DRAFT: "The Codex and Canon Consciousness"
by Robert A. Kraft [updated to 15 October 2000]
This essay is merely a probe, the possible beginnings of a more
thorough study. It attempts to explore issues in late antiquity
that in some ways resemble our own major shifts in technology
that are raising questions about how our perceptions about
"text," "books," "reading," and the like are being affected.\1/
\1/ E.g. from the electronic announcement by Elli Mylonas of a
conference on the form of the book in October 2000: "As the form
of the book undergoes the profound transformations of the digital
age, the knowledge practices and values associated with it are
also rapidly shifting ground. Electronic resources are already
introducing changes in the way cultural offerings -- literature,
the arts, information, popular entertainment -- are produced and
accessed, and by whom."
For many years now, I have wondered whether the technological
change from the scroll format to the large-scale codex
influenced, at least in some situations, perceptions about "the
bible," and especially the extent to which the classical
Christian concept of a closed or exclusive "canon" of scripture
depended on that development.
For the emerging "Christian" movements in the first century, or
at least those that produced or laid claim to written materials,
it is probably not irresponsible to assume that "in the beginning
was the scroll." This seems to have been the prevalent format for
Jewish as well as non Jewish literature in the mid-first century
Greco-Roman world. Scrolls contained various kinds of writings
intended for repeated use within a "literary" context -- non
ephemeral in nature. The "codex" format was far from unknown,
especially for more immediate purposes (e.g. note taking, rough
drafts, record keeping), and also in some literary (and book
publishing) experimentation mentioned by Martial in Rome in the
late first century CE.\2/ But there is little evidence of its
psychological impact, either in the surviving literary sources or
in the discoveries dating from that period.\3/
\2/ Martial, Apophoreta 1.2 and especially 14.184-192. For a
careful recent discussion of this material, see Roberts & Skeat,
chapter 5. A fragment of a Latin parchment codex of an otherwise
unknown historical text dating to about 100 CE was also found at
Oxyrhynchus (POx 30; see Roberts & Skeat 28). Papyrus fragments
of a "Treatise of the Empirical School" dated by its editor to
the centuries 1-2 CE is also attested in the Berlin collection
(inv. # 9015, Pack\2 # 2355) - Turner, Typology # 389, and
Roberts & Skeat 71, call it a "medical manual."
\3/ An interesting question in this regard might be how the
Jewish authors and copyists who concerned themselves with the
"heavenly tablets" (not scrolls) visualized that material in
relation to their contemporary book-making techniques. For some
discussion of the relevant literature, see my "Scripture and
Canon in Jewish Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha," in Hebrew
Bible / Old Testament: The History of its Interpretation,
vol. 1: From the Beginnings to the Middle Ages (Until 1300), part
1: Antiquity, edited by Magne Saebo (Goettingen: Vandenhoeck &
Ruprecht, 1996), 199-216; also available electronically in a more
expansive form on my web page -
publications). It should also be noted that "tablets" were widely
used in the Greco-Roman world at large as well - see Roberts &
Skeat chapters 3-4 (and on Jewish rabbinic evidence, 59).
When Christianity erupts into the light of Roman respectability
and imperial favor in the first half of the 4th century, a
radical change in literary format is evident throughout the
Greco-Roman world, but especially in emerging classical Christian
circles. We are told that more than half of the surviving "pagan"
texts from that period are in codex format, and the codex is
almost universal for the identifiable Christian texts.\4/ More
important, for my present purposes, is the observation that it is
from this period that we get references to officially sponsored
large scale codices of "sacred scriptures" --in essence, THE
Bible as a single book, with its contents roughly the same as it
came to be known in classical (Greek and Latin) Christianity.\5/
Although this practice of collecting the entire "Bible" in a
single codex did not prevail during the following millennium,\6/
I suspect that it did effect a major "paradigm shift" in how
Christians who were familiar with the new phenomenon henceforth
thought about their "Bible" and its canonical cohesiveness. That
is, "biblical canon" took on a very concrete meaning in the
shadow of the appearance of the Bible as a single book (codex).
