"I did not think that I could get so much profit from the contents of books as from the utterances of a living and abiding voice"--Papias
1. Although Papias may have believed that the spoken word was the best conduit for the gospel message, most of his contemporaries saw equal or greater value in the written text. What was the advantage of the written, as opposed to the oral, text? Words preserved in writing were more permanent than words that, once spoken, immediately dissipated in the air. Moreover, the written word had a certain amount of fixity to it, unlike the spoken word, which readily varied from one telling to the next. Of course, committing a text to writing hardly froze it in one form for all time, as a glance at Samuel-Kings vs. Chronicles, or the Gospels, or the ancient Near Eastern Epic of Gilgamesh, in its various incarnations, will attest. Nevertheless, by the time the Israelites emerged as a people in the land of Canaan, writing was widely used throughout the Fertile Crescent and beyond to record the mundane business of governments; the history, myths, and legends of peoples; the rhetorical flourishes of poets; and the divine encounters of priests and prophets. It is not surprising, then, that the Jews, and later the Christians, chose to record their sacred stories in written form so that they might be preserved for future generations.
2. Most diachronic studies of the biblical text focus on the message itself and its development in the oral and written stages as it was transmitted. Several recent studies shift the focus to the scribes and other tradents who copied, corrected, and in many cases enhanced the text as they passed it along to future generations. One other, frequently overlooked, aspect of the process of transmission is also a candidate for scholarly consideration: the technology used to transmit the text. Technology includes several interrelated tools and concepts, such as the material on which the text is written and read (media); the tools used to inscribe the text (input devices); the script (encoding scheme); and procedures, rules, and conventions for inscribing the text (encoding strategies); among others. It is convenient to use the first of these categories, media, as a way to divide the history of the transmission of the biblical text into distinct periods of time, characterized by the newest medium on which the biblical text was recorded. According to this scheme, scribes have transmitted the biblical text in its written form in four eras: the Scroll, the Codex, the Printed Page, and the Web Page.
3. It is important to note that the label given to each of these eras denotes the newest medium, not the only one used. A great deal of overlap in technology always occurs between the different eras, particularly at the historical boundaries between adjacent periods. Sometimes particular technologies fall into general disuse; these may be called technological dead ends. Other older technologies persevere alongside newer ones, perhaps playing a smaller role or filling a particular niche for which it is better suited. An interesting phenomenon that is especially noticeable during the transition from one era to the next may be called exaptation, to borrow a term from evolutionary biology. Exaptation is the appropriation of an existing structure (technology) for a new purpose.1 Examples of overlap, technological dead ends, and exaptation that are associated with each era are given below.
4. As interesting as it is to trace the changes in writing technology itself, this article is concerned primarily with one specific question: How have technological changes affected the transmission of the biblical text? It is this overarching question that will drive the discussion of each of the four eras.
5. When Jewish authors began to write the material that would become the Hebrew Bible, the scroll had already been used in Egypt for hundreds of years, and maybe longer. The scroll had several advantages over earlier and rival technologies. Unlike stone, which had to be inscribed with a metal stylus, writing on a scroll was much less time consuming, and the light weight of the scroll made transport and storage easier. Stone did continue to be used for monumental inscriptions, since it was much more durable than either papyrus or parchment. Clay tablets were another alternative to scrolls, and they were popular throughout Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Though writing on clay also required a stylus, making indentations on the soft clay took much less time than engraving stone, so clay was a viable alternative. However, clay tablets have to be baked in order to become hard enough to retain their text permanently, and they are both bulkier and more fragile than scrolls. A third alternative, ostraca (potsherds), shared with scrolls the possibility of being written on with a reed pen and ink. Ostraca were suitable for quick notes, letters, and other texts that were relatively brief, but they could play no major role in the recording of a work as lengthy as the biblical text.
