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…

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