Scroll, Codex, and Canons:
the Relationship of Ancient Book Formats to Larger Collections and Anthologies
(with Special Reference to Jewish and Christian Scriptures)


The immediate context of this survey is my attempt to understand more clearly the effects of the technological change in bookmaking techniques from [#1] the horizontal scroll format to the horizontal mega-codex [#2] which seems to have occurred around the 4th century CE. This change is most obvious in Christian circles, and indeed seems to climax after  the official recognition of Christianity by Constantine in the early 4th century. Perhaps a pivotal event for which we have some evidence is [#3] the “request” from Constantine to Eusebius, the Christian leader and scholar in Caesarea on the Palestine Mediterranean coast, to produce 50 copies of “sacred scriptures” for use in the new churches being built in the “new Rome,” Constantinople, at the behest of the Emperor and his mother Helena:
πρέπον γὰρ κατεφάνη τοῦτο δηλῶσαι τῇ σῇ συνέσει, ὅπως ἂν πεντήκοντα σωμάτια ἐν διφθέραις ἐγκατασκεύοις εὐανάγνωστά τε καὶ πρὸς τὴν χρῆσιν εὐμετακόμιστα ὑπὸ τεχνιτῶν καλλιγράφων καὶ ἀκριβῶς τὴν τέχνην ἐπισταμένων γραφῆναι κελεύσειας, τῶν θείων δηλαδὴ γραφῶν, ὧν μάλιστα τήν τ’ ἐπισκευὴν καὶ τὴν χρῆσιν τῷ τῆς ἐκκλησίας λόγῳ ἀναγκαίαν εἶναι γινώσκεις (Vita Constantini 4.36.2).

Although we do not know what was included under the rubric “sacred scriptures” in that context – everything from one or more of the four canonical Christian gospels to the entire biblical canon of Jewish and Christian scriptures has been conjectured – it is clear that by the end of that 4th century there existed [#4] some impressive “mega codices” that contained virtually every book that came to be included in the Christian “bible” and sometimes a few other works as well [#5] -- e.g. the Epistle of Barnabas and Shepherd of Hermas in codex Sinaiticus.  This development, for the Christians involved, made it possible to think of “the bible” as a single physical unit of literature in a way that differed from previous possibilities, when the scriptural writings were available only [#6] as individual scrolls or as single-text codices ("mini-codices" in terms of content)  [#7], or sometimes in relatively small collections (where either a single scroll or a single codex might be used) such as two or more of the gospels, or the letters of Paul, or the twelve “minor prophets” of the Jewish scriptures [#8]

Indeed, the production of these massive “pandects” in which all Christian scriptures were included in a single mega-codex remained exceptional [#9] throughout the period of handwritten manuscripts, until the new technology of the printing press changed things. The time, expense, and expertise needed to copy the complete Christian biblical anthology into a single codex format was prohibitive, even in the active settings of medieval monasteries and scriptoria.

But while the idea of “the bible” as a single physical literary entity “between two covers” that could be carried from place to place without too much effort or special equipment was the result of this 4th century technological advance, it is also clear that in earlier times the limits of technology did not stop people from conceptualizing such a collection as Jewish or Christian scriptures, or their relevant subunits. As nearly as I can determine, this took place especially in two main ways: [#10] through making lists of various sorts, and through physical collections of the relevant individual works [#11]. We have good evidence for both approaches through references in preserved writings from antiquity [#12], and even some visual evidence for how works were sometimes collected, whether [#13] in the form of scrolls or of codices [#14]. For purposes of transportation, the special "capsa" box for scrolls [#15] is also [#15.3] widely attested [#15.2], even when codices are also in use [#16] [#17].

But what happened technologically in the rise of Christianity to recognition and ultimately to dominance in the late antique Mediterranean world is but a drop in the bucket of Greco-Roman history and literary activity. Compared to many of the prodigious and prestigious earlier authors of Greece and Rome, the Christian bible containing perhaps [#18] the equivalent of 46 or so scrolls was small peanuts (roughly equivalent to Homer's Iliad and Odyssey). And “Moses” represented in the first 5 scriptural books (apparently at one time 5 related rolls) pales in comparison to Livy in 142 such book-rolls or the corpora of such authors as Aristotle or Galen in many more scrolls than that [#19]. Of course, it is a somewhat different matter to keep track of the multi-volumed works of a single author (e.g. Tacitus), especially when there may also be a single, often "generic" title for each work (e.g. History, Memorabilia, Epigrams, Odes, etc.), than to keep track of a multiform anthology such as Jewish or Christian scriptures with widely disparate types of material and contexts of origin (not to mention also different languages of origin).  And it is clear that many items from the Greco-Roman world at large did not survive the transition from their origination, through the world of scrolls, to the age of the mega-codex and the printing press, although we sometimes know of them from lists and other similar secondary evidence from antiquity (e.g. the lost Pinakes of Kallimaxos in 120 scrolls or [#20] the elder Pliny’s prefixed bibliography for his Natural History, not to mention [#20.2] known early Christian works that have not survived). 

