11 May 2007

codex question

At lunch today Claire was rolling up a strip of baloney from both ends. "Look at my book!" she said and pretended to read a story about bumblebees.

"What kind of book is that?" I asked. She looked at me, an eyebrow twitching upwards, not sure what I was asking. "I mean, what kind of book rolls up like that?"

"Oooh," she said. "It's a scroll."

"That's right." I picked up a bound hardback from a nearby shelf and flipped through the pages. "Do you remember what this kind of book is called?"

"Mmmm," she hesitated, eyes squinting. "It's...it's...it's a co..." she trailed off.

"That's right. A 'co' what?" I urged.

"A co...deh...deh...ex. Codex." An unsure grimace swam across the surface of her satisfied expression.

"Yes! That's right," I assured, pleased with her keen memory.

I blogged some time ago about the "holy internet" - the webs of relatively efficient communication that existed even in the first century and which aided in the spread of the Christian gospel. In that connection, I mentioned Loveday Alexander's contention that early Christians used the codex "far more extensively and more consistently than their pagan contemporaries."

Scrolls were the standard and more prestigious technology, particularly for serious, important, and valued texts among the pagans - religious, legal, and philosophical texts in particular. Codices had more humble origins in travel journals, inventories, shipping manifests, and the like.

Christians nonetheless were willing to adopt the more lowly codex, even for their most sacred writings. There are probably several reasons for this, including ease of production and portability, as well as facilitating the ability to access and cross-reference among texts.

Today, however, I was wondering about a further factor in the Christian use of the codex, though I don't have the historical knowledge to substantiate my hunch.

In 2nd Temple Judaism, as I understand it, the scroll was the dominant form for sacred texts - particularly the Torah scroll - and such writings were valued highly and treated, as artifacts, with a high degree of pious reverence. It was also the case, I am told, that at least some Jewish theologians believed in the eternity of the Torah. Moreover, some held that when men came together around the Torah, the divine Glory dwelt among them. If this is so, then it would further underwrite a sense of the Torah (and the other canonical scrolls) as sacred objects.

What I was wondering is whether Christian theology would have relativized Torah in light of Christ and the gift of the Spirit within the Christian community itself, and whether this might have shifted the way in which the sacred texts themselves were regarded.

Paul pointedly argues against the eternal character of Torah, emphasizing that Torah came 400 years after Abraham and, in the larger picture of salvation history, only held a subsidiary and instrumental role directed towards its true end: Christ. Moreover, in the Gospels, we see Jesus taking up in his own life and teaching, the role and place that Torah held in much of 2nd Temple Judaism.

Add to this the sense that the Christian community itself was the site of the God's own dwelling through his Spirit. Furthermore, as Jesus himself was sent as the Word of God, so God's people are sent into the world to proclaim that Word through the Spirit of truth.

Obviously, these thoughts are only half-formed gropings towards a thesis. But there may well be a fruitful avenue for research here in exploring whether the growing Christian preference for the codex over the scroll not only represented a break with pagan valuation of the scroll, but also with Jewish understandings of Torah and other sacred texts.