\4/ Roberts-Skeat, chapters 7 and 8; of course, some of these
"pagan" texts may have been produced by Christian copyists, and
possibly also vice-versa. Confessional or theological stance (or
lack of such) may not always have been coterminus with
\5/ Constantine is said to have commissioned 50 bibles (Eusebius,
Life of Constantine 4.36, cited in Skeat, "Codex Sinaiticus" 604;
dated 330-335); Athanasius refers to bibles supplied for the
emperor Constans ca 338 (Skeat, "Codex Sinaiticus" 591).
\6/ The following list of more or less complete bible manuscripts
is adapted from Swete's Introduction to the Old Testament in
Greek (Cambridge University Press 1914 ), 123: Vaticanus,
Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus (includes a list of the contents by a
later hand), Ephrem Rescriptus, MSS N+V (8-9th c); 64 (10-11 c),
68 (15th c), 106 (14th c), 122 (15th c), 131 (10-11 c); note also
44 (15th c, hist bks + NT). Compared with the hundreds of extant
MSS of portions of Jewish and Christian scriptures, this is a
startlingly thin list.
In the intervening three hundred years of development from the
mid first to the mid fourth century, the "Christian" codex also
had its significant developments, from simple single quire
productions on papyrus (usually containing a single writing) to
multiple quire on papyrus and parchment -- sometimes with
multiple works included.\7/ To some extent, this mirrored what
could be done with scroll technology as well, since we have
examples of single scrolls containing multiple works.\8/ But in
these circumstances, to speak of a "bible" in the later sense was
to speak of a physical collection of different objects, whether
scrolls or codices (or a mixture of both), perhaps with their own
special space (such as a pouch or box or shelf or cabinet or
series of cubicles), but also held together by some sort of
implied or expressed listing -- "these are the scriptural
books."\9/ The primary example of a list coming together with the
mega-codex development is the Easter/Paschal letter of Athanasius
in 367, often seen as the climactic event in the early definition
of the New Testament canon. Athanasius was well aware of the
single codex bible, having been involved in the production of
such for the emperor Constans around the year 338 (above, n.5).
\7/ In the examples listed by Roberts-Skeat (40-41), we find
early codices containing Exodus + Deuteronomy (PBaden 56),
Numbers + Deuteronomy (PChBeat 6), and Matthew + Luke (p 4 + 64 +
67). The fragmentary nature of the remains makes it difficult to
be sure whether multiple works were contained in a single codex,
or whether the same copyist produced two similar codices;
conversely, it is virtually impossible to determine whether in
some instances two different copyists may have worked on
different sections of the same codex (we would count such
fragments as two different codices). Examples of all these
possibilities can be found in later manuscripts.
\8/ See, for example, the Minor Prophets scroll from Nahal Hever
published by Emanuel Tov, Doscoveries in the Judean Desert 8
\9/ Ancient images of scroll containers include the Pompeii wall
painting reproduced in Turner, GMAW plate 9, and the Domitilla
catacomb picture from Rome, featured on the "folio" web page by
Julia Bolton Holloway -- http://www.umilta.net/folio.html (note
also what seems to be a codex hovering above the scroll
container!). Illustrations of codices in a cabinet are also
preserved: see the famous frontpiece to codex Amiatinus, perhaps
reflecting the situation of Cassiodorus in the 6th century --
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/Picts/Ezra2.gif --or the early 5th
century Ravenna representation of the gospel codices --
http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/Picts/bookcase.large.gif (from the
tomb of Galla Placidia). Early Christian lists of scriptural
books include Melito (in Eusebius HE 4.26.14), Origen (in
Eusebius HE 6.25.2), and the list in the Bryennios codex (see J.-
P. Audet, "A Hebrew-Aramaic List of Books of the Old Testament in
Greek Transcription," Journal of Theological Studies 1 
It is possible that the conceptual changes that I associate with
the emergence of the single codex bible had a more gradual
evolution in Christian circles, perhaps with smaller collections
of, say, "the gospel" or "the apostle" already in the second
century. Some have even argued that the main event that sparked
codex development in Christian communities may have been the
early publication of some of Paul's epistles in codex form,\10/
although clear evidence is lacking at present. A similar case has
been offered for Mark's gospel, or John's,\11/ which might have
led to the collecting into a codex of "the gospel" in its various
versions (according to Matthew, according to Mark, etc.).\12/
Portions of what had been Jewish scriptures similarly were issued
as smaller collections in codices -- sometimes reflecting a step
already taken in scroll form (see above, notes 7-8). Perhaps for
someone such as Marcion, the accepted writings of Paul might have
been joined together with Marcion's gospel to form a unified
"bible," possibly in codex form, but such evidence is not
\10/ See the suggestions by Gamble, "Pauline Corpus," and Books
58ff; also more recently Trobisch, Paul's Letter and
Endredaktion. Note also the critical comments by Epp, "Codex."
