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!
The New Testament on a Roll
There are actually four New Testament manuscripts written on rolls. But all of them are on the backside or the verso side. Something else is written on the front or recto side. These papyrus rolls were reused by Christians—probably on rolls that had been discarded—who simply wanted to have a portion of the Bible at hand. In the Middle Ages, when very little was known about the ancient world, icons (a.k.a. miniatures) of the four Gospel writers (known as evangelists) were created that showed them writing on a codex. But this is historically inaccurate. We do not know exactly when Christians began using the codex-form, but it was most likely close to the beginning of the second century. Since all the Gospels are first-century documents, it is most likely that they were all written on rolls. In 2 Timothy 4.13, Paul asks Timothy to “bring the scrolls, especially the parchments.” The word for scrolls is biblia from which we derive our word Bible. It was the word for book, but was used for scrolls/rolls when Paul wrote this letter.
Some of the Implications for Understanding the New Testament
There are several implications for our understanding of the New Testament when we consider the form of the book then in use.
- The Gospel of Mark almost surely ended at 16.8, with verses 9–20 added in the middle of the second century. Some scholars believe that Mark’s real ending was lost. But that presupposes that the early copies of Mark would have been written on a codex. Codices regularly lose material at the beginning and end of the book, just like modern-day paperback books do. But a roll would have been wound up, with the last section of the book on the inside. It would have been the most protected section of all. Thus, it is more likely that Mark intentionally ended his Gospel with an open-ended conclusion than that the real ending is lost.
- The letter to the Hebrews, like every other New Testament document, would also have been written on a roll. An examination of ancient papyrus letters reveals two types when it comes to the addressee: they are either on the inside of the roll (as in all of Paul’s letters) or the outside. Hebrews was of the latter type. Frequently, because of exposure to the elements and handling by the courier, the addressee on the outside of papyrus rolls has faded. Sometimes the address was written on a label which was then glued to the outside of the roll. Either way, it seems likely that those to whom the letter to the Hebrews was written are unknown because the address was on the outside of the roll. The very form of this book, with the address on the outside, suggests that Paul would not have written Hebrews—as most scholars believe—since it does not conform to his modus operandi seen in all of his letters.
- The book of Revelation speaks of a book that is sealed with seven seals (Rev 6). In order to get to each sealed section, the roll would have to be unwound. Then the wax seal would need to be cut before proceeding. If this book had been a codex, the reader could open the sections in any order, slicing open the seal he or she wanted.
As was mentioned in an earlier article, the very form of the Bible has implications on how it is read and interpreted.