Why were the Early Christians More Likely to Write on a Codex Rather than a Scroll?

In the second millennium B.C., when the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and for the first few hundred years after the Exodus, documents were typically written on papyrus. Papyrus sheets were made from the papyrus plant, which was common among the Nile river. Sheets of papyrus were fragile, and creases in papyrus could tear easily. Typically, documents were made into scrolls rather than books, which would help prevent sharp bends in the sheets.

In the middle to late first millennium B.C., animal skins, particularly parchment, started being used for writing, but it was much more costly and time-consuming to produce than papyrus.  In spite of the cost, parchment was easier to acquire in Palestine/Israel than papyrus, so it eventually became the medium of choice for written documents, but it took about 1,000 years to replace papyrus. Parchment is also much more durable than papyrus, as shown by the 2,000 year old Dead Sea Scrolls, where almost all of the manuscripts are on parchment. Parchment, and the higher-quality vellum, can be made into scrolls or codices (books).

Because of the long history and familiarity with scrolls, the use of scrolls has continued. Even today, copies of the Torah (What is the Torah?, What is Sefer Torah?) are made on scrolls for use in synagogues. Why, then, are most ancient copies of the New Testament written in codices?

What is a Scroll?

 
Torah Scroll from Lithuania written in the sixteenth century (© Scrolls4All.org)
Torah Scroll from Lithuania written in the sixteenth century (© Scrolls4All.org)

A scroll is a long, continuous writing surface made by joining sheets of papyrus or parchment together (What Media has the Bible been Written On?). Sheets of papyrus are glued together to make a scroll, while sheets of parchment are sewed together; the scribe will use one stitch for every six lines of text1. For Sefer Torah scrolls, the scroll will be attached to wooden rollers, called Etz Chaim, or “Trees of Life”. The rollers are often decorated with silver or gold handles. Scrolls were the most popular method of presenting writing until about A.D. 100-300, but they are still in use in some locations.

The two longest scrolls I’ve read about are 144 feet2 and 138 feet3. Scrolls this size would be large, heavy and difficult to use. Finding a particular passage could be time-consuming, particularly for an inexperienced person.

What is a Codex?

Codex Sinaiticus (© CodexSinaiticus.com)
Codex Sinaiticus, about A.D. 325-350 (© CodexSinaiticus.com)

A handwritten document, or manuscript, which is bound in the format of a book is called by scholars a codex (plural: codices). Although some codices made with papyrus still exist, most existing ancient codices are parchment or vellum.

Of all the second-century C.E.4 manuscripts (pagan, Jewish, and Christian) included in the Leuven Database of Ancient Books (LDAB), 2,326 (about 95 percent) are bookrolls [scrolls], and 123 (about 5 percent) are codices [books]. Among all manuscripts dated to the third century, the 1,522 bookrolls comprise 78 percent, and the 431 codices 22 percent. Clearly, the bookroll was the favored manuscript form for literary texts in these centuries.5

Among identifiably Christian copies of their Old Testament texts dated to the second and third centuries C.E., well over 90 percent are codices. 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.6

Clearly, Christians preferred the form of a codex for their scripture, while non-Christian writings were usually on scrolls. The format of a book has several advantages over a scroll. Since both sides of a page could be written on, there could have been a cost savings when using a codex, and the book would be smaller than a scroll. Some scholars dispute these reasons, claiming scribes who copied the New Testament often left large margins which allowed people to take notes, and that the margins negated any cost or space savings.

Another advantage of a codex over a scroll is the ability to quickly move between different locations in the text. A scroll requires unrolling one side of the scroll while rolling up the other side. While an experienced person may be able to do this quickly, it is still more time-consuming than flipping pages of a book. Bookmarks (codex-marks?) could easily be used to mark the page in a codex, while in a scroll they weren’t likely to stay in place when unrolling and rolling a scroll.

Summary

Prior to the writing of the New Testament books, papyrus on scrolls was the most common media for writing books. Papyrus wasn’t very durable and the scroll format made transportation cumbersome. Christians quickly realized parchment in the form of a codex would last longer and be more practical to use.

Those texts that were prepared for reading in church and that were intended to be treated as scripture by the community are almost entirely written on codexes. So when we talk about copies of texts around at the time, the physical form in which they’re put is a significant indicator of the purpose for which they were put.7

Resources

Footnotes

  1. Yeriot, sewn with Giddin (Memorial Scrolls Trust) (Accessed 26-Mar-2019.)
  2. McDowell, Josh and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017) 23. (Amazon)
  3. Feasts of The Lord (Scrolls4All.org) (Accessed 15-Apr-2019).
  4. C.E. means Common Era, and is a non-religious alternative to A.D. (Latin: Anno Domini; English: In the year of our Lord). Dates in C.E. are the same as dates in A.D.
  5. Hurtado, Larry W. Archaeological Views: Early Christian Dilemma: Codex or Scroll? (Biblical Archaeology Review 44:6, November/December 2018; Website; Subscription required) (Accessed 30-Aug-2019)
  6. Hurtado, Larry W. Archaeological Views: Early Christian Dilemma: Codex or Scroll? (Biblical Archaeology Review 44:6, November/December 2018; Website; Subscription required) (Accessed 30-Aug-2019)
  7. Hurtado, Larry. Fragments of Truth. Rhys-Davies, John (Narrator) and Evans, Craig (Presenter). (Faithlife Films, 2018)

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