6. Papyrus was the material most commonly used for scrolls in Egypt, and papyrus scrolls have also been found elsewhere in the Fertile Crescent, including Palestine and Phoenicia. The other material from which scrolls were commonly made was parchment. (for the purposes of this article, the distinctions among leather, parchment, and vellum will be ignored). Parchment had several advantages over papyrus as a material from which to make scrolls. Although papyrus scrolls kept in hot, dry climates can last almost indefinitely, parchment tends to be more durable. Parchment has a higher tensile strength than papyrus, so it is harder to tear. The grain of parchment is finer than that of papyrus, so writing is somewhat easier, especially on the verso side of the papyrus (where the fibers run vertically rather than horizontally). Finally, erasing is easier on parchment than papyrus. The primary advantage of papyrus over parchment, and the reason that papyrus continued to be used for scroll manufacture alongside parchment, is that papyrus was easier to produce, and thus probably less expensive.2 Although most scrolls from Qumran are parchment, many papyrus scrolls have also been found.
7. Since all the books found in the Old Testament (both the Tanakh and the deuterocanonical books) and the New Testament predate the widespread adoption of the codex, it is probable that all the writings of any length (i.e., longer than a single page) were originally written on scrolls. Even small scraps of papyrus containing the biblical text usually have writing on both sides, suggesting that the fragment came from a codex rather than a scroll. Some scrolls, it is true, were written on both sides, but two-sided scrolls were a technological dead end and never really caught on. The problem was that every scroll, because of the way it was rolled, had an inside and an outside. Readers handled the outside of the scroll, rolling it as the reading progressed, so text present on the outside of the scroll was liable to smudging by the hands of the reader and to other damage. If two-sided scrolls did exist, how do scholars know that extant two-sided fragments came from a codex rather than a scroll? By estimating the size of the original page, extrapolating the number of letters per page, and comparing it with the standard form of the biblical text, one can determine what text should appear on the back of the leaf, assuming it was from a codex, with some degree of precision. (If the fragment were from a two-sided scroll, unless it was the last separate sheet in the roll, the text on the back would be different.) In every case so far examined, letter counts indicate that the fragment was part of a codex.
8. Scrolls were in general use for almost two thousand years with few innovations, so they were clearly a viable medium for transmitting the biblical text. Nevertheless, they had certain disadvantages. First, because scrolls were normally written on only one side, half of the usable writing surface was wasted. Second, though there were exceptions, scrolls tended to be limited to certain lengths, because extremely long scrolls were unwieldy and difficult to use. Third, scrolls by nature are sequential access devices (like cassette tapes), so finding a particular place in the scroll required the reader to "scroll" past all the preceding text; one could not turn straight to the desired passage. The codex addressed all these issues.
9. The origin of the codex is somewhat mysterious. In the first century C.E. the codex was almost unknown. By the end of the second century, its use was ubiquitous among Christians for the transmission of the biblical text, though it was not yet widely used by others. By the beginning of the fourth century, however, the codex was used about as often as the scroll for Greek books of all sorts, and the codex continued to grow in popularity in subsequent years.3 Although Christians were the group that most quickly and completely adopted the codex for its sacred texts, they did not invent the codex. The codex seems to have been a Roman invention, modeled on wooden writing tablets that consisted of two or more thin pieces of wood, often coated with wax, tied together along one edge with a cord of some sort.4 Originally these tablets were used as erasable notebooks. By the end of the first century C.E., wood had been replaced by papyrus or parchment, but they were still used primarily for informal, ephemeral writing rather than for works of literature. However, at some point during the first century book dealers began offering certain works in codex form, as the Roman poet Martial reports.5 Still, codices were used sparingly for the reproduction of literary material, until they were adopted as the standard book-form for the sacred writings of Christianity. It is interesting to note that the codex was invented to solve a different problem--the need for an erasable notebook--and only later did people realize that it could be used as a replacement for the scroll (exaptation).
