You learned in school how the Egyptians took the pith from papyrus sedges and used it to make a writing product like paper. We study ancient Egyptian society because they were literate and left a lot of written records. Also, their dry climate preserves papyrus, so that Egypt has yielded a lot of ancient writings. This makes Egypt a favorite field of archaeological study.
Some of the most-studied artifacts of the ancient world are papyrus copies of New Testament books. Scholars study, debate, quarrel, and publish frequently regarding these precious bits of early Christian culture.
Christian “book culture”
There are some interesting things that can be learned about the early Christians from their manuscripts. This is to pass along a few things I have learned that may be of use to some of you.
The ancient papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament books are spoken of by scholars according to index numbers that were assigned according to the order in which they were introduced to the academic world. The most important papyri are P45, which contains the Gospels, and P46, which contains the letters of Paul; and P47, which contains the Revelation of John. These are all dated to the early third century or earlier, and are referred to as part of the “Chester-Beatty papyri” which is a collection that A. Chester Beatty bought from sometimes sketchy antiquities dealers, making their provenance a mystery. P46 is dated really early, definitely before the year 200 AD, and maybe as early as the middle of the second century. There are other important manuscripts besides these, from the second and third centuries and later.
The New Testament books were overwhelmingly in the form of books instead of scrolls. The primitive form of bound book is referred to as a “codex” (plural “codices”). There are very few instances of Christian scriptures in the form of scrolls. When it came to the form of the book, Christians were early adopters.
Romans and Jews continued to use scrolls for literary works long after the Christians adopted the codex form for the Scriptures. Outside Christian circles, in the first two centuries AD, codices were mostly used for ledgers and business documents. P45, P46, and P47 are all codices.
Making reading easy
In other matters regarding written Greek, Christians were early adopters, or even perhaps innovators. Christians were early adopters of such things as spaces between sentences, and spaces between words, and spaces between lines, margin space, and punctuation. Historian Larry Hurtado made a very interesting inference from this. He said that it appears to be obvious that Christians were more interested than others in making their manuscripts easier to read for novice readers. The natural reason for this would be that there were lots of Christians who were novice readers who would want to be able to read these works out loud to others. This observation leads directly to Christians using these books in worship, with novice readers reading passages aloud as an element of worship. (Spaces at the ends of sentences or paragraphs are seen in some Jewish pre-Christian scrolls, so that is probably the origin of “reading aids” in Christian Scriptural texts.)
Hurtado made another interesting inference, which is that non-Christian Romans were deliberately making literacy difficult. This was a way to preserve separation of social classes. Long after Christians had made the Bible easier to read, copies of secular works in both Greek and Latin were being made without word spaces or punctuation.
In addition to word spaces and sentence spaces, many Christian manuscripts from the third and fourth centuries exhibit additional breaks, called “sense breaks.” These breaks are at intervals longer than paragraphs, and appear to be breaks used to divide the canonical books into sections for liturgical readings. Sense breaks are also seen in some pre-Christian Jewish scrolls of the scriptures. This further indicates the commonplace practice of reading these books aloud in worship, which is a mark of use as Scriptures. The readings in worship also explains why there are so many manuscripts of the canonical books compared to secular literary works. Every congregation wanted their own copy.
Early collections of New Testament books
You might have expected that the oldest copies of the New Testament books would be from a single book, say Romans or Matthew. But the oldest existing copies of entire books are from collections. (Since many of the manuscripts are only scraps or a handful of pages, it is frequently not possible to tell if a manuscript was part of a single book or a larger collection, so there is still some historical uncertainty on this point.)
The four Gospels were commonly bound together as a single book. P45 is the earliest example; it is a collection of the four Gospels plus Acts. (It was equally common for the four Gospels to be bound together without Acts.) The Gospel of John is always last, perhaps indicating that the other three Gospels were already common as a collection when it was added. Another collection that was in circulation was Acts plus the “General Epistles” (1 Peter, 2 Peter, James, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude). The other important collection is the Letters of Paul. Revelation was circulated as a single book.
These collections of the New Testament books do not contain unorthodox writings. These collections do not include those Gnostic writings that the anti-Christians like to call “Alternative Christianities.” It was only after early Christians started making books with the entire New Testament that some non-canonical works are found in the collections. These are limited to the two epistles of Clement, the Shepherd, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache, which are all orthodox works.
The only exception is not a manuscript, but the famous list called the “Muratorian Fragment,” (a list, not a book) dated to the late third century. The Muratorian Fragment includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Apocalypse of Peter is the only book in these lists or collections that has heterodox content, and, where it does appear in the Muratorian Fragment, it is noted that it is not to be read in worship.
I want to make the point that these codices were early in the development of book technology, and Christians were important to the development of books. The Christians were making larger books than anyone else when they went to make a collection of all the Gospels plus Acts, or a collection of the letters of Paul. Books of this length were pushing the limits of the book-making know-how of the first century.
Anti-Christians like to grandstand on the late date of the earliest complete New Testaments. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are the oldest complete manuscript copies of the entire New Testament, and they are both dated to the mid- fourth century. This does not mean that Christians only decided what books they considered to be Scripture at that time. It only means that it took until then to figure out how to make a book that long.
Previously, they bound their sacred books into smaller collections of books. In the second, third and fourth centuries, Roman secular literary works were still mainly on scrolls, as were the Jewish Scriptures.
Things I learned about primitive bookmaking include the planning for the layout of the pages. The pages can be bound more securely if a double-wide sheet with space for four pages (front and back) is folded over, and then the folded sheets are nested in groups called quires. When more than two sheets are nested, allowance needs to be made for the placement of the holes for the binding thread that they will be sewn with. If the pages are to look uniform, the margins have to be different on each sheet. The easiest way to make a book is to make the blank book and then write the copy, but that requires a very exacting calculation about lines and words to make sure the book will have enough room for the text. There are a lot of other bookmaking details involved in handwritten manuscripts that I found interesting.
Reference for citation
My primary reference for this post is a book by Larry Hurtado. The Earliest Christian Artifacts – Manuscripts and Christian Origins, published in 2006:
The entire book is highly interesting, though written in a scholarly manner. One of the most interesting parts is an exploration of the unanswered question as to why the first Christians were so determined to put their Scriptures on codex form instead of using scrolls. That is an intriguing mystery, and Dr. Hurtado presented and discussed theories by several scholars on that topic.
This scholarly work has lots of footnotes, but it is written in accessible language, and might be an interesting introduction to early Christian scholarship for an interested layperson. In addition to a discussion of the appearances of the texts, Dr. Hurtado also presents a lengthy discussion of book-making in the first three centuries. At his blog, Dr. Hurtado has commented on the manuscript fragments that have been introduced to science since the book was published, and has noted in blog posts that nothing has surfaced to change any of his conclusions. Rather, the recently introduced manuscript fragments are either neutral, or else reinforce Hurtado’s findings.
The Christians of the second and third centuries circulated a collection of the Gospels, a collection of the letters of Paul, and a collection of Acts with the “General Epistles.” Otherwise, the evidence we have yields only Revelation and a handful of other examples of New Testament books bound as single books. The appearances of these ancient manuscripts reveal that the Christians were clearly treating these collections as Scripture, at least two centuries before they learned how to produce books long enough for complete copies of the entire New Testament.
You can disregard the popular anti-Christian myth that the early Christians did not decide which books were scripture until the third century or later. Christians were treating the New Testament books as sacred and using them in worship two hundred years before they started making copies of the entire New Testament, but that was just because of the limits of book assembly.