A short history of the codex and why it was so important to the development and spread of Christianity. Portions of this outline were presented in an informal “Message for All Ages” at ARK Community Church in Dalton, MA; Feb 1, 2016.
Prior to the first century CE (or so), nearly all written documents were in the form of single sheets or scrolls.
Because of the difficulty of unrolling scrolls to find particular passages and then having to roll them up again, longer books were often broken up into multiple scrolls. You can see this even today in the segmentation of 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Chronicles in the Hebrew Scriptures, both of which were originally single continuous texts.
And, because of the difficulty of managing and storing scrolls, very short books were often collated together into a single scroll. For instance, the 12 minor Hebrew prophets (Hosea, Joel, Amos, Job, Malachi, etc.), were often kept together in one or two scrolls.
The word “Codex” is from the Latin word for “wood” or “block” and is the technical term for a folio of pages stitched together. In other words, a book. The codex was developed by the Romans shortly before the time of Christ, Julius Ceasar may have been the first prominent Roman to use them.
A codex is very sturdy and portable, with protective covers enclosing sheets of paper that are kept together by a sturdy binding. (Scrolls are hard to roll up neatly, and tend to get ratty or torn.)
A codex allows for random rather than sequential access – to use some computer terminology, since you can flip to a specific page rather than scrolling until you arrive at the passage in question. … Think of how annoying scrolling through a computer screen is even today; and then imagine having to scroll through a roll of relatively fragile paper dozens of feet in length!
Codexes (or codices) are much more compact than scrolls, since it is convenient and easy to write on both sides of each page. So, unlike a scroll: you use half the paper. Which, in ancient times was a big deal, given how difficult it was to manufacture paper (in the form of parchment or papyrus), let alone the difficulties of storing and transporting bulky and irregularly shaped scrolls.
A codex can easily handle many long texts in a single volume, which is why the Bible is now usually published (and thought of) as a single book, rather than as a collection of scrolls.
By the second century, the codex was the preferred format for preserving and transporting the written word among Christians evangelists and scholars, and it is thought that the spread of Christianity both drove, and was facilitated by, the adoption of the codex in place of scrolls. In fact, Paul probably used Codexes, and appears to refer to them in 2 Timothy 4:13. Jesus is seen using a scroll in Luke 4:17-20.
The putting of all the books of the Bible together into a single codex was a monumental technological innovation in the 3rd or 4th century AD; and was driven by the desire of Christian communities to have easy access to a standard version of their scriptures. (The image at the top of this page is of the Codex Sinaiticus, which may have been the first complete Bible in a single volume).
Except for ceremonial purposes, scrolls ceased being used by the 6th century. Their decline mirrors, more or less, the decline and death of paganism in Greco-Roman Culture.
The history of the codex shows, as has been proven over and over again in the millennia since, that the careful and early adoption of new technology can provide a huge competitive advantage.
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)