\11/ On the role of Mark, see Roberts, "Codex" 187-191; Roberts &
Skeat 54-57. But note that Skeat, who is responsible for
the revisions of Roberts' earlier work, subsequently favored the
theory that the Christian papyrus codex, along with the nomina
sacra codings, emanated from Jewish-Christian influences by way
of Jerusalem and/or Syrian Antioch (perhaps to record Jesus'
"oral law" as a sort of proto-gospel): Birth 57-61 - "To sum up,
although neither of the two hypotheses discussed above is capable
of proof, the second [Jerusalem-Antioch] is decidedly the more
plausible" (61). Even more recently, Skeat, "Origin" and "Oldest
Manuscript," has posited an early four gospel codex (emulating
the earlier codex of John) as the main impetus -- see also Epp,
"Codex" 17 for a critical summary of these developments. More
likely, in my estimation, is the sort of explanation offered by
McCormick and developed further by Epp, "Codex," that itinerant
early Christian representatives rather spontaneously recognized
the value of the codex format for their purposes; I would add
that such needs as instruction, excerpting (e.g. testimonia), and
note-taking ("memoirs") -- all associated with codex usage in
the Greco-Roman world -- may also have contributed to this
\12/ Skeat, "Oldest Manuscript," argues that P4+64+67 are
fragments of a single papyrus codex such as may have contained
the four gospels, from the late 2nd century. For details on early
New Testament fragments, including codices that contained more
than a single work (especially gospels, Paul), see Epp, "Codex."
Whatever actually happened in any given case, is it possible that
early Christians (or at least some of them) came to reserve the
codex form for what they considered to be "scriptural" writings,
both from their own recent past and from their increasingly more
remote Jewish heritage? Did they go through a stage in which it
was argued that this is how "scriptures" should look -- perhaps
in contradistinction to the emerging classical Jewish focus on
scriptural scrolls?\13/ As we look back on the preserved remnants
of those centuries, can we tell what format was being used by
such authors as Justin, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement, Origen,
Cyprian, and the rest? I have usually assumed that multi-
"volumed" works such as Irenaeus Against Heresies or Tertullian
Against Marcion (both in "five volumes") -- or for that matter,
the two volumes of "Luke" to "Theophile" (or was it
Theophilos?)\14/ -- reflected the use of multiple scrolls. If so,
isn't it peculiar that our earliest evidence for what came to be
"biblical" Christian texts (apparently including the adopted
Jewish scriptures) is predominantly (papyrus) codex?
\13/ For this theory, see already Katz, "Early Christians' Use,"
cited with approval by Resnick, "Codex" 7. Roberts & Skeat, Birth
45, 57 and 60, also note this as a possible factor (especially in
the context of the Jerusalem-Antioch theory of origins, above n.
11) as well as a significant result. It is difficult to asses the
extent to which the codex format may have been used in non-
Christian Jewish circles apart from emerging rabbinic Judaism.
See below, n.16 for a presentation of some of the evidence.
\14/ A pet theory of mine is that Luke-Acts, with its attention
to (economically/culturally advantaged) women, might have been
written for a woman, Theophile. The supporting article still lies
in draft in my files.