Libraries, Booksellers, Excerpters, etc. – the problem of collecting for survival and/or circulation.  

The transition from [#21] traditional literary scrolls and less formal tablets and workbooks in various proto-codex formats (e.g. [#22] the vertical workbook, resembling a modern laptop computer!, and the horizontal [#23]) to the developed mega-codex technology of the 4th century and later was gradual and left few explicit traces. Our earliest clear evidence for the use of the codex format for literature comes from the last fifth of the first century CE, from the often satiric and scatological Latin Roman Poet Martial who [#24] in a blatant act of self-promotion refers potential readers to a particular bookseller at a specific address:
Qui tecum cupis esse meos ubicumque libellos
  Et comites longae quaeris habere viae,
Hos eme, quos artat brevibus membrane tabellis:
   Scrinia da magnis, me manus una capit.
Ne tamen ignores ubi sim venalis et erres
  Urbe vagus tota, me duce certus eris:
Libertum docti Lucensis quaere Secundum
   Limina post Pacis Palladiumque forum.

More to the point for present purposes, Martial previously composed a book (presumably at some point it was a separate scroll, the "Apophoreta" = book 14 of the Epigrams) in which he wrote two line epigrams for some 221 imagined gifts to be given (or, "taken away" as favors from the dinner party) at the celebration of Saturnalia, alternating expensive with less expensive items Among those gifts appear several that seem to represent proto-codex notebooks [#25], as well as several that present known authors in scroll and codex formats. Some modern scholars have hailed this development of codex technology as an “innovation,” although Martial gives no indication that it is anything more than a particular option in his world of books and booksellers. I suspect that the wide presence of what I’m calling [#27] “proto-codices” in the school and [#27.2] business contexts of antiquity (including government and law) as well as in the author’s study (for drafts and memoranda) made this more of a natural development than an innovation in that world. 

For legal purposes, the question of what constituted a “book” or the contents of a “library” was also important. [#28] If a person bequeathed their “library” to someone at death, what might it include beyond works in the traditional literary scroll format? Would wax on wood notebooks, or works in process of being written or copied also be covered [#29]?  If someone left their “Homer” to an heir, did that include all the individual scrolls that contained sequential works of Homer (e.g. Iliad 1-10), [#30] or did a single scroll of a Homeric work suffice (e.g. Iliad book 1)? We get a taste of such deliberations in the extant law codes and their preserved layers, although the problem of precise dating of any given judgment is extremely problematic. Still, we see here the codex gaining legal recognition in the complex book worlds of Greco-Roman antiquity. 

The Jewish and Christian situation

Nevertheless, in terms of the physical evidence that survives in the papyri from Egypt and Palestine, it is clear that the codex format came to be used by early Christians much more quickly and extensively than for the southeastern Mediterranean world at large, [#31] with most identifiable Christian works using the codex form already in the 2nd century in Egypt (that is,  from as early as we have access to identifiable Christian materials!), while for the general Egyptian scene apart from identifiable Christian works, the codex does not achieve statistical equality with the scroll until the 4th century  [#32], after which it becomes predominant. In the middle ages, even the old horizontal format of the scroll came to be a vague memory for some, and attempts to represent scrolls often resorted to depicting the still surviving vertical or “rotulus” format, used in Christian liturgy, genealogical lists, and some other contexts  [#33]

Why Christians took so quickly to the use of codices, especially for copying their emerging collections of “scriptures,”  [#34] has been widely debated [#34.2]. Among the more radical judgments that attracted far too much repetition in popular treatments is the claim that Christians “invented” the codex. This is surely not the case. Other explanations sometimes appeal to the advantages of size/portability (something also mentioned by Martial) or economic factors (the codex holds more than a scroll since it uses both sides of the writing surface) or convenience of reference (e.g. for use in arguing from texts). The idea that most early Christians represented the lower classes of first and second century Greco-Roman society also played a role, insofar as it could help explain the codex as popular among the less literate, and less literarily fussy, populace. At this point, Christian use of the codex dovetailed with certain other “scribal features” [#35] in early Christian fragments, features that also seemed to reflect more the vast and variegated world of documents than of literature. At the same time, we should not be surprised to find that [#35.2] some Christians continued to use the scroll format. 

A few more daring arguments for the rapid acceptance of the codex in Christian circles attempted to relate format to issues of “canon,” or the development of specific ideas of what constituted authoritative literature within the emerging Christian communities. [#36] Perhaps the early collection of Paul’s letters, for example, were circulated in codex format, which provided a model for other Christian productions. [#37] Or the Gospel attributed to Mark, which some early traditions associate with Rome, was issued in a codex which then became widely imitated. It has even been suggested that [#38] the four accounts that became the canonical gospels may have been combined in an early codex in an effort to emphasize their authority in reaction to the publication of various other similar “gospel” materials. Each of these suggestions has certain strengths and weaknesses. None of them appear to me to be persuasive, although the exploration of book format in relation to certain types of material seems worth more careful exploration.

