christian writings.”3 A recent survey of pagan literature revealed only about 2.4 percent codices to rolls for the second century A.D. (11 codices and 465 rolls). Yet all Biblical manuscripts assigned to the second century are codices and there is only one later manuscript of the Psalms that is certainly Christian found in roll form.4 We now possess, scattered throughout the world’s museums and collections, more than a hundred Bible codices on papyrus (some just fragments) written before the end of the fourth century. The first Christians clearly discarded the roll form at an early date.


But how can we say that a manuscript comes from the second century A.D.? Is there a date prominently displayed on the first leaf? Very few dates have survived on ancient manuscripts, and they are not always trustworthy when they do appear. Even a modern book often only gives the date of publication on the title page. If this perishes it might be difficult to date exactly; but here the manuscript can have advantages over the printed book.

Paleography supplies the answers. This art involves careful detective work on the writing, its form and style. Just as subtle changes mold our modern languages, so this was the case in the early centuries, and a careful comparison of dozens of minute features can date a manuscript to within forty or fifty years. The introduction of slight spaces between words, limited punctuation and various abbreviations have all helped to define particular periods. Tables of typical letters have been drawn up from nonliterary papyri, such as receipts, letters, petitions and leases that do give exact dates, and these form a good basis for comparison. In the fragment of John’s Gospel known as P52 the writer added a little hook or flourish to some of his strokes, omitted certain marks, used a special type of cross-stroke and rounded particular letters—all noted habits of early second-century writers.

Though not all experts are agreed, there are a dozen papyrus codices assigned by most of them to the second century A.D. As these stand out in importance both for their early date and their early codex form, they are listed below. Bible manuscripts are given numbers that are recognized internationally. The list of Christian Greek Scripture papyri is known as the Gregory-von Dobschütz list and that for the Septuagint Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures as the Rahlfs list, in each case after the most prominent of the scholars who kept them. Additionally, each manuscript bears a collection name and number to identify where it was found or to whom it belongs.


Additional Reading:

In examining codices some interesting features can be noticed. An early practice seems to have been to make up a codex in one enormous quire by laying all the sheets one on top of another and then making one fold. A fragment of just one pair of leaves known as P5 has part of John 1 on one leaf and John 20 on the other, so this codex, to contain all the intervening chapters, would make up a single quire of some fifty leaves. The Isaiah codex of the Chester Beatty collection was a single quire of some 112 leaves originally. Such a codex often had its center leaves trimmed to prevent them from projecting like a wedge when it was closed, resulting in only narrow columns of writing, compared with the wider outer leaves. The entirely opposite procedure was adopted for other early codices which were made up of single-sheet quires only, that is, all sheets were folded first and then placed on top of one another for stitching together. But neither of these two extremes proved best. Quires of four or five sheets (eight to ten leaves) seemed most convenient. Some codices have a mixture, however, as with the Bodmer John P66. Out of five quires extant, three have five sheets each, one has four, and the last eight sheets. The missing part of chapter six was a unique single-sheet quire.

Different methods of laying down the sheets reveal, perhaps, personal preferences. Each sheet consists of two layers of papyrus fiber glued together crosswise so that the side displaying the horizontal layer is known as the recto and the side showing the vertical layer of fibers is the verso. The method of laying down the sheets would alter the appearance when the codex was opened. A recto page might face a verso page, but some might prefer to have recto facing recto and verso facing verso.

Some early codices with two narrow columns of writing to a page were probably copied from rolls with as little disarrangement of the original layout as possible. Conversely, when the back of an old roll containing an epitome of Livy was reused by an economical Christian he copied from a codex of Hebrews and even inserted the page numbers. Such a reused roll is called an opisthograph.


Why was the codex chosen in preference to the rolls so widely used and familiar? At first it was not possible to buy a codex from those in the book trade, and because some codices reveal that they were made from cut-up rolls very definite reasons must have prompted these early amateurish experiments. That the four Gospels could be put together in one codex was a great advantage, whereas they would not make up a convenient roll, for Matthew would require thirty feet, Mark about nineteen, Luke about thirty-one and John twenty-four, or 104 feet altogether. The third-century Chester Beatty codex of the Gospels and Acts would have needed five rolls and the Numbers-Deuteronomy one, three rolls. In a codex required texts could be located much quicker than in a roll, and this meant much to the early Christians, who really used their Scriptures. Even pocket codices have been discovered, the smallest of which (P. Literary London 204, 3rd century A.D., Psalm 2) has a page size of about three inches by two, with twelve lines of writing. The value of a convenient form of reference was quickly appreciated. Lastly, the codex was cheaper, because both sides of the papyrus sheet were used.

Another value of the codex was the protection it gave to the inspired books of Scripture. Today the codex can still give its testimony to the Bible canon. When we find nine of Paul’s epistles bound into one codex (Chester Beatty P46) and including the epistle to the Hebrews, we know that this letter was received on the same level as the other epistles. The codex would establish a link between the various inspired writings and make it more difficult to insert an unrecognized work into the collection. And the fact that the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Scriptures was soon transferred from the roll to the codex shows that it was frequently used and not considered in any way inferior to the new writings.

The universal use of the codex in Christian circles in the second century, even for the Septuagint, shows that its adoption must go back to the first century A.D. This can explain the loss of the ending of Mark’s Gospel more readily than can the roll, for it would be quite possible for the last leaf to get lost. The roll, on the other hand, was generally rolled with the ending inside, so the beginning would suffer most damage, borne out by the greater number of ends of rolls that have survived than beginnings.

Can we now visualize the scene as the Christian Greek Scriptures began to take shape? What of Matthew, that writer of tax receipts and recorder of the first Gospel? “He had lived with a pen in his hand most of the day; and can it then be supposed that when he left his business for what he saw to be a far higher interest, his habit of writing would be dropped?”5 asks the writer of one account of the growth of the Gospels. His first notes may have been made in a parchment notebook, and when his Gospel was finished it would probably circulate in glorified notebook or codex form. As other Gospels were completed they would be put with Matthew’s Gospel. As the demand grew for more copies the codex form would be exploited to the full and copies would travel far and wide, its convenience making it possible for traveling ministers like Paul, Timothy and Titus to have pocket codices. When ministers like these returned to visit the congregations they would doubtless commend the brothers for their progress in using their newly received codices, though not forgetting to encourage those still using rolls.

The second-century codex forcibly demonstrates three points. It confirms the authenticity of God’s Word, almost closing the gap between the actual time of the apostles and the earliest manuscripts now extant. It reveals how anxious the early Christians were to give the Scriptures a great circulation, reducing the comparatively high price of books so that all could read these precious words of life. It helps us to see how much they referred to their copies and why they wanted to be able to find the places quickly and easily. May we be like those enthusiastic early Christians and use our Bibles, carefully examining them to prove the true faith as did those of ancient Beroea.—Acts 17:11.


1 A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, by Arndt and Gingrich. page 503.

2 The Palaeography of Greek Papyri, by F. G. Kenyon, page 25.

3 Here and There Among the Papyri, by G. Milligan, page 54.

4 The Codex, by C. H. Roberts, pages 184-186.

5 The Growth of the Gospels, by Sir W. M. Flinders Petrie, pages 5, 6.

- August 15, 1962 Watchtower, Published by the WTB&TS