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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive The Myth of the Paperless Church: Codex, Cognition, and Christianity

Harold P. Scanlin

[1]What is the interrelationship between form, particularly the codex form, and function as it affects the way we think about things? The Myth of the Paperless Office, by Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper, explains why the bold assertions of computer gurus in past decades that paper would disappear in the offices of the twenty-first century have not come true. In fact, a peek into many offices, mine included, reveals more than one computer, high speed access to the Internet, dozens of CD-ROM resources and ever-growing piles of papers and books. The reason for the failure of optimistic predictions on how to do away with paper and save trees is not that we all need just one more piece of software or a better and faster computer. The real reason why paper refuses to go away, according to Sellen and Harper, is its affordances:

XXXXAn affordance refers to the fact that the physical properties of an object make possible different functions for the person perceiving or using that object. In other words, the properties of objects determine the possibilities for action.

The physical properties of paper (its being thin, light, porous, opaque, flexible, and so on) afford many different human actions. . . .These affordances of paper, then, are about what people can do with paper, and as a corollary, what can't be done with a computer. If paper is used to make different kinds of objects, those objects take on a different set of affordances. For example, bind the pieces of paper together in a book, and it affords flicking through and reading from. Its fixed arrangement of pages affords placeholding and knowing where you are within a book.[2]

Of course digital technologies have their own affordances, such as the conveniences of information entry and data manipulation, which have revolutionized academic study and the way we handle information. But there has been an increasing awareness of the down side of some aspects of digital information.

An electronic copy of the United Bible Societies (UBS) Greek New Testament recorded on a reel of magnetic computer tape can be searched, copied, transferred, and used to do the many flexible things that can be done with electronic texts. But there is a problem: to "read" this text on computer tape requires access to a mainframe computer and a knowledge of the "Extended Binary-Coded Decimal Interchange Code." Although many software developers have conveniently transferred the data into compatible form, these tapes are still the only authoritative electronic reference copy of the UBS Greek New Testament, Second Edition. And there are many thousands of other electronic documents in danger of permanent elimination after a relatively short life of only a few decades.[3]

Contrast this state of affairs with a researcher who wants to check the accuracy of the text of the Latin Bible first published over 550 years ago. Fifty copies still exist and will likely survive even after we can no longer "read" the more accessible and convenient Gutenberg Digital CD version of the copy in Göttingen.[4]. On the other hand, there is a synergy between the durability of the printed Gutenberg Bibles and the accessibility of the e-version, which demonstrates that the two forms are not enemies but partners. Not to be overlooked is the accessibility of the CD version for a mere $50, versus the $5 million auction price for one of the fifty surviving copies.

The Birth of the Codex

We take for granted the book as the standard physical medium for any extended piece of text, failing to recognize that it was an innovation developed thousands of years after the invention of writing. The book assembles a set of leaves, written on both sides and bound together at the folds to form a multi-page codex, thus making the text accessible at a multitude of entry points and providing a portable, compact, and user-friendly reading device.

The precise origins of the codex are not altogether clear, but its precursors were probably wax tablets, often hinged together, known to exist at least as early as the first century BCE. Wax tablets were handy for note taking and letter drafting, and they even afforded the opportunity for reuse, if desired. It was not a big leap to substitute other materials that benefited equally from the codex form. Letters and eventually literary compositions benefited from the advantages of the codex. 2 Tim 4:13 records Paul's request for "ta biblia, malista tas membranas"variously translated "the scrolls and parchments" (NIV) or "my books and papers" (NLT).

Contrast this with the scrolls used by the Jewish communities at the time of Jesus. Jesus himself found the passage Isa 61:1-2 in a scroll used at the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-20). The 800+ Jewish documents found at Qumran were written on scrolls. While there are indications that readers acquired great dexterity in manipulating scrolls, they were no match for the codex. As Callimachus, a cataloguer of books at the great library of Alexandria, is reported to have said, "A big roll is a big nuisance."[5]

Recognizing the codex as a reader-friendly medium, and undoubtedly seeing it as an ideal format for compiling letters, the early Christians were quick to collect Paul's letters in this form. The earliest manuscript containing substantial portions of New Testament text is Papyrus 46 (now in Chester Beatty Library, Dublin, and the University of Michigan). Eighty-six of the original 104 leaves of the codex survive today, complete with page numbers and some additional readers' aids.[6] The manuscript dates from approximately 200 CE. Although a date as early as the late first century CE has recently been suggested,[7] I, and many others, still prefer the 200 date.

