• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Early Christian Impresarios

These two books are built on a single perception. Early Christianity was more than a new religion: it brought with it a revolutionary shift in the information technology of the ancient world. That shift was to have implications for the cultural history of the world over the next two millennia at least as momentous as the invention of the Internet seems likely to have for the future. Like Judaism before it and Islam after it, Christianity is often described as “a religion of the Book.” The phrase asserts both an abstraction—the centrality of authoritative sacred texts and their interpretation within the three Abrahamic religions—and also a simple concrete fact—the importance of a material object, the book, in the history and practice of all three traditions.

To modern readers, the phrase is bound to evoke images of the “book” as we know it, the family Bible, say, something printed (or, if ancient, written) on both sides of folded sheets of paper (or parchment), stitched in bundles between protective covers of a thicker and tougher material. But for ancient Israel, as for pagan Greece and Rome, the “book” implied no such thing. Instead, the word first and foremost denoted a literary unit inscribed on a long scroll or roll, formed from glued- or stitched-together membranes (initially of papyrus, later the tougher and more flexible parchment), whose contents were written in parallel columns at right angles to the length of the roll, normally on one side only. And this is the form in which the books of the Hebrew Bible are still read in synagogue worship.

The book roll, which had to be deliberately unfurled to be read, symbolized formality, permanence, and, in general, cultural, literary, or scientific worth. (And would long continue to do so: until 1849 the official file copies of British Acts of Parliament were inscribed on parchment rolls.) By contrast, for the people of the ancient world, writing on flat pages was essentially ephemeral. Students, lawyers, and administrators might jot notes on such pages or bundles of pages, and writers often composed their first drafts on them, but anything of enduring value, and all completed works of literature or science, anything that might be stored in a library, would be copied into a roll. Suetonius thought it an oddity worth recording that Julius Caesar sent his campaign dispatches to the Senate in the form of sheets of papyrus rather than rolls.

None of this is hard to understand. Our modern book form, the codex, in fact evolved from the ancient equivalent of the stenographer’s pad, bundles of wooden tablets linked with string hinges and coated with wax, on which information could be jotted with a stylus (often in shorthand). When the information was no longer needed, the wax could be heated and smoothed, and the tablets reused. The first papyrus and (especially) parchment books of pages were recyclable in just the same way, folded and stitched bundles written on with soluble ink that could be washed off to leave the pages blank again. To inscribe the words of Holy Scripture on such jotting pads would demean its sacred character and authority.

All the more extraordinary, therefore, that from its very first emergence Christianity deliberately chose the form of the codex rather than the roll for its sacred writings. The earliest surviving texts of the gospels and of the Epistles of Saint Paul are, without exception, copied into codices. The Gospel of Saint Mark, usually thought to be the earliest of the four canonical gospels, lacks its original ending, a fact hard to account for except by wear and tear on the final page of the master copy of a papyrus codex, and almost inexplicable if Mark’s Gospel had been first issued in the form of a roll, for in that case the missing ending would have been at the inner and best-protected end.

Why should the new religion have adopted this down-market and unfashionable book technology? The codex, it is true, has obvious practical advantages. Being written on both sides of the page, it is more economical than the roll, it can be readily indexed, it can be leafed through quickly to find a particular place, and it is more robustly portable. But these practical advantages, which certainly contributed to its eventual adoption as the normative form of the book, do not adequately explain the early Christians’ exclusive preference for the form, even for their copies of the Jewish scriptures, which must of course have been transcribed from rolls. Historians have speculated that difference from Judaism may have been the point—that the codex was adopted to distance the emergent Church from its origins within the religion of Israel, or perhaps in an attempt to signal that its foundational texts were indeed a sort of sacred stenography, the living transcript of apostolic experience, taken from the mouths of the first witnesses.

However that may be, until recently surprisingly little has been made of this momentous foundational shift to a new book technology. The history of the early Church has been studied without much reference to the material culture of book production and distribution, and the impact of the physical form of the earliest Christian writings on the evolution of Christian ideas and institutions has been little explored. In Christianity and the Transformation of the Book, Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams seek to rectify that omission, by exploring the work of two seminal figures in the history of third- and fourth-century Christianity, Origen of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea, the innovative form of whose writings would profoundly shape the intellectual and material culture of the Roman Empire, soon to be Christianized, and, later, of medieval and early modern Europe.

