Jews, Christians, and Others: Late Antique Perceptions of Book Formats


Scrolls, Notebooks, Codices, and More: The Early History of Book Formats in Texts and Art

by Robert A. Kraft
the Center for Advanced Judaic Studies on 10 April 2008 [10ap08 version -- more information on images (location, dates, etc.) needs to be included]

Context and Orientation:

This presentation is tangental to a larger project on "The Gestation of the Codex," which began with the ambition to update the 1983 study by C.H.Roberts and T.C.Skeat on "The Birth of the Codex." Despite the reputation enjoyed by that book, it has some significant problems both in its organization and in its presentation, in addition to being outdated by the wealth of subsequent papyrological publications. What I hope to do here is to show, in text and images, some of the main issues (and artistic perceptions) that relate to the early history of book formats, up to the 6th century of the common era (Justinian, Ravenna) and sometimes beyond.

The possible role of early Jewish book producers -- especially of the Greek speaking kind -- in this process of transition from scroll to codex has been largely neglected. I readily admit to my methodological prejudice, whereby for anything that is found in early Christianity the first place I look for connections and continuities is the situation in Jewish circles. Put bluntly, early Christian developments are Jewish until shown otherwise. There is ample evidence in support of such a principle. Whether it also applies to this bibliotechnic situation remains to be seen.  

Ancient Technologies and Vocabularies -- Tablets, Stelae, "Notebooks," and Scrolls:

Among the earliest known portable writing surfaces are "tablets" -- hard surfaces of various sorts (stone, wood, various metals; note also the use of pottery and bone) on which letters are chiseled or scratched or applied with a marking substance (paint, ink, chalk, etc.), or soft surfaces that are hardened after writing is embedded, such as tablets of clay, or even erasable soft surfaces such as wax on wood.  They can be large and stationary, such as the Code of Hammurabi or the Rosetta Stone (normally classified as "stelae," not intended to be carried around), or relatively small and transportable (PINAKES, tabellae). For present purposes the latter are most relevant, since several smaller tablets can be bound together to form a stiff paged codex, whether hinged to open vertically (like a laptop computer!) or to open horizontally -- either of which could also be attached "accordian" or "concertina" style, imitating a roll.

We know of such tablet codex devices in the Greek and Roman worlds from at least the 6th century BCE onward. Often the hard surface was coated with an erasable substance such as wax (even colored wax), which could be smoothed with the blunt end of the writing implement, or written on with a removable substance such as chalk, permitting "pages" to be reused as needed. Sometimes the surface (usually wood) was painted in a light tone (white or grey) and written on with ink or paint. In different parts of the Greco-Roman world, different materials were used by necessity, and along with them somewhat different techniques, as the Vindolanda discoveries from the end of the first century ce in northern Britain illustrate. Even in the Dead Sea area, similar wooden tablet technology appears at the same time with Aramaic contents [Bar Kokhba letter in Aramaic]. Over time, this rigid tablet technology transmuted and produced both single sheets of pliable material (for all sorts of purposes) and pliable paged notebook codices made of papyrus or leather (then parchment), which survived along with the older forms in wood and/or wood and wax. Such notebooks became a regular feature of basic education in literacy for centuries [see Cribiore], and were also basic for various other things such as legal records (e.g. birth certificates [see Meyer]) and bookkeeping, especially the recording of debts, for which they could be transmitted to heirs as evidence of debt value (Ulpian et al.).  Authors also used them for rough drafts (Quintilian), or for taking notes (elder Pliny), and mathematicians and astronomers for making calculations and diagrams. In later Christian liturgy, wooden diptychs were also used liturgically [Verkerk 94]. The point is that throughout the period presently being investigated, this rudimentary form of codex technology was widely known and used, even when "high literature" took the form of scrolls or later, of developed codices.