But the exceptions are also noteworthy:\15/ writings that might
have been considered "scriptural" by some users are found in
early codex fragments (the Egerton gospel [vH 586, T NTApoc7],
Gospel of Mary [vH 1065], Acts of Paul [vH 605, see also 608]),
as is some other literature less likely to have been viewed as
"scripture" (notably Philo [vH 696, includes several tractates]
and Origen [? vH 691]). The Shepherd of Hermas is found in both
codex format (vH 665 parchment, 668 papyrus) and scroll (vH 662;
see also 657 on back of a roll), as is the sayings Gospel of
Thomas (POx 1 [vH 594], codex; POx 655 [vH 595] roll; POx 654 [vH
593] is on the back of a survey list, which gives it the
appearance of being a scroll as well). Scroll format is also
attested in the "Naasene Hymn" of PFay2 (vH 1066), in a fragment
of Ahikar (vH 583, not necessarily "Christian"), the Fayum Gospel
fragment (vH 589, unless it is an isolated page), an Oxyrhynchos
Gospel fragmentary column (POx 2949 = vH 592, from a roll?),
Sibylline Oracles 5 (vH 581, not necessarily "Christian"),
Penitence of Jannes and Jambres (vH 1068, "Christian"?; see also
1069 on the verso) and in early fragments of Irenaeus (POx 405 =
vH 671) and of Julius Africanus (POx 412 = vH 674). On the basis
of such relatively slim evidence, no pattern is apparent. On the
Jewish scriptures (LXX/OG) side of matters, the situation is
\15/ The following information is garnered largely from the
catalogue of van Haelst [= vH#], Turner's Typology [= T#], and
Roberts & Skeat chapter 8. Only materials dated through
the early 3rd century have been selected. Epp, "Codex," gives
further details on some of these fragments.
\16/ For the beginnings of a treatment of these materials, see my
forthcoming article on "The 'Textual Mechanics' of Early Jewish
LXX/OG Papyri and Fragments," in the collection of essays from
the May 1998 conference on "The Bible as Book: The Transmission
of the Greek Text" sponsored by the Van Kampen Foundation and The
Scriptorium: Center for Christian Antiquities, which is a summary
version of the more detailed electronic publication found at
During this 300 years of transition, from Jesus to Eusebius, from
Paul to Athanasius, evidence of how people thought about what we
so unreflectively call "the Bible" is scarce. Probably the most
frequently used term is "scriptures," or collectively
"scripture," which doubtless gradually lost any plural
significance (and any implied open-endedness?) as ideas of
scriptural canon tightened.\17/ We have glimpses of some relevant
events and situations --
-Marcion's mini-canon (10 letters of Paul and a shorter Luke);
-Melito's distinction of "old" and "new" covenant writings (see
-Origen's list (above, n.9) and voluminous output, including the
Hexaplaric tool that presumably had to be in codex format in
order to be effective;\18/
-Eusebius mentioning various disputed works, copying mega-codices
for Constantine, and probably writing in scroll format himself.
But once it was possible to produce and view (or visualize) "the
Bible" under one set of physical covers, the concept of "canon"
became concretized in a new way that shapes our thinking to the
present day and makes it very difficult for us to recapture the
perspectives of earlier times. "The canon" in this sense is the
product of 4th century technological developments. Before that,
it seems to me, things were less "fixed," and perceptions,
accordingly, less concrete.
\17/ For discussions of relevant terminology, such as
bibli/on, bi/blos> and h( grafh/, ai( grafai/>, see
the standard lexica such as Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich[-Farmer] A
Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early
Christian Literature (University of Chicago 1979 ). The use
of "the scripture" in the singular as a collective from the
earliest Christian period is certainly a step in the direction of
viewing "the Bible" as a whole, although the precise limits of
"scripture" are not always specified. On the terms used for
"scroll," "tablet," "codex," etc., see Gamble, Books chapter 2,
and the literature cited there, especially Roberts & Skeat
\18/ Eusebius describes Origen's Hexaplaric labors in HE 6.16,
but without commenting explicitly on the format. It is difficult
to imagine the Hexapla as scrolls, if each "opening" (panel?)
displayed the six (or more) columns; see the lengthy discussion
in Swete, Introduction chapter 3 (especially 74ff).