Origen, born in Egypt toward the end of the second century, was the greatest biblical scholar of the early Church, and, though posthumously tainted by suspicion of heresy, one of the most influential thinkers in the entire history of Christianity. The product of a persecuted Christian minority (his father was executed for his faith in AD 202), his own religious ardor expressed itself in awesome ascetical feats of fasting and self-denial that earned him the nickname Adamantius, “man of steel.” Notoriously, he took literally the New Testament’s praise of those who became “eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven” and castrated himself.

His religious zeal was matched by profound learning, not only in the Jewish and Christian scriptures, but in classical philosophy. Indeed, it is central to Grafton and Williams’s portrayal of Origen that he is best understood not against the narrow background of official Church institutions, which were still in flux in his lifetime, but as belonging to the cultivated world of the late-classical philosopher. The practice of “philosophy” was a way of life, involving immersion in the composition and copying of texts, and in detailed philosophical, grammatical, and philological commentary on them. Libraries were vital to this process, and were accumulated by the gift, loan, and copying of texts. The scholar was necessarily part of a network of like-minded users and producers of texts, and needed the backing of a wealthy patron to finance the huge costs involved in acquiring and copying them.

Origen taught philosophy as well as Christian doctrine for a time in Alexandria (Grafton and Williams are skeptical of the claim of his biographer Eusebius that he was the official catechist of the diocese) but eventually settled at Caesarea in Palestine, a town with vigorous Jewish and pagan communities, under the patronage of a rich Roman, Ambrose. There they established a scriptorium and staff of scribes, some of whom must have been competent in Hebrew as well as Greek, and built up an extensive working library. Origen devoted himself to teaching and commenting on his basic texts, not primarily the Neoplatonic philosophers in whose works he had been grounded and in which he continued to school his students, but above all the Jewish and Christian scriptures, the fundamental sources for a new Christian “philosophy.” In the religious mixing pot of third-century Palestine, pagan, Jewish, and Christian ideas jostled and clashed, and Origen’s life’s work was to make Christianity, rooted as it was in the “barbarian” world of the Hebrew scriptures, intelligible to itself and to others within the sophisticated third-century Greek intellectual world. He was the pioneering Christian translator between cultures, systematically striving to bring together the apparently incompatible thought-worlds of Moses and Plato, Jerusalem and Athens, and in the process, to vindicate Christian teaching against enemies within and without.

Like most Christians of his time, and like Orthodox Christians even today, Origen read the Old Testament in a Greek translation known as the Septuagint, completed long before the Christian era, and before the normative Hebrew text had been stabilized. The Septuagint, therefore, often differed, sometimes significantly, from the Hebrew versions used by third-century (and modern) Jews. In Isaiah 7:14, for example, the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word almah, young woman, with the Greek parthenos, virgin, and in that form the text was crucial for Christian belief in and defense of the Virgin Birth. Inevitably, Christians suspected Jews of deliberately corrupting such texts to discredit Christian teaching.

Origen believed passionately in the inspired authority of the Septuagint, but he recognized that Jewish– Christian debate was hampered by the lack of an agreed-upon authoritative text. He set about remedying the situation in an awe-inspiring scholarly project which could only have been conceived in the light of Christian deployment of the codex. Having taught himself Hebrew with the help of local rabbis (the extent of his knowledge is debated), Origen compiled the most famous multivolume book of antiquity, the Hexapla (“Sixfold”). This was a complete edition of the Old Testament in six separate versions, set out in parallel columns across each double opening of a codex, three columns to each single page. On the extreme left was the Hebrew, next to that a phonetic rendering of the Hebrew in Greek letters, next to that a hyperliteral translation of the text into Greek by the Jewish convert Aquila, next to that a more idiomatic version by another Greek Jew, Symmachus, then the Septuagint, and, finally, on the extreme right, another modern Jewish-Greek version by Theodotion.

For poetic books like the Psalms, Origen added still other Greek versions (including an anonymous one he had found buried in a jar, like the Dead Sea Scrolls), the object of the whole exercise being to provide as many interpretative tools for a correct reading of the Septuagint as possible. He also edited the Septuagint text itself, adding symbols to indicate where it differed from the Hebrew, and supplying “missing” material from the best of the other versions. This corrected Septuagint text circulated separately, and was to prove immensely influential for centuries. The Hexapla dealt with a single Hebrew word or short phrase and its Greek cognates, one Hebrew word to a line, thereby inviting a microscopic comparison between the various texts. By Grafton and Williams’s computation, the complete text probably occupied up to forty large codices.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print