Review #4 (Final) of Roger Bagnall’s Early Christian Books In Egypt (2009)

As I perused my SBL catalogue late last night, I was pleased to discover that Roger Bagnall will be a part of a panel discussion at this year’s annual meeting for the Society of Biblical Literature. The discussion centers around what has been the most prominent topic on this blog for a number of weeks—Early Christian Books in Egypt (Bagnall, 2009). I have “marked up” my copy of Bagnall’s book, and I am eager to listen to the panel discussion.

Bagnall Panel Discussion at 2010 SBL

Bagnall Panel Discussion at 2010 SBL

Chapter four of Bagnall’s book opens with a question/statement with which I wrestle each day I put the “fingers to the keyboard” to write my thesis—”[you] may be wondering if there really is anything new of any value to be said about the origins and spread of the codex” [brackets mine] (70). For my infantile experience in codicology has taken me to the highest of heights thinking that I may have discovered some new idea only to later come crashing down as I continue to read the work of others and find out that my ideas are not new but old hat. However, I believe that scholars must be faithful in the work, organizing available data in order to serve others and create the best possible resources from which a typology of the codex can be developed, updated and maintained.

With perseverance, Bagnall takes up the age-old question of the origin and spread of the codex. He is right to emphasize that the transition from the roll to the codex was not simply due to convenience, but rather cultural and social factors must have also played a part in what appears to have been a monumental shift. He dismisses, perhaps once and for all, the notion that Christians were directly responsible for the origin of the codex (71). He agrees with Hurtado in The Earliest Christian Artifacts (which I have recently discovered is a must read for those with an interest in the study of the codex) that while Christians seemed to have had a distinct association with the codex, the codex form did not originate from Christianity. Bagnall demonstrates this concept in the discussion and tables found on pages 71–79. In light of the evidence, Bagnall concludes concerning Christian association with the codex,

The codex was this not so much adopted generally by the early Christians for their book production; rather, the Christians adopted the codex as the normative format of deliberately produced public copies of scriptural texts, but they did not generalize from this adoption to broader use for all books (78).

Here, Bagnall goes so far as to say that with regard to Scripture, Christians did not use the codex as merely a tendency but as a rule (79).

At this point, the chapter makes a significant shift toward the discussion of the origin and reason for the adoption of the codex form by Christians (and also the rest of the ancient world) (79–90). While some recent insights were certainly helpful and interesting—such as the work of William Johnson regarding the relationship between the Greek book roll and the cognitive process—I must admit that I found Bagnall’s conclusion deflating. After dismissing some of the traditional views for the origin of the codex (80–1), he eventually “parks his car” in the lot of Romanization; that is, “the spread of Roman habits and technology throughout the empire” led to the origin and spread of the codex (87–91).

His dismisses the traditional views based upon two criteria, one of which being that while the church was looking for a particular type of text to “reproduce in codex form,” it is inappropriate to suggest that any confidence in an emerging canon led to the adoption of the form. I slightly disagree that this is so easily dismissed. The early Church did not need absolute certainty in order to confidently place books that they viewed as important in some sort of beginning stages of a “canon.” Bagnall himself refers to some sort of “emerging canon,” which is exactly what it would have been—there’s room for flexibility in such a thing.

He moves toward his conclusion of Romanization by means of two thoughtful examples: (1) social and cultural reading habits and (2) an example of a “cross-section” of texts from The Theban Magical Library. Regarding the former, Bagnall employs the discussion in order to help the reader feel the cultural significance of such a shift from roll to codex. This shift was not a minor thing. For example, a shift from say a Dell to a Mac does not adequately illustrate the shift, rather a shift from a computer to some new form of technology is perhaps a better illustration. Regarding the latter, the stash of handbooks that make up The Theban Magical Library demonstrate a very clear shift from the roll to the codex as time moved from the third to the fourth century A.D. What would have caused the practitioner to make the shift from the roll form of his, perhaps, inherited magical texts to the codex form?

“Privatization of magic” from the temple to the home is likely. What is unlikely is that someone like the owner of these magical texts made the shift due to the influence of Christianity! Rather, as Bagnall suggests, one force most likely served as the overarching influence for both Christians and the practitioner of magic—the hand of the empire.

The codex may be one of the signs of just how Roman the world of early Christianity was (88).

While I do not doubt the authority nor the popularity as resources available to the empire to inaugurate such a change, I do have two challenges to such a view. First, how does this explain the stealth with which Christians adopted the form and the reluctance of others in the Roman empire? I believe this must be answered prior to accepting Bagnall’s (also that of Roberts and Skeat) conclusion as the only factor determining such a shift. It would seem as though the result would have been just the opposite—others first, then perhaps Christians. Bagnall attempts to address this (87); however, I find his reasoning—that Christians would have preferred the Roman model for literature more preferable than the Greek (or Jewish) formats—weak. Second, he further mentions that the spread of the codex form seems to have accompanied the spread of Latin, which may be so; however, we are dealing with Greek text in the ancient papyri, not Latin, so what does this mean for the form used as the text’s container? Bagnall is to be commended for his integrity when he says,

I realize that I have not offered so much an explanation of the adoption of the codex for Christian scriptures as a description of the cultural milieu in which this adoption took place.

I sense in this statement the frustration that I find elsewhere in writings concerning the codex—its origin continues to be an elusive mystery.

Before closing, Bagnall does make one final stab at his critics by reminding them of his opening chapter. Is it possible that the Roman church played a key role in the dissemination of the codex form to other Christian communities—particularly those in Egypt? Such a theory demands that we are not careless about the dating of early Christian books in Egypt! Suppose that the earliest Christian books in Egypt do not go back to the second century?

Simply a great work. Thanks is due to Roger S. Bagnall for this tiny but significant piece of work for those with an interest in codicological studies. Including end notes, bibliography and indices, the total number of pages is 110—well worth your time. Prof. Bagnall, if you’re out there, I look forward to hearing the discussion today. May God bless you for your gift to Christians and others who benefit from your research and hard work.

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