Scrolls also have a long history, also both in a horizontal format, where the writing appears in columns along the width of the material, from side to side, and in vertical format (sometimes called "transversa charta," later often called "rotulus," although those terms are sometimes used ambiguously in the literature), where the lines of writing run down the length of the material, from top to bottom (see now the 5/6th c Petra Papyri for "documentary" examples). Especially in Egypt, papyrus dominated the market for writing material and was exported to other parts of the Mediterranean world. Its main rival was leather, which was refined through special treatment into "parchment," and later into "vellum" to produce very attractive and durable writing surfaces. The horizontal scroll format is the primary choice, at least for literature,  through the Greco-Roman period up until its gradual replacement by the codex from about the 4th century ce onward. The horizontal scroll could also be folded over and held in one hand, much like an open codex (also here and here).  The vertical or "rotulus" format survives to the present in certain special applications (Christian liturgy [and here], genealogical tables, some court records), and has left its impact on popular visual representations as we shall see. In Sunday School plays, as in (older) Hollywood productions, one often sees the rotulus scroll representing ancient practice in anachronistic ways. Late dated horizontal scrolls also exist, but are rare, and sometimes exhibit codex features (e.g. resembling one sided codex pages glued edge to edge).

Technology in Transition -- tablet codices to limited content codices to mega codices

Although the rigid tablet in its various manifestations never disappeared from the scene (see e.g. National Geographic April 2008), and sometimes even appeared in ivory or in exotic woods (Martial's gifts, legal definitions), its transmutation to multi-leaved rigid versions (to which the name "codex" was applied in Latin, i.e. "wooden device") and then to flexible versions using parchment (e.g. Quintilian) and papyrus [e.g. PSI 1.23 and 34, and 8.959-60] seems to have been accomplished by the first century of the common era. There does not seem to have been anything dramatic in this process -- after all, the literate classes in general were accustomed to the use of such materials in their schooling -- but rather it was a natural development that was largely taken for granted by the participants (see e.g. Quintilian on using parchment if wax was difficult to read), and by the end of the first century ce had also begun to impact the book trade, at least in Rome (Martial's publisher). As might be expected, the use of flexible codices outside of the school context first seems to find favor among those who were relatively more accustomed to making drafts and notes of their work in areas such as astronomy, mathematics, commentary, memoirs, and the like. Conventional "high literature" such as basic Homer or Thucycides, Livy and Virgil, continued to circulate largely in scroll format, even as the flexible codices were gradually gaining in visibility and acceptability. The earliest known codices were relatively small scale, containing basically no more than the amount of material that could be accommodated on one or two scrolls. Indeed, awareness of how much text a conventional scroll could hold probably produced concepts of what constituted a "book" in the multi-volumed productions of antiquity, including early codices. That is, even when codex technology had developed to the point where a codex could hold the equivalent of several scrolls, the authored works continued to be segmented into roll-length "books," functioning rather like our chapter divisions. Whether newly written works that had never been in scroll format followed such a convention I cannot tell, but suspect that it may have been so -- perhaps Melito (end of 2nd century) produced his 6 books of scriptural excerpts on scrolls, but did Eusebius, in the early 4th century when well developed codices were very well known, write his 10 "books" of the Ecclesiastical History in scroll form (as 10 separate scrolls), or already in codex form with scroll length subdivisions (e.g. as two codices, with 5 "books" in each)?

Major developers of codex technology were found among Christians, with many examples surviving from the 2nd and 3rd centuries (including an image from a 3rd century catacomb), and the apex was reached in the 4th and 5th centuries, with such "mega codices" as the largely scriptural anthologies in the famous codices Sinaiticus, Vaticanus, and Alexandrinus. The non-Christian Greco-Roman world was also producing significant codices at that time [get examples], unifying materials previously in separate scrolls whether by a single author or by several (anthologies). The transition to a book world of codices cannot have been hurt by Constantine's sponsorship of Christianity, including his instructions to Eusebius to produce 50 parchment codices of the "holy scriptures" for use in newly established churches in the Constantinople area. As Christianity became the favored religion in the Roman world by the end of the 4th century, the use of codices in virtually all areas of published literature was supplanting the older horizontal scroll format, and almost caused scrolls to disappear from medieval memory except in those special uses for which the vertical "rotulus" continued to be used. The mosaics preserved from 4th-6th century Ravenna provide a good starting point to help illustrate the artistic perceptions of the transitions taking place:

