The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures


Carl P. Cosaert


The Reliability of the New Testament Scriptures

                                                           Part 2


Whether it is the iPad, Kindle, iPhone, or any number of apps that accompany them, the church always seems to lag behind with such innovations by a few years or so. Trying to associate the church with cutting-edge technology seems as ridiculous as trying to mix water and oil—the two just do not seem to go together. While that is generally the case today, it was not always that way. An examination of the earliest manuscript evidence for the New Testament scriptures suggests that the earliest Christians were at the forefront of a new wave of technology in the history of bookmaking called the “codex.” This technology would not only forever change the way the world would come to read a text but also would help to spread the gospel across the ancient world.

What is a codex? What prompted the earliest Christians to be among the first to so readily adopt it? And what implications might this have for the church today?


The Birth of the Codex

The earliest evidence for the New Testament scriptures is a collection of 127 Greek manuscripts discovered in remote towns and villages across ancient Egypt and written on papyrus that dates from the second to the fourth centuries. One of the most intriguing observations that emerged from the study of these New Testament papyri included the virtually unanimous nature of their format. While all the papyri vary in size, only four of the manuscripts are written on scrolls. Every single other manuscript originally formed part of a codex, a leaf-book similar to the format of books today. What makes the preference for the codex among early Christians so surprising is that the scroll continued to be the preferred writing format across the Mediterranean world until the fifth century.

The word codex, derived from Latin and meaning “a block of wood,” originally referred to a collection of up to 10 wooden tablets bound together by leather straps passed through holes on one edge. Each wooden tablet was hollowed out and filled with wax. Since the surface could easily be erased, it was used for recording ephemera of all sorts: notes, school exercises, letters, and even a writer’s first draft. Sometime during the first century, the wooden tablet was replaced with parchment or papyrus.

What adds to the intrigue of the codex format of the early New Testament papyri centers on the fact that this revolution in book production appears to be intimately connected to the spiritual revolution that gave birth to Christianity and the New Testament scriptures. Before the discovery of the early papyri, it was generally assumed that the preference for the codex over the scroll was a static development that affected both Christian and non-Christian literature at roughly the same time. However, the papyri show that this is simply not the case. Colin H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat write, “In contrast to the slow and piecemeal process by which the codex ousted the roll in secular literature [by the fifth century], the Christian adoption of the codex seems to have been instant and universal.”1


Why the Codex?

Why did Christians disregard the universal practice of using the scroll in favor of the revolutionary codex? Answers to this question divide into two categories: (1) practical advantages over the scroll; and (2) spiritually significant events—or as Eldon Epp calls them, “the ‘big bang’ theories.”2

It has been suggested that Christians adopted the codex because of the practical advantages it offered: economy, compactness, comprehensiveness, convenience of use, ease of reference, as well as providing a more protective casing for the document itself. While such advantages may have been attractive, one has to wonder if any one of these advantages—or even all of them together—would have served as a sufficient catalyst to compel virtually the entire early church to switch so wholeheartedly from the scroll to the codex. Moreover, in some cases, the degree of the proposed advantage has been shown to be either extremely minimal or not entirely consistent with the evidence of the papyri themselves.

For example, it is often suggested that the ability to write on both sides of the codex would make it a more economical format than a single-sided scroll. If cost were really the issue among early Christians, they could have just as well written on the backside of a scroll. In addition, it also has been estimated that the savings generated by writing on both sides of a codex would reduce the cost by only one-quarter. And if counting pennies were really an issue, why do many papyri have large empty margins?

The attempt to identify one key spiritual event that would have triggered the nearly unanimous adoption of the codex among Christians has produced several intriguing theories, but none with enough evidence to make it more than merely creative thinking. Colin Roberts offered the first proposal in 1954, when he suggested that the Christian fascination with the codex began with the composition of the Gospel of Mark on a parchment codex in Rome.3 Some 30 years later, Roberts, in a book coauthored with T. C. Skeat, changed his theory entirely. Rather than Mark in Rome, he suggested that the place of codex in Christianity arose among Jewish Christians in Antioch who recorded the logia of Jesus on tablets that eventually developed into tablets made of papyrus.4 This theory also gained little following since not a shred of evidence indicates Jesus’ teachings were ever recorded on wax tablets or papyrus codices.

Skeat suggested another creative theory in 1994. This time he claimed that the Christian use of the codex originated in connection with the development of the fourfold Gospel canon. In his view, the publication of the Gospel of John toward the end of the first century led to a crisis in the early church. The reference to the many unrecorded deeds of Jesus at the end of John’s Gospel and the growing threat of Gnosticism may have led some in the church to wonder if there was “any way in which the existing four Gospels could be safeguarded from either addition or subtraction.”5 While a number of different solutions were available to the church, recording all four Gospels on a single scroll was not one of them; that would have required the impossible—a scroll of some 99 feet, roughly 66 feet longer than the maximum length of a manageable scroll. The codex, however, offered a way to not only include all four Gospels, but also to discourage any further additions.

While this hypothesis may be intriguing, it does not fit with the evidence from the early papyri. While some codices from the third century contain all four Gospels, the earliest codices do not; they contain only single Gospels. Even if this were not the case, one still is left wondering how a fourfold Gospel canon would influence the adoption of the codex as the standard format for the rest of the New Testament? Harry Gamble put forth a similar suggestion but in connection with the Pauline Epistles.6 Gamble argued that an early collection of Paul’s Epistles was arranged not by individual letter, but by the churches to which he wrote. By excluding the pastorals and connecting Philemon with Colossians, he suggested that the collection was made up of seven groups of letters written to seven churches—seven being symbolic of their universal significance. Since including these letters in a single scroll would have required a scroll twice the normal size, the codex was chosen.