A recent survey by Peter M. Head of the New Testament manuscripts found at Oxyrhynchus, Egypt, confirms the early existence of codices that assembled Paul's letters into a single manuscript.[8] By contrast, Head maintains that there is no conclusive evidence for any four Gospel collections at Oxyrhynchus. Manuscript evidence of such collections must await the third-century P45, likely containing only the Gospels and Acts, and fourth-century Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus, both originally containing the entire Old and New Testaments, plus several of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Christians probably first chose Paul's letters for compilation in codex form since this was the early purpose for the development of the codex form. Although we may yet find an early four-gospel manuscript, it does appear that this was a subsequent development, which, nevertheless, followed relatively shortly after the Pauline letter collections.

The early and pervasive adoption of the codex by Christians has been discussed extensively in recent times. It should be borne in mind that Christians did not "invent" the codex, as has sometimes been stated in the past, but the evidence is clear that the preponderance of early (i.e., second and third century) codices were Christian compositions.[9] Numerous reasons have been suggested for the adoption of the codex, mostly practical in nature. Economically, the flourishing papyrus industry in Egypt undercut the costs of leather prepared for writing. The codex could readily use both sides of a leaf, although this practice was not unheard of on scrolls (see for example, Ezek 2:9-10, Zech 5:3, and Rev 5:1). On the other hand, reading the obverse and reverse of a scroll panel would present a real challenge, especially if the front and back were continuous text.

The Impact of the Adoption of the Codex on Christianity

1.The use of the codex is consistent with the view that Christianity is a religion founded on writable revelation. This theological perspective was shared by Judaism, although the production of scriptures was restricted to the scroll. Even after the codex was acceptable for the production of Hebrew Bibles and other Jewish texts, only the scroll was to be used for liturgical reading.

The oldest surviving Hebrew codex (T.-S. 6H9 to 6H21), dated to the eighth century CE by paleography and formal features, is a papyrus manuscript of Shaveh-Kiriathaim by Joseph bar Nissan. The earliest Jewish codex with a dated colophon is the well-known Cairo Codex to the Prophets, although the accuracy of the date as given, 894/895, has been called into question. The earliest undisputed colophon date of 903/904 appears in a very fragmentary codex containing parts of Ruth and Nehemiah. From the tenth century the codex, including biblical texts such as the Aleppo, Leningradensis codices, and others, rapidly becomes the predominant medium except for Torah scrolls. According to Saul Lieberman, Jewish employment of the codex form may, however, go back to a much earlier period: "Most of the Rabbis who are reported to have put down the Halakhoth of their masters on codices . . . flourished in the first half of the third century."[10]

Several fragmentary manuscripts found in the Dead Sea area contain writing on both recto and verso. They, like the 4Q250 series written in the cryptic script(s), are much too fragmentary to draw any conclusions. From Jericho we have an Aramaic list of loans written on both recto and verso. None of these manuscripts can be described as literary compositions, so they may lend support to Lieberman's argument for a limited use of the codex form in the earlier period.

The general paucity of extant Jewish manuscripts for the period from the third to the eighth centuries should prompt due caution in making any definitive statements about the time of the introduction of the codex for Jewish writing. However, it should be added that the little manuscript evidence we do have is almost all in scroll form. In parchment we have a portion of Numbers 3 and 4 (State Museum of Berlin, P 10598); two columns from Exodus 9-13 (Jews' College, London) dating from the eighth century according to Solomon Birnbaum, but the tenth century according to Colette Sirat; two or three scrolls (four fragments) of portions of Kings and Job (Antinoopolis 47-50). Papyrus rolls, although not containing biblical texts, are more numerous.[11]

How can one account for the major rise in the popularity of the codex, to the virtual exclusion of the scroll except for Torah scrolls? Perhaps technological innovation in book production in the East and the impact of the Karaite movement prompted this virtual revolution.