Moses on the mountain (receives twin tablets ["diptych"]; scroll, etc.)
   San Vitale (east, north panel) -- Moses receives a scroll from God's hand [image 2, image 3, ]
      (and Moses tends flock, scroll in hand!); see also Sabina panel (scroll?)
      Cosmas MS also seems to have a scroll, and one late depiction opts for a rotulus!
      but often Moses receives a tablet [also here and here] or tablets [image 1, image 2, image 3, ]
      sometimes no object is depicted, as in the Ashburnham Pentateuch (although Moses reads from a double tablet in the scene below) or the object is not entirely clear
   sidenotes: "hand of God" from heaven (Constantine coins), also found in numerous other scenes (e.g. Cain, Abraham, even Jesus)
      usually the hand of Moses is covered for receiving the heavenly object (it "defiles the hands"?)
The Sibyls and Prophets (e.g. San Vitale and Apollinare Nuovo)
   Jeremiah' long scroll (left of Moses on Sinai, San Vitale); compare Mark in 6th c Rossano Gospels and Jesus to Peter
   Elijah (Sinai image) and Ezekiel with rotuli; see also John Baptist (Sinai)
   Isaiah with unopened scroll (San Vitale)
   Michelangelo's Joel ! (other attempted scrolls by Michelangelo seem to be rotuli)
   sidenote: representations of script; rotulus format alongside of horizontal scrolls
[even kings David and Herod used codices!]
[Ezra works with codices  in the 8th c Latin Bible Codex Amiatinus, but a scroll at Dura Europos]
Jesus usually holds a codex, but occasionally an undefined scroll (and here) or a rotulus (and here) (book of life?)
Matthew gets a rotulus in the 13th century, but more usually a codex, sometimes with Hebrew lettering?
   Mark similarly (8th century; see also above on  the "long scroll"), but usually a codex
   and John with undefined scroll as well, but normally a codex
   but in general the Evangelists are imagined writing codices (here, here, here) or having produced codices --
   sidenote: presence of scroll capsae (e.g. San Vitale, Matthew & Luke) even when codices are in view
Paul and the Apostles (e.g. Catacomb, Ravenna)
   Peter with scroll, Paul codex (Sinai panel); Peter codex (Syriac Rabbula Codex); Paul scroll and also capsa
Domatilla catacomb combination of codex and scrolls in capsa

Christian debts to the Jewish heritage(s) of early Christianity?

The Christian involvement in the transition from a scroll technology to that of the codex has been widely discussed and documented in various ways. With rare and relatively uninformed exceptions, the possible Jewish contributions have gone unexplored in any depth. The model of Judaism usually employed in such discussions is drawn from rabbinic traditions, with the prescription of parchment scrolls for scriptures, or at least for Torah as used liturgically. Thanks to a short discussion in Lieberman's Jews/Hellenism, and a followup article by Resnick, the possibility of early Jewish use of notebook codices for basic schooling and advanced private recording of a teacher's halakhic pronouncements gets a nod, but usually as a way of explaining how the early followers of Jesus might have recorded his sayings in codex form, thus starting the Christian codex ball rolling. I know of no careful discussion of the possibility that some Greek speaking Jews were already transmitting some scriptures in codex form in the 2nd century, despite the general consensus that a codex fragment of Greek Genesis from about the end of the 2nd century is probably of Jewish origin (POxy 656). We also know of presumably Jewish scriptural scrolls from the same period or slightly earlier (Job, Esther).

We are dealing here with several "moving targets." On the one hand, there is rapidly disappearing Greek speaking Judaism, which in Egypt suffered a devastating, if not permanent, blow after the uprisings under Trajan, around 115-117 ce, but presumably survived more successfully elsewhere in the Greco-Roman and late antique world(s). There are also the transitions in "book" terminology, trying to keep pace with technological changes, but thereby rendering problematic the exact meaning of certain standard terms such as "volumen" in Latin texts. Greek  terminology sometimes borrowed from the Latin (e.g. membrane, codix), but in general applied the increasingly ambiguous biblos or biblion to all formats. Even terms such as "open" and "close"  (a book) could be applied equally to the different formats (e.g. Lk 4.17-20). For better or worse, assumptions about scripturality and biblical canon also play a role in attempting to understand the surviving evidence from Judaism and Christianity, in various ways. We also have significantly different varieties of early Christianity, in different locations, for which even the 4th century transitions to legality and political power did not produce homogenization. Thus when exploring the development of conceptions of book formats in the surviving evidence (textual, archaeological, and visual), it is difficult to understand fully what that evidence represents.

