Lecture 19: Manuscripts and Codexes | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 19: Manuscripts and Codexes

Course: Why We Trust Our Bible

Lecture: Manuscripts and Codexes


I. The Early Church and a Culture of Textuality

So when we ask the question about how the canon developed in early Christianity and who received it and what books were being used. There are multiple ways to answer that question and the most common way is what I call patristic citations. In other words, in asking what books the church received, you simply look at what the church fathers were quoting. That is one way to do it. What you will discover is that most books of the canon will go that route. It looks at what the church fathers say or how they use a book. But there is a whole other area that you can explore that tells us a lot about the early canon that is often overlooked and that is the use of early Christian manuscripts. We can learn about what books Christians were reading and what books they preferred to use and which books they would have regarded as important by the manuscripts they leave behind. We know that Christians had a culture of textuality. What we mean by this is that Christians were a bookish religion. They used books in great numbers; they copied them, they read them, they taught from them. We have the remnants of those books still in the historical record. So when we ask what make Christianity unique, just like Judaism, Christianity used books in their religious activities. And they used those books in great numbers. So because Christianity had this culture, we can look at those manuscripts they left behind and we can learn a lot about the canon from these books. This opens up a whole universe to use that typically isn’t considered at all. There are lots of different ways to ascertain as to what the manuscripts tell us.

The manuscripts or the fragments left behind tell us which books were popular in early Christianity. We can see how they are by simply counting them. If we can see how many manuscripts left behind of certain books, we know those books were copied more often and probably read more often and therefore more popular. In the 2nd and 3rd centuries with the earlier generations of Christians, we see the books that eventually made it into the New Testament. They were copied much more than books that we refer to as New Testament Apocrypha. So we have over sixty manuscripts from the 2nd and 3rd century of such New Testament books and we look at the comparable works of the New Testament Apocrypha in that same period of time, it is not even close. This tells us when you ask the question about which books Christians were reading, it looks a lot like it was those books that made it into the New Testament. We can see that the popularity of books can be ascertained by the sheer number of manuscripts that are remnant.

The other thing that we can learn about the canon from Christians is the way in which they used a distinctive book format. When people think about ancient books, they typical think about scrolls. And in the ancient world of the 1st century when Christianity was born, what is interesting is that Christianity was born into a world that vastly preferred the scroll from other kinds of writing. They came from a Jewish heritage that preferred the scroll. The Greco-Roman world preferred the scroll for its literature and what we call literary documents. But yet, when Christians started to write by way of the codex, this was something very interesting. They didn’t use the scroll; in fact they use a distinctive book technology, what we call a codex. This is actually what we still use today; the codex was a typical leaf book where there was writing on both sides of the page and the pages are bound at the spine. Whereas the scroll, writing was only on one side of the page. Christians had this distinctive book technology which they adopted in a very early time period, probably by the turn of the 1st or 2nd century. In fact, it was so widespread that we can hardly find a New Testament book in early Christianity not written on a codex. There are hardly any. Every time we find a copy of a New Testament book even as far back as the 2nd century, it is always on a codex. This raises the question in regards to why Christians preferred the codex. There is a long-standing debate about this but the answer, generally speaking, is that the codex allowed Christians to group books together. It allowed Christians to link multiple books in a single volume in a way that would allow them to have a sort of beginning canon. Most people think that the codex was chosen because it could hold all four Gospels in a single volume. Others suggested that it was because of Paul’s letters which could be put into a single volume. Regardless of whether it was the Gospels or Paul’s letters or something else; but it seems that the emergence of the codex was associated with the emergence of the canon. You could almost say that the adoption of the codex is a symptom of the canonical process. It is an example of how Christians wanted to lump and connect together multiple books in a single volume. This was something that a codex could easily do.

II. What about the Four Canonical Gospels with an Apocryphal Gospel.

One of the things that were also interesting about the Codex, very quickly Christians began to put multiple Gospels in a single codex. We have codices that contain just one Gospel; for example P66, an example of a late 2nd-century codex that contains the Gospel of John. Then we have other Gospel codices that contain multiple Gospels, like P75 or P45 and we have many later multi-Gospel codices. So Christian began to take multiple Gospels and put them into the same volume. What is interesting here, when we see Christians do that, we never have an incident where there is a mix of canonical and Apocrypha Gospels. This is a stunning fact in early Christian manuscripts. For example, we never see codices that contain: Matthew, Mark and Thomas or Matthew, Luke and Peter or Matthew, John and Mary. But critical scholars are always telling us that in the early century that Christians read everything with no priority in reading any particular book; it was a literary free for all and that apocryphal books were just as popular as canonical books, etc. If that was true, you would expect to see jumbling of Gospels. They would be mixed up with canonical and apocryphal Gospels within the same codex and only later were they split up, but that is not what we find. As far back as we can go when Gospels were joined, it was always Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. So, it seems from a very early point Christians weren’t confused about what to read when it comes to the Gospels. It was fairly clear, when you were looking for the primary sources for Jesus: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were the first places to go.

III. The Frequency of Public Reading

One of the interesting things about the Christian use of the codex is not that they just used the codex which is interesting in its own right. But it is the particular Scribal features in the codices that Christians made. What we often see in Christian codices is that they have been written for public reading. Now, people may hear that and think that all people were written for public reading. No, they weren’t. In the Greco-Roman world, books were written in such a way that they were more like works of art than being designed for public reading. The lines were very tight, no spaces between letters, no reading aids or punctuation aids. It was more of a high piece of art in some way rather than be destined for practical reading. It doesn’t mean that the Greco-Roman world didn’t read those books. But certainly, they were more for display if you want to think of it that way rather than functionality. When we look at Christian codices, they were very different in that they were clearly written not to be put on display but they were written for a particular function, that is, for public reading. We see this by seeing a lot more space between lines thus helping the reader in the reading process. They had less letters per page, they spaced thing out to also help with reading. They also had more punctuation, more reader’s aids. There was reading marks, other kinds of pauses, spaces, middle points, all designed to help the reader to read. This tells us that these Gospels were designed to be read publicly. We also know that such a book would have a certain level of authority. If you read a book in church, it would be similar to reading a book in the synagogue. In would be indicative that it was a Scriptural book. In fact, Paul tells us that he wanted his letters to be read publically in the church. Putting all this information together, it tells us that when Christians were copying these books, even the format in which they were copied tells us that Christian valued them in a Scriptural way. They valued them as public reading documents. This tells us of the concept of a canon was actually very early. It was as far back as these manuscripts take us which were as far back as the 2nd century. It also tells us that it wasn’t a late idea but a very early one.

Biblical Training

The BiblicalTraining app gives you access to 2,300 hours of instruction (129 classes and seminars). Stream the classes, or download and listen to them offline. Share classes via social media, email, and more.