10. What led the early church to adopt the codex form as its own is unknown, but that it did so in the late first or early second century is certain. Once people became familiar with codices, however, their advantages were readily apparent. Because the outside of a codex was protected by a hard cover of wood or leather, both sides of the papyrus or parchment pages were protected, so scribes could write on both sides of the page. Codices could hold many more pages in a manageable fashion than scrolls, so multiple works could be contained in a single codex. Most importantly, codices are random access devices (like CDs), so the reader can turn immediately to a particular passage without having to "scroll" past the material that precedes it.
11. Most of the earliest extant codices that contain the biblical text are papyrus rather than parchment, mirroring the preference for papyrus in the southern Levant at the time. By the fourth century, parchment codices had achieved parity with papyrus codices among New Testament manuscripts, and the papyrus codex disappear entirely from the record after the eighth century.6 One reason for the gradual replacement of papyrus by parchment may be related to the disadvantage of writing on the verso side of papyrus pages. If so, then the use of papyrus early in the Era of the Codex is an example of overlap with the Era of the Scroll that faded away as users were able to break with the traditions associated with scroll production.
12. Another example of overlap between scrolls and codices is the use of columns. The length of an unrolled scroll demanded that short columns be used to facilitate reading. Individual pages of a codex did not demand the use of columns; nevertheless, many codices containing the biblical text used columns, sometimes quite narrow ones. For example, Codex Sinaiticus, a Greek manuscript of the entire Christian Bible, was arranged in four columns, and Codices Vaticanus and Ambrosianus are arranged in three columns. Most biblical manuscripts used one or two columns.
13. Christians may have been the first group to adopt the codex as the preferred form for transmitting texts, but others throughout the Roman Empire, and eventually beyond, soon followed suit. In particular, Jews began producing magnificent codices of the Hebrew Bible (such as Codex Leningradensis, which dates to around 1008 C.E.), which they used alongside scrolls for study and worship.
14. Extant codices from late antiquity and the medieval period exist in a number of forms, some of which were technological dead ends. One such form that was quickly abandoned was the single-quire codex. A quire is a collection of pages--often made from a single, large original sheet that has been folded and cut--that is sewn together separately. Individual quires are then joined together to form the codex. When pages are joined in a quire, the pages on the inside must be trimmed in order to maintain an even appearance. Quires of four or eight sheets require little trimming, but a large quire requires substantial portions of the inside pages to be cut away. The New Testament manuscript called 46 is a single-quire manuscript that originally contained 104 leaves. Another innovation that saw limited use was the deluxe edition, written with silver or gold ink on purple parchment. Jerome, who produced the Latin Vulgate in the fourth century, complained about the extravagance of the deluxe editions, believing them to be a waste of money and a scandal to the church.7 Nevertheless, they continued to be produced on occasion throughout the period.
15. One innovation concerning Greek biblical manuscripts, especially New Testament manuscripts, that was adopted during the Era of the Codex was minuscule script, which was devised in the ninth century. Minuscule script was a form of cursive that joined letters together and used ligatures for certain combinations of letters. Scribes could write minuscule script somewhat more rapidly than the older uncial script, and minuscule manuscripts completely displaced uncials by the eleventh century.
16. How did the codex form affect the transmission of the biblical text? One way involved the number and order of the books present in a particular codex. The earliest manuscripts of the both the Old and the New Testaments are varied in both content and order. Greek Old Testament manuscripts, for example, include both the books of the Hebrew Bible proper (the Tanakh) and deuterocanonical books, but different manuscripts include different deuterocanonical books (and occasionally books of the Tanakh) and put them in different orders. Similarly, early New Testament manuscripts evidence a wide variety of content and order, settling down to the currently accepted 27 books in the modern order after the fourth or fifth century (except in the Syriac and Ethiopic churches and a few others). Another way in which the codex affected transmission was the relative ease with which one could consult other manuscripts. If scribes in monasteries were able to look at more than one exemplar while creating a new manuscript, they could more easily correct the text on which they were working. On the other hand, they could also create a conflated text, or one that was mixed, following first one then the other exemplar when they differed.