//end of text and notes//
Bibliography [in reverse chronological order]:
Skeat, T.C. "The Codex Sinaiticus, The Codex Vaticanus, and
Constantine," Journal of Theological Studies ?? (1999) 583-625.
Saebo, Magne. On the Way to Canon: Creative Tradition History in
the OT. JSOTSup 191 (Sheffield Academic Press 1998) [review by
Epp, E.J. "The Codex and Literacy in Early Christianity and at
Oxyrhynchus: Issues Raised by Harry Y. Gamble's Books and Readers
in the Early Church," Critical Review of Books in Religion 10
Skeat, T.C. "The Oldest Manuscript of the Four Gospels?" NT
Studies 43 (1997) 1-34.
Stanton, G. "The Fourfold Gospel," New Testament Studies 43
Epp, E.J. "The New Testament Papyri at Oxyrhynchus in their
Social and Intellectual Context," in The Sayings of Jesus:
Canonical and Non-canonical; Essays in Honour of Tjitze Baarda,
ed W.L.Petersen, J.S.Vos, and H.J.deJonge; Supplements to Novum
Testamentum (Brill 1997).
Cribiore, Raffaella. Writing, Teachers, and Students in Greco-
Roman Egypt (Scholars' Press 1996)
Trobisch, David. Die Endredaktion des Neuen Testaments: eine
Untersuchung zur Entstehung der christlichen Bibel. Novum
testamentum et orbis antiquus 31 (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 1996)
Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History
of Early Christian Texts (Yale University Press 1995)
Skeat, T.C. "Was papyrus regarded as 'cheap' or 'expensive' in
the ancient world?" Aegyptus 75 (1995) 75-93.
Skeat, T.C. "The Origin of the Christian Codex," ZPE 102 (1994)
Trobisch, David. Paul's Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins
Haran, Menahem. "Archives, Libraries, and the Order of the
Biblical Books," JANES 22 (1993) 51-61
Resnick, Irven M. "The Codex in Early Jewish and Christian
Communities," Journal of Religious History 17 (1992) 1-17 [note
ref to Lieberman on Jewish use of codices for non-liturgical
Harris, William. "Why Did the Codex Supplant the Book-Roll?" in
Renaissance Society and Culture: Essays in Honor of Eugene F.
Rice, Jr., ed John Monfasani and Ronald G. Musto (Italica Press
Skeat. "Roll Versus Codex: A New Approach?" ZPE 84 (1990) 297f
Gamble, Harry Y. "The Pauline Corpus and the Early Christian
Book," in Paul and the Legacies of Paul, ed. William S. Babcock
(SMU Press 1990) 265-280
Haelst, Joseph van. "Les origenes du codex," in Les debuts du
codex, ed Alain Blanchard (Brepols: Turnhout 1989) 13-35
McCormick, M. "The Birth of the Codex and the Apostolic Life-
Style," Scriptorium 39 (1985) 150-158.
Roberts & Skeat. The Birth of the Codex (Oxford University 1983,
Bowman, A.K. and J.D. Thomas. Vindolanda: The Latin Writing
Tablets [Britannia monograph series 4](London Society for the
Promotion of Roman Studies 1983).
Skeat. "The Length of the Standard Papyrus Roll and the Cost-
Advantage of the Codex," ZPE 45 (1982) 169-175
Roberts, C.H. Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian
Egypt (Oxford University Press for the British Academy 1979).
Turner, E.G. The Typology of the Early Codex (UPenn 1977)
Bowman, A.K. "The Vindolanda Tablets and the Development of the
Book Form," Zeitschrift fuer Papyrologie und Epigraphik 18 (1975)
Cavallo, G. Libri, Editori e Pubblico nel mondo antica: Guida
storica e critica (Rome 1975) [summarized in Roberts & Skeat
Turner, E.G. Greek Manuscripts of the Ancient World (Princeton
University 1971) [second edition revised and enlarged by
P.J.Parsons as Bulletin Supplement 46, Institute of Classical
Studies, London, 1987]
Lieberman, Saul. Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (1962) appendix 3.
