From Scroll to Codex—How the Bible Became a Book
OVER the centuries, people have preserved information in many ways. In times past, writers recorded their words on monuments, stone or wood tablets, leaves of parchment, and other materials. By the first century, in the Middle East, the accepted and established format for the written word was the scroll. Then came the codex, which in time replaced the scroll and became the universal means of storing written material. It also contributed greatly to the distribution of the Bible. What was the codex, and how did it come into use?
The codex was the prototype, or earliest form, of today’s book. It consisted of sheets that were folded, assembled, and tied together along the fold. The pages were written on both sides and protected by a cover. The early codex did not look much like the books of today, but as with most other inventions, it was developed and modified according to the needs and preferences of those who used it.
Wood, Wax, and Parchment
Initially, codices were often made of wax-coated wooden tablets. Written waxed polyptychs, or tablets hinged together on their long side, were found at Herculaneum, a town destroyed along with Pompeii by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E. Eventually, rigid tablets were replaced by sheets of foldable material. In Latin, these codices, or books, were called membranae, or parchments, after the leather generally used for their pages.
Some codices that have survived were made of papyrus. The oldest known Christian codices, which were preserved in the dry climate of certain areas of Egypt, are papyri.*
Scroll or Codex?
It appears that Christians used mainly the roll, or scroll, at least until about the end of the first century C.E. The period from the end of the first to the third century C.E. witnessed a struggle between advocates of the codex and those of the scroll. Conservatives, accustomed to using the scroll, were reluctant to give up well-established conventions and traditions. Consider, however, what was involved in reading a scroll. A scroll was usually made up of a standard number of sheets of papyrus or parchment glued together to make a long strip, which was then rolled up. The text was inscribed in columns on the front face of the scroll. To read it, the user unrolled the scroll to find the passage that he wanted. After the reading, he rolled it up again. (Luke 4:16-20) More than one scroll was often needed for a single literary work, making it even more cumbersome to use. Although Christians from the second century on evidently preferred to copy the Scriptures into codex form, use of the scroll continued for centuries. Still, experts believe that the Christians’ use of the codex played a significant role in its widespread acceptance.
The advantages of the codex are obvious—the capacity, the convenience, and the ease in carrying. Even though some in the early days noted these advantages, the majority were slow to give up the use of the scroll. Over the span of several centuries, however, various factors gradually led to the ascendancy of the codex.
Compared with the scroll, the codex was more economical. Both sides of a page could be written on, and several books could be bound in the same volume. According to some, the ease with which specific passages could be located in the codex was fundamental to its success among Christians and such professionals as lawyers. For Christians, compact texts—or simply a handy list of Bible quotations—were extremely useful for the evangelizing work. Furthermore, the codex had a cover, often made of wood, so it was more durable than the scroll.
Codices were also practical for personal reading. By the end of the third century, parchment pocket Gospels were in circulation among professed Christians. Since then, literally billions of copies of the complete Bible or parts of it have been produced in codex form.
Today, many tools have opened the way for quick and easy access to the divine wisdom contained in the Bible. It can be found on computers, audio recordings, and the printed page. Whatever your preferred format of the Bible, cultivate a love for God’s Word, making it your daily concern.—Psalm 119:97, 167.
See the article “The Early Christian Codex,” in the August 15, 1962, issue of The Watchtower, pages 501-5.
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The codex greatly contributed to the distribution of the Bible