The word “codex” is derived from the Latin word caudex and is applied to early types of tablets, notebooks and book forms. Originally the word meant a tree trunk, but later it conveyed the thought of a block of wood split into tablets or leaves. The early codex was a wood or ivory writing tablet smeared over with wax, which formed a surface on which one could write with a stylus. The individual tablets were bound together by cords, rings or clasps and, when assembled, were called a codex because they looked similar to a tree trunk. Various Bible references may pertain to single tablets of this type used in ancient times for letters, memorandums, schoolwork, bookkeeping and the like. (Isa. 8:1; 30:8; Luke 1:63) However, the early codices were very unwieldy and were impractical for large literary works.
Near the approach of the Common Era, the Romans began to use parchment instead of wood for their notebooks, and they designated such parchment notebooks by the Latin word membranae, meaning “skin prepared for writing.” The apostle Paul used the Greek word mem·braʹnas when he requested Timothy to bring the “parchments.” (2 Tim. 4:13) With the change in material, the codex began to develop rapidly, due to the flexibility of the parchment leaves and the portability of the volume.
The construction of the improved codex was simple and similar in many respects to that of books today. Basically, it consisted of leaves that were often bound between two lids or covers. The leaves were sewed together in groups called “quires” (also known as signatures, or gatherings). The later codices generally contained quires prepared by folding several sheets of papyrus or parchment in half and thus forming twice as many leaves. In time, four or five sheets, which made a quire of eight to ten pages, were found to be most convenient for binding. The sheets of each quire were sewed together before they were stacked and bound between the two lids, to complete the codex. Early experiments produced some extreme types of codices. One was composed of one large single quire that was sewed down the center fold. The edge of this type of codex had to be trimmed, because when it was closed the center pages protruded like a wedge beyond the outer pages. This created a problem, since these center pages were much narrower than the others. Another early type was made up of single-sheet quires. Each sheet was folded individually and stacked one on top of the other before they were sewed together to form a single codex. But neither of these types achieved popularity, the multiple-quire codex becoming the most acceptable.
After the transition of the codex from notebook to book form, the superiority of the codex over the traditional scroll became apparent. For example, a scroll 104 feet (c. 31.7 meters) long might be needed to contain the four Gospels, whereas one compact codex could accommodate them all. In addition, the codex was more economical, since it was possible to write on both sides of a page. Furthermore, the lids afforded excellent protection for the contents, and various references could be located quickly without the tedious manipulation of scrolls.
Archaeological findings, especially at Fayum and Oxyrhynchus in Egypt, vouch for the rapid development of the codex by the early Christians. Although papyrus deteriorates quickly in damp earth, Egypt’s very dry soil has preserved over one hundred papyrus codices of the Scriptures (or fragments thereof) written before the end of the fourth century C.E. It is observed that practically all second-century papyrus Bible manuscripts are codices, whereas only 2.4 percent of the total pagan literature finds of the same period were codices. This strongly suggests that the early Christians discarded the conventional scroll for the more convenient codex very early in Christian times, and this was a factor that played an important part in its development.
Because of the perishable nature of papyrus, vellum or parchment superseded it as a writing material for Bible manuscripts during the fourth century C.E. This durable codex material was used until the fourteenth century, when paper became popular. Most of the important Bible manuscripts extant today are those written on vellum. In making the codex, vellum was used like papyrus, except that the leaves of the quires were arranged so that the sides of the skins matched each other. When the vellum codex was opened, both pages facing the reader would be either the flesh side or the hair side. Guidelines were often drawn with a sharp tool to create impressions on both sides of the page to guide the writer’s pen.—See BOOK; MANUSCRIPTS OF THE BIBLE.