(Pictured above: A modern re-creation of what a first century Gospel of John codex may have looked like. Notice the nice leather binding!)

So last night I spent a lot of time mentioning “the codex,” and only briefly explained its significance. So what is it?

Here’s a bit of info from the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts:

Christians and the Codex

It might surprise you to know that New Testament manuscripts were not written on scrolls. Most people think that the form of the modern book, known as the codex, was not invented until the Middle Ages. A codex is a book written on both sides of the page, with cut pages, bound on one side. In other words, a book! The roll or scroll was written only on one side as a rule, and it had columns with continuous pages stitched together. The codex was invented in the late first century AD. Christians may not have invented it, but they were the first ones to popularize it. For the first five centuries AD, eighty percent of all Christian books were on a codex while only twenty percent of all non-Christian books were written on a codex. For the first time in Christian history, followers of Christ were ahead of the technological curve!

 Here’s a breakdown I found online:

  1. A “codex” is a fancy word for “book format” with a binding, as opposed to a scroll format.
  2. Codices were used in the ancient world in the first century for secular purposes. Scrolls on the other hand were almost the exclusive format used for the Old Testament.
  3. It seems that Christians broke with Jewish tradition and began using the codex format from the very earliest time. This is quite striking. After this point scripture began to be copied in the codex format.

The point of knowing all of this is that the very form Christian texts we’ve discovered from the first  couple centuries after Christ can gives us some great information on how the New Testament was formed. For instance, here’s the info on the slides from last night which I skipped over:

1. We’ve discovered many more “canonical” books then those which are not in the canon.  The manuscripts that were copied and preserved are overwhelmingly the New Testament books, not other books. This shows us what early Christians thought were the most valuable, what they read, copied, and preserved. For example:  We have 40 fragments of the four canonical Gospels vs. 9 fragments of non-canonical Gospels  (late 2nd or 3rd Century)

2. There is a pattern in the physical form of the writings that have been preserved, which seems to run like this:

Codex = Scripture
Scroll = Not Scripture

Of our 40 Canonical Gospels Fragments: 39 are in a Codex and 1 is on an opisthograph (a previously used scroll written on the outside for personal use)

But of the 9 non-canonical Gospel fragments, 4 are in a Codex and 5 are Scrolls. We have discovered no canonical gospels written on a new, unused scroll. Findings like this prompt New Testament scholar Larry Hurtado to say: “It is reasonable to judge that the use of a roll to copy a text signals that the copyist and/or user for whom the copy was made did not regard that text (or at least that copy of that text) as having scriptural status.”

3. There are standard features in these collections. There’s regularly four to the set: 1. The Gospels; 2. Paul’s letters; 3. The Catholic epistles; 4. Revelation.  There tends to be a standard order within each collection: Generally it’s Matthew, Mark Luke and John within the gospel collection. Although there were exceptions to the ordering of the books, they were often very similar. There’s a standard number of writings within each collection: 4 gospels, 13 or 14 of Paul’s letters etc., 7 Catholic epistles, Revelation.

So the use of the codex by early Christians allowed us to read the archaeological evidence to see things like–did the people who made this document think it was scriptural or not?

And then there’s the fact that the codex was often made by binding together separate documents to make one book. This was a physical way to create a canon, and to say which books were “in” and which were “out” of the group. So when Early Christians wanted to create the authoritative edition of the Gospel, all they had to do was bind together the four apostolic accounts, and exclude all others. Which is, in fact, what we have discovered in the evidence. This quote from last night is huge:

“There are no manuscripts that contain say, Matthew, Luke, and Peter, or John, Mark, and Thomas. Only the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were considered as scriptural and then as canonical. It could be that the reason why the Christians adopted the codex long before anyone else was to safeguard the four Gospels from either addition or subtraction.” (J.K. Elliott, “Manuscripts, Codex and Canon”)

 These articles by Michael Kruger get into some more detail:

Did Paul Himself Create the Very First New Testament Canon? : “If [the] “parchments” in 2 Tim 4:13 contained copies of Paul’s letters in a codex, then this opens up fresh insights the development of the New Testament canon.  Such a scenario might begin to answer the question of why early Christians preferred the codex over the scroll.   Since Paul had already begun to use the codex to contain his letters it is not difficult to imagine that early Christians would have retained that format when it became desirable to circulate a defined Pauline letter collection more broadly to the churches.  Moreover, this scenario provides a compelling explanation for why some letters of Paul were preserved for the church and some letters were ultimately lost (1 Cor 5:9).” 

Apocryphal Books in Early Christian Codices: Evidence for their Canonical Status?

 Finally, these articles (which are included on the CD I handed out last night) contain more info on all this.