2. A related and derived view of Christianity was the translatability of Christian Scriptures. The Jewish community developed Aramaic "targumim" when the religious community could no longer understand the original Hebrew. Yet the Targumim always stood apart from the sacred text. When the Jewish community was confronted with the necessity of providing a Greek translation for the Jews of Alexandria and elsewhere, they did so willingly but ultimately developed ambivalent feelings about the nature and status of this translation, especially when it was co-opted by Christians for the first part of their Bibles. Jews never completely abandoned their Greek version, but pious translators undertook revisions, and their theologians stressed the unique authority of the Hebrew text. Christians, on the other hand, happily produced diglot editions and made translations a top priority. A notable example is Codex Bezae, a Greek-Latin diglot edition of the Gospels and Acts. All this may not have been a direct consequence of the adoption of the codex, but "the book" provided an inviting medium to make this all the more effective.

3. The use of the codex took the view of a unified and unifying corpus of authoritative texts to the next level. Jews had already utilized the scroll to call attention to the divine presence, not in images but in authoritative word — Torah. Christianity went even further. Scrolls, even with identifying "library shelf tags" attached to their end (some of which have been found among the Dead Sea Scrolls), were still just stacks of scrolls on a library shelf. Even putting all five books of the Torah on a single scroll presented a real challenge for logistic and practical reasons. Christians happily assembled first the Pauline letter collection, then the four gospels, followed by the rest of the New Testament and ultimately the Greek translation of the Jewish Scriptures. This assemblage of authoritative texts provided a theological corpus in handy form with an implied authoritativeness by the very presence together of what might otherwise be considered a disparate group of texts.

4. The next logical step was considerations of canon and canonicity. At this point I should define what I mean by "canon." The formal process of canon considerations is a relatively late, perhaps fourth century, concern. The use of the word "canon" for earlier considerations of authoritativeness of sacred texts is anachronistic. Formal "rules" (which is really what canon means) were, in part, prompted by the emergence of the codex itself, especially when the great, comprehensive codices were created around the fourth century.

Robert A. Kraft puts it this way:

XXXXBut 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 fourth-century technological developments. Before that, it seems to me, things were less "fixed," and perceptions, accordingly, less concrete.[12]

This does not deny, in any way, the community consciousness of authoritative texts. Take, for example the situation at Qumran. In all their literature there is not a word about canonization, apart from a passing reference to three types of sacred literature, Torah, prophets and hymns — a phrase intriguingly similar to Luke 24:44. These references reflect a consciousness of authoritative scriptures, but no clue as to the specifics of what's in and what's out. The so-called Council of Jamnia, may have discussed a few individual cases, but there is no evidence the council ever made comprehensive pronouncements on the Jewish canon.[13]

Although evidence for comprehensive discussions of canonicity during the period is lacking, there are some contemporary analogous statements made about Greek and Roman literature. For example, for Dio Cassius (164-229 CE) Thucydides was "the canon."[14] Actual lists of authoritative works began to show up as early as the third to second centuries BCE. In Alexandria, the phrase, "the select authors," was being used to categorize certain works as enjoying a special status. Thus, the concept of authoritative text was current during the Qumran era, even if there is no direct evidence of the existence of such lists in the community's literature. Another issue, the degree of textual stability of authoritative texts, still remains; this is a subject we cannot pursue here.[15]

Even the great codices of the fourth and fifth centuries may reflect an intermediate stage in the development of canon. What could appropriately be put between the two (black?) covers of a codex? It was undoubtedly clear by then what was not to be included, but it may be somewhat surprising that some of the books we now call "Apostolic Fathers" were included. Sinaiticus contains Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas; Alexandrinus has First and Second Clement and lists the Psalms of Solomon in the table of contents. Keep in mind, too, that these codices also included the longer Greek version of Esther, the supplements to the book of Daniel, and other Deuterocanonica/Apocryphal books. What are we to make of this? Perhaps it means nothing more than it was acceptable to include "non-inspired" but edifying books, not unlike what we might find between the two covers of a study Bible today. But it may reflect a stage in thinking about the codex as Christian library.