Roberts, C.H. "The Codex," Proceedings of the British Academy 40
Katz, Peter. "The Early Christians' Use of Codices Instead of
Rolls," JTS 46 (1945) 63-65.
McCown, C.C. "The Earliest Christian Books," Biblical
Archaeologist 6 (1943) 21-31.
McCown, C.C. "Codex and Roll in the New Testament," Harvard
Theological Revue 34 (1941) 219-250.
Kenyon, F.G. Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome
(Oxford: Clarendon 1932; 2nd ed 1951).
Schubart, W. Das Buch bei den Griechen und Roemern (Heidelberg:
Schneider 1922; 3rd ed by E. Paul 1962).
Dziatzko, K. Untersuchungen ueber ausgewaehlte Kapitel des
antiken Buchwesens (Leipzig: Teubner 1900).
Birt, T. Das antike Buchwesen in seinem Verhaeltnis zur
Litteratur (Berlin: Hertz 1882).
---[yet to do]
bibliographical note, or insert info into each footnote?
check PlinyY Ep 3.5.15f on the opisthograph notes by his Uncle -- is it
clear that these were on rolls (probably volumen; 160 of these
"comentarii" in very small writing)? See Roberts-Skeat
check Hermas refs to copying a "book"
check Origen on construction of Hexapla, etc.
---[earlier notes to myself]
Ideas for Promised paper for Canon Debate volume.
1. In the 4th-5th century mega-codices we can see concrete (if somewhat
varying) representations of "biblical canon," since the format
technology permits inclusion of large amounts of material in a
single volume, thus also excluding other writings. Constantine is said
to have commissioned 50 bibles [Eusebius, Life of Constantine 4.36,
cited in Skeat 604; dated 330-335]; Athanasius refers to bibles
supplied for the emperor Constans ca 338 (Skeat 591)
2. Prior to this we can find mini-codices that contain a single or
several writings, and we find lists of books considered authoritative
(Melito, Origen, etc.); earlier lists tend to be less specific,
identifying categories rather than the specific works (e.g. Sirach,
3. There are also discussions of what ought to be included in such
lists and/or collections, showing that uniformity was achieved in
some circles only after much development (e.g. Eusebius).
4. There are also other contexts in which closed uniformity seems
not to have been as important (e.g. Armenian tradition?).
5. Issues that interest me here:
-When, where, and how did the idea of
an authoritative "scriptural" writing occur?
Recorded revelation (heavenly tablets [how conceived? proto-codices?],
Moses on Sinai [see later representation with scroll! Resnick], prophets)
check for commands to "write this down" (e.g. Enoch?)
find where texts are used in authoritative ways (prophets? -- e.g. Micah
-When, where, and how did the idea of
having a "scriptural" collection develop?
Books of Moses, Collections of Psalms & Proverbs, 12 Prophets
Letters of Paul, Gospels
-When, where, and how did the idea of
having a closed "scriptural" collection develop? [check Josephus'
famous passage, and Mason's interpretation]
Difference between saying "these are authoritative/valuable"
and "only these are authoritative" (Athanasius); does the popularization
of codex format make the latter easier to visualize and implement?
-What is the relationship of such developments to the technology
of "book" (codex) construction -- or
-Was the psychological impact the same when dealing with
scrolls, or a list, or a mini-codex, or a mega-codex?
(1) Impact of mega-codex: how widely imitated? How widely known?
(Swete 123) Full Bibles: Vaticanus, Sinaiticus, Alexandrinus (has later
contents list; now in 4 vols), Eph Rescriptus, N+V (8-9th c);
64 (Paris 2, 10-11 c), 68 (Venice, 15th c), 106 Ferrara, 14th c),
122 (Venice, 15th c), 131 (Vienna, 10-11 c),
see also 44 (15th c, hist bks + NT)
(2) Relation of lists to mega-codices?
(3) Impact of mini-codices with multiple works?
(4) Valuation of Rolls and Codices in a shared environment?
(5) Popularization of codex in relation to alternatives --
Roberts & Skeat -- Mark's Gospel as model
Gamble (Trobisch) -- Paul's letter format imitated/expanded