Archive for category New Testament Papyri

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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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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