The formalization of canon decisions may have also been part of ongoing Jewish-Christian polemics, which seemed at first to tacitly share a common corpus of scripture but eventually involved arguments about the authoritative texts themselves.

5. Letter writing in the Greco-Roman world was a popular, well-developed phenomenon, utilizing a variety of styles for a variety of functions. The earliest New Testament writers, especially Paul, utilized the letter form to communicate the Christian message. Harry Gamble concludes, "On the whole, early Christian letters combine the familiarity of the private letter, the authority and community address of the official letter, the expository and didactic function of the philosophical letter."[16] By their very content and the prestige of the letter writer, Paul's letters were accepted by the recipient churches as authoritative.[17] As in the case of the codex form itself, the early Christians did not invent the idea of letter writing, but utilized existing genres and transformed them into an effective communication method. Combining the two phenomena, the letter genre gained a higher theological status among its readers when it became a letter collection in codex form, an intended consequence of the scribes who compiled the collections.

Harold Scanlin, until his recent retirement, was Consultant on Scholarly Editions and Helps, United Bible Societies, and now serves as Adjunct Professor of Old Testament at the Evangelical School of Theology, Myerstown, PA.

[1] Excerpts from the W. S. Sailer Lecture, delivered at the Evangelical School of Theology, Myerstown, PA, on January 28, 2003. The lecture in its original form will be published in Evangelical Journal 22 (2004). For SBL Forum I have added a short section on the Jewish use of the codex.

[2] A. Sellen and R. Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Boston: MIT Press, 2002), 17-18. To give just one example, Word Biblical Commentary series on CD-ROM (Waco, TX: Nelson/Word, 1998) is a valuable compilation of an important commentary series that can be globally searched for relevant words and topics. However, reading from thousands of pages of text on a computer screen is a daunting task. The text is riddled with display glitches, albeit minor, that would not be tolerated in a print version. And when the user is moving seamlessly among many commentaries by different authors, the evaluative filter of authorship is lost.

[3] Anick Jesdanun, "Coming Soon: A Digital Dark Age?" (Associated Press, 2003),

[4] Gutenberg Digital: The Göttingen Gutenberg Bible, Model Book and Helmasperger's Notarial Instrument. (Munich: K. G. Saur Electronic Publishing, 2000).


[6] One of the first things students of New Testament textual criticism learn is the use of scriptio continua (continuous writing with no spaces between words) in the major early Greek uncial manuscripts. This is quite true and the source of numerous textual variants. However, even when scriptio continua was used in these manuscripts a variety of other graphic features serving as readers' aids were incorporated in the manuscript, e.g. paragraph indents, or more typically, text extended beyond the left margin to mark the beginning of a new reading unit. Harold H. Oliver provides an extensive catalog of this type of phenomena in his "'Helps for Readers' in Greek New Testament Manuscripts," ThM thesis, Princeton Theological Seminary, 1955. A new level of interest in the topic, recently called "delimitation criticism," is found in a new series of publications Pericope: Scripture as written and read in antiquity (Assen: Van Goricum, 2000 - ). To date four volumes have appeared in the series, mostly dealing with the Old Testament, but the Pericope seminar has also considered the New Testament.

[7] Y. K. Kim Biblica 69 (1988): 248-257.

[8] P. M. Head, "Early New Testament Manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus and the Development of the New Testament Canon" (Society of Biblical Literature; Toronto, 2002).

[9] E. G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977).

[10] Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1950), 204.

[11] See Colette Sirat's catalog in Les papyrus en caractères hébraïques trouvés en Égypte (Paris: CNRS, 1985).

[12] Robert Kraft, The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 233.

[13] See Jack Lewis' essay in McDonald 2002, and his earlier works cited there.

[14] John F. A. Sawyer, Sacred Languages and Sacred Texts (London and New York: Routledge, 1999).

[15] For a brief discussion of this topic, see H. P. Scanlin, "Text, Truth and Tradition: The Public's View of the Bible in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls," in The Bible as Book: The Hebrew Bible and the Judean Desert Discoveries, (ed. E. Herbert and E. Tov; London: British Library, 2002), 289-299.

