by Clark Bates
It might seem like an oxymoron, but while a large portion of the earliest Christians were illiterate, Christianity itself carved out a niche for itself as one of the most “bookish” religions in the Greco-Roman world. The sheer quantity of New Testament manuscripts available, with more still being discovered today, testify to this fact and provide a critical clue, for historians and theologians alike, as to how central canonical books were to the community of burgeoning Christians. So prolific was this literary dissemination, that it becomes clear that a commitment to an authoritative body of Scripture was a very early development in the Christian faith.
The Collection of Early Manuscripts
The “embarrassment of riches” that are New Testament Manuscripts aside, an often overlooked, but equally important historic feature is the habit of combining various New Testament books into a single Manuscript. While it’s true that our earliest complete codices date into the fourth centuries, there are still connections between books in the earlier centuries that can be said to “anticipate what would eventually become the four New Testament collection units: the four Gospels, the Pauline Epistles, Acts/General Epistles, and Revelation.”
An example of such a collection is the second century manuscript known as P75. This manuscript was found in the 1950’s as one of the famed Bodmer Papyri and currently resides in the Vatican Library. It’s dating is estimated between AD175 – 225 and contains approximately half of the Gospel of Luke and the Gospel of John. A fascinating aspect of P75 is that the ending of the Gospel of Luke appears on the same page as the beginning of the Gospel of John rather than the following Gospel opening on its own leaf. The remnants of this manuscript consist of 102 pages, but it’s surmised to have originally contained 144. These missing pages are thought by some to have once contained the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as well. If the arguments for the additional Gospels is valid, it would make P75 one of the oldest four-Gospel codices, but even if it only contained Luke and John, we have a clear demonstration that the earliest Christian communities saw a need to combine the Gospels of Jesus Christ together, an early stage of canonical recognition.
Christianity and the Codex
The most notable feature of early Christian manuscripts is that they are almost always in the form of a codex rather than a scroll. A codex was created by taking a stack of papyrus or parchment leaves, folding them in half, and binding them at the spine. In contrast to the more prominent and preferred form of book production in the Greco-Roman world (i.e. the scroll), a codex allowed for writing on both sides of each page. A single-quire (binding) codex could hold up to 250 pages.
It was once suggested that it was the Christians that invented the codex, but this is very unlikely. However, it was Christianity that first resorted to using the codex as its primary means of book production and mass producing it on a level completely unheard of in the surrounding world…
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