Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Codex Moment

By Sean McDonough, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

Regular readers of Every Thought Captive are likely interested, in one way or another, in the intellectual life of the church (anyone who wandered to this url while looking for Jonas Brothers ringtones or Red Sox updates can just consider all of this a kind of field trip to the Boring Zoo). So they may be less surprised than others that I recently found great inspiration in an article on early Christian use of the codex by Graham Stanton in his book Jesus and Gospel.
The title of the article is “Why Were Early Christians Addicted to the Codex?”1 It refers to the remarkable early Christian preference for book-like documents (codices) over the generally more popular scroll form. He puts forward the thesis that the church’s addiction to codices stemmed from its prior use of codex-like notebooks which “were used by the very first followers of Jesus for excerpts from Scripture, for drafts and copies of letters, and perhaps even for the transmission of some Jesus traditions” (Jesus and Gospel, p.6).
Stanton’s thesis seems quite plausible to me, but his precise reconstruction was not what struck me. It was instead the image of these early Christians – apostles, associates, couriers, scribes – running around the Mediterranean with their back-pack full of sermon notes and Scripture passages and who knows what else…rather like the modern-day seminary student (without the laptop). The church was not only thinking and preaching about the revelation of God in Christ from the beginning – they were also engaged in at least a simple form of academic endeavor involving the written word.
None of this will be particularly earth-shattering to even the beginning seminary student: Paul’s note in 2 Tim. 4:13 (“When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments”) is enough to let us know of the importance of written documents in the early church. But there was something about the sheer physicality of Stanton’s discussion – the wax tablets and leather thongs and papyri – that brought home to me the reality of early Christian scholarly work.
Scholarship is not always valued in society at large, and sometimes it is valued even less in the church. We can often have the haunting feeling (especially when we are convincing ourselves that looking at the Greek text is not critical for this sermon preparation, or that no possible good could come from my memorization of hollow Hebrew verbs) that Christian academic work is a late, unnecessary addition to the pristine faith, a kind of luxury option that ought to be eschewed in favor of more pressing matters.
It is encouraging to know that right from the beginning Christians have been doing what most of us reading this column are doing: laboring for the gospel by our careful preservation of the gospel tradition. It may involve literal note-taking in little books not all that different from the ones used in the first-century; or posting some relevant biblical background on the church web-site; or writing a lengthy monograph on verbal aspect in Koine Greek. Scholarly work is not all the church should do; but it is a vital part of the life of God’s people. It is a privilege to teach at an institution where that tradition is maintained.

1 You can get at least a taste of the article at http://books.google.com/books?id=A7wNGMrAiD0C&pg=PA165&lpg=PA165&dq=stanton+why+were+early+christians+addicted+to+the+codex&source=bl&ots=2302WSOs_0&sig=qiNHpTozF_IA2dm_FVGgo-oUSMg&hl=en&ei=-d9xSvjgA47aNri76LAM&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1.

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