17. The codex was a widely popular form for transmitting the biblical text among both Jews and Christians, although Jews continued to use scrolls as well in certain contexts. However, the production of large codices was expensive because of the labor involved in writing. The value attached to codices is illustrated by the existence in many places of "chained libraries," libraries in which large codices were literally chained to the bookshelf or the table, so that readers could consult the codex but not abscond with it (the chains attached to the books were the medieval equivalent of today's scanning devices at library exits that activate an alarm if someone tries to take a book through the gate that has not been checked out). The next innovation in technology would address the cost issue.
18. Unlike the codex and the Web page, the printed page did not make use of a previously existing technology and adapt it for use in transmitting the biblical text. Johannes Gutenberg designed his printing press with the publication of the Bible as one of his goals. Printing with carved wooden blocks had been done in China, Korea, and elsewhere in the East for hundreds of years, and in more recent times it was known throughout Europe as well, but Gutenberg's innovation was to use blocks consisting of a single letter, or movable type. Gutenberg's first printed book was the Latin Vulgate, published around 1456. Within fifty years, Bibles in Latin, Hebrew, and various European vernacular languages (translated from Latin) emerged from presses throughout Europe, though the Greek New Testament had to wait until 1516 (more on this phenomenon below).
19. The printed page had two great advantages over manuscript codices. First, once the type was set, books could be mass-produced, greatly reducing the cost of an individual volume. Second, every copy produced in a given print run was identical to every other copy. Errors were still introduced into the stream of transmission by typesetting (cf. the so-called "Wicked Bible," a 1631 edition of the King James Bible, which omitted the word "not" from the seventh commandment), but once they were caught, they could be corrected in later printings.
20. Early printed Bibles used at least two techniques that were borrowed from codices, not counting the continued use of columns, a practice carried over from scrolls. First, early Greek Bibles used a rather complex script, replete with ligatures and contextual forms, that was based on minuscule manuscripts. This script required the typesetter to use more than a hundred and fifty special characters in addition to the twenty-four standalone letters of the Greek alphabet (actually forty-eight, when capitals are included).8 Whether the complexity of the script accounts for the delay in the publication of the first Greek New Testament is a matter of debate. However, it is telling that printers gradually abandoned the complex Greek script of the earlier books and adopted a purely alphabetic system, without ligatures, that used only one contextual form, a final sigma.
21. Second, huge printed volumes, modeled on large codices found in churches and libraries, were gradually abandoned in favor of smaller, more user-friendly volumes. One reason for the move toward smaller books was the introduction of paper rather than parchment as the material of choice for printed books. Paper was invented in China in the first century C.E., and it became popular in Europe for the production of manuscripts during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Because paper is thinner than parchment, books with paper sheets could be smaller, yet just as durable. Paper was also cheaper to produce than parchment, so the cost of printing books with paper was less than that of parchment books. Since books were more affordable, individuals, not just university libraries and other institutions, became customers, and smaller volumes were better suited for individual study than the huge volumes in churches and chained libraries.
22. One artifact of paper manufacture that became a technological dead end is now known as acid paper. During the nineteenth century, techniques were developed for making paper more cheaply by processing wood pulp with a variety of chemicals. This paper became almost ubiquitous in books of all sorts, including printed Bibles. What publishers did not know was that the paper they had created, which had pH levels below 5 and was thus acidic, was slowly deteriorating. After many years, acid paper turns yellow or brown and becomes very brittle. By the late 1930s the problem of acid paper was well known, and within a decade or so it had ceased to be used in most printed works.