Like the previous, this theory also has several shortcomings that mitigate against it being seen as the sole catalyst for the Christian adoption of the codex: (1) it assumes far too much about the editorial activity associated with Paul’s letters than any extant collection of Paul’s Epistles show; and (2) it places more influence on Paul in early Christianity than evidence from either the second century or the earliest manuscripts attest. For example, of the 72 earliest papyri and the five majuscules from around the turn of the fourth century or earlier, only eight contain two or more New Testament writings—and of these, only three are Pauline. In addition, of the entire corpus of early papyrus and parchment manuscripts, only 14 contain Pauline material. The Gospels, on the other hand, have 32, more than double the representation. Paul clearly had an influence on the early church but not in the fashion Gamble suggests.


The Codex and Christian Mission

A far better solution for the adoption of the codex by early Christians is found in the combination of two ideas put forth in separate review articles, one on Roberts and Skeat’s The Birth of the Codex by Michael McCormick,7 and the other by Eldon Epp on Gamble’s book. Neither work, unfortunately, seems to have had wide exposure. It seems far more probable that the preference for the codex by Christians hinged on a more dynamic and universal motivation within the early church—namely, the missionary consciousness that pervaded the earliest church and took it from being the faith of a handful of believers in a backwater province to an empire-wide religion within a few short centuries.

The early church was a “text”-driven religion—a fact that should be noted. Texts, whether the Hebrew Scriptures, New Testament writings, or even other Christian writings thought by some to be authoritative, played a critical part in the founding and development of Christian communities. This missionary consciousness and the need for texts would have been aptly served by both the portability and durability of the innovative codex.

One of the interesting things about the literary evidence for the early codex relies on the fact that our earliest references to it are connected with both of these issues.

The earliest reference in Latin to the parchment codex comes from a comment by Martial, the Roman poet, in his Epigrams written around A.D. 84 to 86: “You who want my little books to keep you company wherever you may be and desire their companionship on a long journey, buy these that parchment compresses in small pages.”8 The reason for Martial’s promotion of the codex centers on the advantage of its portability.

The desirability of the codex for those whose livelihood required both texts and an itinerant lifestyle exists also in a list that Roberts and Skeat include of 17 non-Christian codices from the second century. Among other items, the list includes a couple of grammatical manuals, two medical manuals, and a lexicon to Homer. McCormick makes the insightful observation that these are the type of texts that would have been used by “ancient doctors and teachers” whose “geographical mobility” would have made the portability of the codex a far more beneficial format than the traditional scroll.9

It should be no surprise, then, that the first reference to the parchment codex in Greek is in the writings of the apostle Paul. “When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim. 4:13, ESV). Accepting a Pauline authorship of the passage, which McCormick discounts, this passage dates approximately 20 years earlier than Martial’s Epigrams. As such, it is unlikely that the passage refers to the use of literary texts in codex form as it does in Martial. Instead, the terminology suggests a more traditional notebook in which Paul kept his notes and, perhaps, copies of his original letters.

This does not suggest that Paul, in some way, became “the founder” of the use of the codex in the church, but it does suggest a connection of the codex with the transient life of the pre-eminent Christian missionary. And more importantly, the terminology suggests that the use of the codex emerged as a more dynamic activity among the earliest itinerant Christian teachers and preachers themselves, rather than a formal decision made by later Christian scribes, as Stanton suggested in an article written in 1997.10

There also seems to be a plausible correspondence between the papyri themselves and the idea that portability may have been a factor in their use by early Christians. McCormick notes that the New Testament papyri are not large, but tend to be narrow and of modest size, somewhere in the range of a breadth of 15/14 cm and a height of 28/16 cm—a size ideal for travel.

Epp confirmed these findings in his review article that provided the measurements of all the New Testament papyri available at the time that dated before A.D. 200. An examination of the papyri, published since Epp’s initial finding, indicates the earliest papyri continue to be of smaller, handheld size, typically being both long and narrow or having more of a squarish form, with the average codex measuring roughly 15 x 20 cm or 13 x 26 cm.

The New Testament papyri discovered in Egypt provide a valuable window into the life of the early church. In addition to testifying to the importance the early church found in the New Testament scriptures, the nearly exclusive adoption of the codex instead of the scroll also points to the missionary consciousness that filled the earliest Christians. The relatively small size of the New Testament codices points to a variety of handheld texts that were of ideal size for early Christians to take with them as they spread their faith. Rather than waiting several decades finally to jump on the “technology bandwagon,” the earliest Christians found, in the newly developed codex, a tool that helped them spread more effectively the Christian message to the world around them. Might this contain a lesson for the church today? Rather than avoiding the latest technological gadgets as long as possible, one can only imagine the possibilities if Christians sought to co-opt these gadgets for the advancement of God’s kingdom today.




1. Colin H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University Press, 1987), 53.

2. E. J. Epp, “The Codex and Literacy in Early Christianity and at Oxyrhynchus: Issues Raised by Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church,” Critical Review of Books in Religion 10 (1997): 21. Hereafter abbreviated CRBR.

3. Colin Roberts, “The Codex,” PBA 40 (1954), 169–204. 

4. Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex.

5. T. C. Skeat, “The Codex,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 102 (1994): 266.

6. Harry Y. Gamble, “Books and Readers in the Early Church,” CRBR 10 (1997): 58–66.

7. Michael McCormick, “The Birth of the Codex and the Apostolic Life-Style,” Scriptorium 39 (1985): 150–158.

8. Martial, Epigrams 1.2, Bailey.

9. McCormick, “The Birth of the Codex and the Apostolic Life-Style,” 157.

10. Graham N. Stanton, “The Fourfold Gospel,” New Testament Studies 43 (1997): 338, 339.