Conclusions: the State of the Question

 I can offer few conclusions beyond the observation that the currently known evidence permits no clear conclusion regarding the relationship of early Judaism to "codex technology" or the circumstances of the adoption of the codex format as favored by (Egyptian, at least) Christians. Up into the 5th and 6th centuries, and sometimes beyond, some Christian artists and artisans were well aware of the horizontal scroll (the Ravenna mosaics in general abound with scroll depictions of various sorts and in various associations), and vaguely of its connection to Christianity's Jewish past. Whether depictions of vertical scrolls (rotuli) were influenced by known Jewish practices [see e.g. unpublished Cairo Geniza fragments], or mainly by the presence of that format in Christian and other circles is less clear. But increasingly, "book" had come to mean codex, even for depicting Jesus and the earliest representatives of what came to be Christianity, and sometimes for their Jewish predecessors as well. Modern scholarship has rediscovered the ancient horizontal scroll and its connections to early Jewish and early Christian practices, but exactly how it relates to the ascendantcy of codex technology in general, and in those specific groupings, remains largely unresolved.

[end of formal presentation]
 Some Special Bibliography and Online Sites to explore further

Illuminated MSS =
Sinai Images =
Dura Europos =
Early Christian Architecture =
[more] =
Ivories =
San Vitale, Ravenna =
[more] =
[more] =
Ravenna mosaics =
[more] =
selections =|
[more] =
Lucian on buying books for show =
Michelangelo on Prophets/Sibyls = (and the two next pages)
miscellaneous images =
Jewish and Christian papyri remains =

Yadin, "Expedition D" [Bar Kokhba Letters], IEJ 11 (1961) 41 on Aramaic letter on wood leaves (like Vindolanda) --
4 slats, 2 still joined, opens to a  size of 17.5 x 7.5 cm; 2 cols (rt to left), scored to fold wood "and thus formed a kind of pinax"; 9 lines on rt col, 8 on left, in ink (Aramaic). Found in packet between folded papyri (Pl. 22B). "The practice of writing on wood was widespread throughout the Orient, and is often mentioned even in rabbinical literature" (41). From Shim`on Bar Kosiba to Yehonathan and Masabala on three specific issues, signed by Shmuel Bar `Ami.

Verkerk, Dorothy. Early Medieval Bible Illumination and the Ashburnham Pentateuch (Cambridge UP 2004) --
Ashburnham Pentateuch = Paris, Bibl. nat. lat. nouv. acq. 2334 [= G / Turonensis (missing end of Num 36.6b - Deut); "early medieval" (late 6th/early 7th, with later additions, etc.) vellum Christian codex, probably from Italy/Rome (not Spain, as earlier conjectured by Lowe, followed by Bishoff), 18 pages of illustrations and over 100 scenes; attacks theory of Josef Strzygowski that it depends on 3rd c. Jewish book images from Near East (cf Dura Jewish art), as developed by Kurt Weitzman and Ursula Schubert; fol 76r = Moses receiving the law: "Moses, accompanied by Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, approaches the Lord, whose head appears in a cloud at the top of Mount Sinai. Below, in the middle of the page, Moses reads the covenant to the people of Israel, who gather to offer sacrifices, as described in Ex 24.4-8 .... Moses, standing behind a stepped altar of dressed stone, reads from the book of the covenant, portrayed as a diptych ... leget popula librum federis." (90) ... "Rarely is the book of the covenant depicted as a diptych, although this is not unique to the Ashburnham Pentateuch.\109/ (94) -- xerox of relevant pages made by RAK]

Jocelyn P Small. Wax Tablets of the Mind: Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity (Routledge 1997)