23. The printing press was a tremendously important advance in the history of the transmission of the biblical text. The printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation, whose ideas were spread by pamphlets printed cheaply on presses and distributed to the masses. The Reformation stressed individual freedom before God, an idea that led directly to the publication of the Bible in many different vernacular translations, most based on the Hebrew and Greek texts rather than the Latin Vulgate. Along with the ideas of Luther and Calvin, the scientific and mathematical discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and many others gave rise to the Enlightenment, which in turn influenced biblical scholarship and led to the modern science of textual criticism and the production of critical texts. Scholars, both Jewish and Christian, used these critical texts in turn as the basis for new vernacular translations. By the end of the 2003, according to the United Bible Societies, all or portions of the Bible had been translated into 2355 different languages.9
24. The invention of the printing press led to both advances in scholarship and wider dissemination of the Bible, but a late twentieth century innovation promises to affect the transmission of the biblical text in ways that are just as revolutionary. The Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 jarred the U.S. government and scientific community to its core. One response was the creation of a network for linking research institutions together, called ARPANET. After more than a decade of discussion, ARPANET was launched in 1969 with four institutions connected. Over the next several years, more institutions were connected, and e-mail, listservs, TCP/IP, domain names, and Unix were all developed. ARPANET itself was renamed the Internet. In 1992 the European Organization for Nuclear Research, or CERN, launched the World Wide Web. The following year Mosaic, the first graphical Web browser, was released by NCSA. The Web became a mass phenomenon in 1994, when hundreds of thousands of new hosts were added to the Internet.
25. As the Internet was changing from a network of research institutions into a vast network of networks that included schools, businesses, and individuals, three other important developments for the transmission of the biblical text progressed. First, biblical texts were encoded for the first time in electronic form. Early attempts to encode the Bible were based on the Binary Coded Decimal (BCD) system designed for computer punch cards. Since BCD lacked lowercase letters (it was a six-bit encoding scheme), Greek scholars used an asterisk before a letter to indicate that it was to be capitalized.10 Even after the advent of lowercase letters in the seven-bit schemes of EBCDIC and, more importantly, ASCII, many electronic texts continued to use the asterisk to indicate capitalization. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a sixteen-bit encoding scheme, which came to be called Unicode, was developed as an alternative to ASCII. Rather than mapping a Greek alpha to the code for the ASCII letter a, Unicode has a separate set of code points for the Greek alphabet, as well as for Hebrew, Arabic, Syriac, and many other languages with distinct scripts. Unicode is not yet available on all computers and in all programs, but the trend is for major software programs to handle Unicode.
26. Alongside character encoding, text encoding developed as a means of marking a block of text as being special in some way. The early text encoding schemes, such as RTF, mimicked print, focusing solely on the appearance of a passage of text, for example, italic script. SGML was developed to indicate the function of a text, for example, book title. HTML, a form of SGML used on the Web, marked both function and appearance, but its tag set was very limited. XML, the second-generation language of the Web, marks function, as SGML intended, but in conjunction with style sheets, it can also specify how text should appear on the screen.
27. In addition to the development of new encoding schemes for characters and text, software and databases were developed to store and analyze the biblical text. One early program was the Parallel Aligned Hebrew and Greek Text produced by the Computer Assisted Tools for Septuagint Studies project.11 Many Bible study software packages followed, at first using proprietary encoding schemes but eventually adopting either SGML or XML. Major projects, such as the Oxford Hebrew Bible, the New English Translation of the Septuagint, and the Editio Critica Maior of the Greek New Testament all use sophisticated software and databases to generate both electronic and print output.
28. Character encoding, text encoding, and the combination of software and databases all advanced the study of the biblical text, but the transmission of the text was enhanced most of all by the advent of the World Wide Web. Piggybacking on the Internet, the Web allowed users to view both text and images. Later enhancements allowed them to link to movies, sound files, computer programs, and virtual reality models, among other things. In 1994, when the Web first came to the attention of the general public, few biblical texts were available online. Ten years later, the Web abounds with biblical texts, including digitized versions of standard print editions, new Web-based editions (e.g., the NET Bible), transcriptions of individual manuscripts (e.g., the Corpus of Literary Papyri at Oxford University), and manuscript images (e.g., the Biblical Manuscripts Project). Free Web-based fonts--such as the SP fonts, developed for use in the e-journal TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, but now used on many different Web sites--allowed users to share the biblical text with one another, regardless of whether they were working on PCs, Macs, or Unix computers.