[16] Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (New Haven: Yale, 1995), 37.

[17] Paul's comments at one point, "This is only my suggestion. It's not meant to be an absolute rule," (1 Cor 7:6, NLT) can be viewed as a rhetorical device that serves to contrast that remark with the main body of the letter.

For Further Reading
M. Beit-Arié, "Some Codicological Observations on the Early Hebrew Codex," Quinio: International Journal on the History and Conservation of the Book 1 (1999): 25-40.

R. Chartier, "Adoption of the Codex," (2000).

D. Crystal, Language and the Internet (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

R. J. Decker, "Communicating the Text in the Postmodern Ethos of Cyberspace: Cautions Regarding the Technology and the Text," Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal 5 (2000): 45-70.

J. K. Elliott, "Manuscripts, the Codex and the Canon," Journal for the Study of the New Testament 63 (1996): 105-23.

E. J. Epp, "Issues in Interrelation of New Testament Textual Criticism and Canon," The Canon Debate, L. (ed. M. McDonald and J. A. Sander; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 485-515.

R. M. Fowler, "The Fate of the Notion of Canon in the Electronic Age," (1994).

---, "How the Secondary Orality of the Electronic Age Can Awaken Us to the Primary Orality of Antiquity," (1994).

H. Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995).

---, "The Pauline Corpus and the Early Christian Book," Paul and the Legacies of Paul (ed. W. S. Babcock; Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist University Press, 1990), 265-80.

M. Gladwell, "The Social Life of Paper: Looking for Method in the Mess," The New Yorker (March 25, 2002): 92-6.

M. Glatzer, "The Book of Books-From Scroll to Codex and into Print." In Jerusalem Crown: Companion Volume, (ed. Mordechai Glatzer; Jerusalem: Ben-Zvi Printing, 2002), 61-101 [English], 41*-66* [Hebrew].

K. Haines-Eitzen, Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmitters of Early Christian Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

P. M. Head, "Early New Testament Manuscripts from Oxyrhynchus and the Development of the New Testament Canon" (Society of Biblical Literature; Toronto, 2002).

R. A. Kraft, "The Codex and Canon Consciousness," The Canon Debate (ed. L. M. McDonald and J. A. Sanders; Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 229-33.

E. B. Loizeaux and Neil Fraistat, Reimagining Textuality: Textual Studies in the Late Age of Print (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002).

J. McGann, Radiant Textuality: Literature after the World Wide Web (New York: Palgrave, 2001).

I. M. Resnick, "The Codex in Early Jewish and Christian Communities," The Journal of Religious History 17(1992): 1-17.

E. R. Richards, "The Codex and the Early Collection of Paul's Letters," Bulletin for Biblical Research 8 (1998): 151-66.

C. H. Roberts, Manuscript, Society and Belief in Early Christian Egypt (London: British Academy, 1979).

C. H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: The British Academy, 1987).

N. Sarna, "Introduction: The Codex Form." In The Pentateuch: Early Spanish Manuscript (Codex Hillely from the Collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York; Jerusalem: Makor, 1974).

H. P. Scanlin, "Text, Truth and Tradition: The Public's View of the Bible in the Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls," The Bible as Book: The Hebrew Bible and the Judean Desert Discoveries, (ed. E. Herbert and E. Tov; London: British Library, 2002), 289-299.

D. D. Schmidt, "The Greek New Testament as a Codex," The Canon Debate (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002) 469-84.

A. J. Sellen and R. H. R. Harper, The Myth of the Paperless Office (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002).

T. C. Skeat, "The Origin of the Christian Codex," Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 102 (1994): 263-8.

M. Slouka, War of the Worlds: Cyberspace and the High-Tech Assault on Reality (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

J. P. Small, Wax Tablets of the Mind. Cognitive Studies of Memory and Literacy in Classical Antiquity (London and New York: Routledge, 1997).

D. Trobisch, Paul's Letter Collection: Tracing the Origins (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1994).

---, The First Edition of the New Testament (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000).

E. G. Turner, The Typology of the Early Codex (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1977).

Citation: Harold Scanlin, " The Myth of the Paperless Church: Codex, Cognition, and Christianity," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2004]. Online:


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