Review #3 of Roger Bagnall’s Early Christian Books In Egypt (2009)

In chapter three, Bagnall discusses The Economics of Book Production in the ancient world. The chapter opens with Bagnall mentioning something he “remarked briefly” about in chapter one—the difference between the audiences and uses of classical and Christian literature in the second and third centuries. He goes on to emphasize, “The most important difference was of course that Christian books had no role in the traditional Greek educational system of these centuries” (50). It is not difficult to see that such an observation is important for the presence (and therefore the discovery) of Christian books in Egypt from the second and third centuries. Without the support and use of such literature in the education system, teachers and schools would not be purchasing nor promoting such works. The spiral continues because the educated Alexandrian would not be familiar with the Christian writings, and it is the educated Alexandrian who had moolah, that is cash money (ha—only those who are acquainted with late 1990’s and early 2000’s hip hop will get this reference :)). In the ancient world, the wealthy had the finances to buy, copy, and produce books.

Bagnall next goes on to display very, very detailed work on the economics involved in the manufacturing, selling, and buying of the ancient book. We are most indebted to his tedious work here, as well as to those whom he references. However, I would like to challenge an assumption that I see in the argument from the previous paragraph. Admittedly, I am a novice in the area of the education of the ancients, and in no way am I suggesting a perfect correlation between education systems today and those of antiquity. However, I feel like there is some bit of timeless truth to the nature of young pupils. My first challenge is this: how many of us leave elementary, high school, and even college with an allegiance to certain works of literature? Is Bagnall’s assumption that educated individuals had a desire to purchase the books of their youth accurate? Perhaps, but I feel like the question is worth asking. Second, is it a fair assumption then that educated individuals would not have purchased new or unfamiliar works of literature, such as writings from a curious and developing Christian movement? Just some thoughts.

Bagnall’s book is worth its weight in gold because he has gathered so much information from the most current research regarding the economics of ancient book production. His bibliography and research on the primary sources available are priceless. He is precise and to the point—such a technical discussion could…effectively…bog down…the…reader, but Bagnall shares the necessary information and moves on to make his point. For the sake of not simply repeating what he has so perfectly summarized, allow me to simply give you some bullet points on ancient book economics:

  • Ancient book prices are rarely preserved, so the database of information with which to work is limited.
  • Apophthegmata Patrum owned by Abba Gelasios is a complete parchment Bible priced at 18 gold solidi, or 72 Roman grams of gold [1 solidus = 4 grams of gold from Constantine (272–337) onward].
  • John Moschus (Pratum sprituale, PG 87/3.2997) values a New Testament at 3 solidi. A New Testament is about 19% of the total Bible; thus, implying a value of 15.6 solidi for an entire Bible—not differing greatly from Gelasios’ Bible (18 solidi).
  • These prices should be accepted only with caution; however, the consistency of the two witnesses is encouraging.
  • Testimony from the ostraka found in the Theban West Bank (credit given to Anne  Boud’hors) informs us of prices that, at first, appear a bit cheaper; however, two important factors raise questions about such “door-buster” prices: (1) it is uncertain that the prices listed included binding, which typically doubled the price, and (2) it is uncertain that such affordable prices would have applied to complete Bibles.
  • Bagnall has a very helpful section on the prices of parchment and papyrus (54–56).
  • For the sake of space, several other factors come into play when researching the economics of ancient book production: (1) material: parchment or papyrus, (2) the cost of labor, (3) accuracy of the ancient records that provide us with testimony about the prices of ancient book production, (4) the size/format of the sheet chosen for the production of a book, (5) the quality of copying desired (6) the practice of recycling writing materials—palimpsests, stuffing for binding and the Panopolis practice of gluing written sides of papyrus together in order to create one, new, thicker, “blank” leaf—and (7) the possible low cost of monastic labor (but see page 60).
  • On page 57, Bagnall provides readers with a helpful table (3.1) that illustrates the “Cost Estimates (in Solidi) for One Bible” based upon the style of the desired handwriting, the material chosen for production, and the cost of labor.
  • Bagnall proposes that the savings one would retain from choosing papyrus over parchment is correlated to the style of hand desired in the copying of the Bible.

The bullet points do not do justice to the thorough discussion of Bagnall, but hopefully, you feel a little more acquainted with factors one must consider when thinking about ancient book production. So, just how expensive were books? This is a key turning point in Bagnall’s argument in chapter three. Who would have owned Christian books? Bagnall insists that the prices of books were expensive enough that copies of the Scriptures would have been possessed, in most cases, only by churches and monasteries. Churches were concerned with charity and financial support for their clergy—thus making clergymen the most likely owners of Christian books. Listen to this quote from Bagnall,

At the lower end, let us imagine a reader who received 10 solidi per year. A complete Bible would cost him half a year’s income. Such a purchase would have been entirely out of reach. Even an unbound short book, a single gospel on papyrus of the sort that cost a third of a solidus in the ostraka cited by Anne Boud’hors, would amount to one-thirtieth of a year’s income—in proportionate terms (although not in purchasing power) the equivalent of $1,000 today, let us say, for someone earning $35,000. People at that sort of income level do not buy books at that price. Even the best-paid of academics do not buy books at that price (62).

Further, it is most likely that we must look to the high clergy (e.g., the office of bishop) for those who may have been able to purchase books in ancient Egypt. Thus, Bagnall returns to his thesis: with this in mind, how many Christian books should we expect to find in and around Alexandria? Three factors immediately come to the forefront: (1) the number of high clergy Christian communities in the region, (2) the salary of high clergy, such as bishops, in the region, and (3) the presence of other, well-educated (and therefore, wealthy) Alexandrian Christians in the second century. These factors coupled with Bagnall’s view that the Church as an institution was underdeveloped reinforce that the “probability of finding many Christian books truly datable to the second century is very low” (65).

Prior to ending the chapter, Bagnall takes time to “redeem” the third century. A considerable amount manuscripts have come to us from the third century. Apart from the influence of Demetrios’ bishopric, Bagnall proposes another interesting explanation for the apparent increase in Christian book production—some among the urban elite became interested. He offers two examples: (1) well-educated, Alexandrian Christian like Origen and Clement most likely did not live in isolation and (2) even more intriguing is the testimony of a bilingual, book-owning, experienced writer about whom we learn via Chester Beatty Papyrus VII, which is a Greek codex of Isaiah that contains marginal glosses written in Coptic.

Thus, for Bagnall, the second century Christians in Egypt simply did not possess the Church structure or finances needed to establish a respectable library. However, the third century saw the development of the Church as an institution and the growing interest among the urban elite which led to an increase in Christian book production. Speculations abound in certain areas of his argumentation; however, he is quick to recognize this. Yet, his reasoning is convincing. Some counter arguments are swirling around in my head, but I’ll save these for later.

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