An interesting and important impediment to this whole discussion is the largely ignored role of Judaism. Most early Christian ideas and practices derive or relate in one way or another to Judaism, but our precise knowledge of Judaism, and especially Greek or Latin speaking Judaism, in the period in which Christianity takes root is very limited. Prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the mid 1900s, knowledge of early Judaism came either from the later rabbinic sources (notably the Talmuds and related literature) that attested to what became semitic Jewish orthodoxy in the middle ages, or from Jewish sources preserved and sometimes reworked through Christian transmission (especially the “Jewish apocrypha and pseudepigrapha”). The picture that emerged and was widely accepted in modern scholarship was that traditional Jews continued to use scrolls for their scriptures in liturgical contexts (as remains true today), in contrast to the general Christian use of codices. Thus if a fragment from a codex of Jewish scriptures in Greek translation was found among the papyri, [#40 e.g.] it was labeled “Christian” simply because of its codex form. Jews didn’t produce or use scriptural codices. With more discoveries and more reflection, there have arisen some dents in that generalization, but they have seldom been factored into the larger discussion. [#41] The evidence for early Jewish use of notebook codices, based on rabbinic sources, has played a minor role for a few scholars, but again has been relatively muted in the larger discussion.

Prospects -- moving forward?

I think progress is possible in the search to fill out the picture of these technological developments, with appropriate adjustments to the older arguments, as follows:

(1) The omnipresence of the tablet [#42 From Vindolanda Roman fort (modern Chesterholm), Northumberland
Roman Britain, about AD97–103] and tablet-codex throughout the Mediterranean worlds (apparently including semitic Judaism) deserves more attention [#42.2] [#42.3] and helps explain why the technological change in literary circles occasioned little explicit surprise or fanfare. Some recent work on Greco-Roman "school" procedures is especially helpful here (e.g. Raffaela Cribiore, Gymnastics of the Mind: Greek Education in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt [Princeton 2001])

(2) The connections between the functions of notebook codices [#43] (as developed from tablet codices) and particular types of literature (e.g. memoirs, lecture notes) deserves closer exploration – e.g. the claim in Sallustius that Julius Caesar submitted reports on his campaigns in a new format [#44], unlike his predecessors (although it is unclear exactly what the change was) and the publication of Caesar’s Comentarii, along with the statement by the Christian Justin in the mid 2nd century [#45] that he consulted the "Memoirs of the Apostles," which were also called “Gospels.” [#46] The Leuven online catalog of known papyrological discoveries, and especially [#46.2] the "paraliterary,"  will aid tremendously in this sort of investigation.

(3) Further consideration of what might have been happening in Greek and Latin speaking Judaism, apart from what emerged centuries later as rabbinic Jewish orthodoxy, needs to be factored in, especially for filling out the context from which Christian practices emerge – the presence of Greek codex fragments of Jewish scriptures  that do not bear unmistakable Christian features may be more significant than has usually been admitted [#46.3].

(4) Closer attention is warranted to the general influence of “Romanization” -- since our first solid evidence for the literary codex comes from Rome -- that presumably would affect Jews as well as Christians and everyone else during the transition period. [#47] Roger Bagnall has attempted to pursue this approach in his recent ... Lectures (2007).

(5) Further light would be useful on the role of booksellers and professional copyists -- since that early Roman evidence transmitted by Martial is directly connected to marketed items -- including within the context of temples and religious organizations. More evidence for how [#48] private copying took place is also desirable, although I find it difficult to imagine that private practices alone could account for the relatively rapid and widespread technological explosion in early Christian circles.   

My strong suspicion is that early Christians may have inherited an impetus to use codices from the Jewish worlds from which Christianity emerged, and may have applied that format more widely and more naturally for the emerging collection of Christian traditions in the form of epistolary treatises and memoirs. But this leaves me with an interesting dilemma. I can explain how early Christians might have been influenced to develop a preference for the codex by Greco-Roman "paraliterary" habits for recording and transmitting “memoirs” and formal "letters," especially if these Christians were at the same time  inheriting scriptural codices from their Jewish predecessors. But I have not yet been able to imagine a similarly  convincing rationale for the pre-Christian production of Jewish codices of their own scriptures – for which scroll format prevails in the largely semitic Dead Sea Scroll fragments and in a number of early Greek fragments -- unless perhaps some Jewish copyists and/or booksellers began to view portions of what became "scriptures" within the context of transmitting “history” or perhaps “law.” But that sort of excursion is for another time, and any help you can provide would be most appreciated! [#50]