29. Publication of biblical texts on the Web offers many advantages over traditional print publishing. First, many critical editions of the biblical text have failed to reach completion, in part because of the tremendous costs associated with such an undertaking. Electronic typesetting, using fonts rather than actual moveable type, has reduced production costs, and electronic publication eliminates the cost of printing and binding books for what are usually short runs (i.e., few copies would be printed because of limited demand). Second, scholars who want to use a print version of a particular edition of the Bible either have to buy the book, sometimes for a substantial amount of money, or travel to a university library to use a copy. When the material is available on the Web, access is immediate and free. Thus, scholars anywhere in the world, as well as interested amateurs, are able to access the Bible in a variety of popular and scholarly forms. Third, the availability of biblical texts in electronic form allows users to search and analyze the text much more easily than they could when the text was only in print. Fourth, embedded hyperlinks in online biblical texts allow users to jump to parallel passages, footnotes, definitions, or morphological analyses with the click of a mouse. Fifth, users can view different versions of the biblical text in parallel columns, thus simplifying the comparative study of biblical passages.
30. Publication on the Web is still new, and holdovers from the print mentality abound. For example, many online publications still try to use page numbers, even though the individual "page" is a relic from printing that is not applicable in online publication. Another example involves the use of text encoding schemes that indicate appearance rather than function. The encoding of appearance rather than function is still prevalent on the Web and will remain dominant until XML replaces HTML as the preferred text encoding scheme.
31. Despite the recent development of the Internet and the Web, some technologies and policies have already fallen into disuse. One policy matter that has not carried over well from print to online publication is the issue of charging for access to texts. Early attempts to charge users for access to material ran headlong into the culture of the Internet, which demanded everything for free. Although much material that is online today can only be accessed by paying a fee, most biblical texts that are online are freely available. An online technology that has already fallen into disuse was called Gopher. It predated the Web by a couple of years, but its text-only format was overshadowed almost immediately by the power and flexibility of the Web. Another online tool that is rarely if ever used today is a program called Archie, which was used to search FTP archives. This extremely valuable tool has now been superseded by search engines such as Google.
32. The Era of the Web Page is still in its incipient stage, and one can only speculate about the future. However, some trends are worth noting. It is interesting to observe that the Era of the Scroll lasted about 2000 years, the Era of the Codex about 1500 years, the Era of the Printed Page a mere 500 years, and the Era of the Web Page has been going for only ten years. Each era in this sequence has been substantially shorter than the first, and anyone who thinks that the Web page is the final technological advance in the transmission of the biblical text lacks both a sense of history and an imagination. What might the future hold? The following are some of my predictions.
33. The transmission of the Bible in written form has come a long way from the days in which it was first written on papyrus or parchment scrolls. Once limited to the educated elite of society, the biblical text is now widely available in thousands of languages in print and, increasingly, in electronic form as well. As the technology of writing has developed, those who wanted to transmit the biblical text to others have adopted the technology and adapted it to their needs. What the future holds is anyone's guess, but of one thing all can be sure. Technology will continue to develop, and those who are interested in transmitting the text of the Bible will use the newest technology to continue to spread the Word.
1Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 144n. Other scientists use the less appropriate term "preadaptation." Evolutionary theory provides several other useful analogies for the development of the technology of writing, including speciation (overlap), evolutionary dead ends (technological dead ends), and adaptation and specialization (older technologies filling specific niches). Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium--still a minority position among evolutionary biologists--provides an interesting parallel to the rapid development of technology that occurs at and just after the transition from one era to another and the slower development that occurs at other times; idem, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002), 745-1024.
2For a comparison of papyrus and parchment and a description of the manufacture of each, see Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 43-48.
4Collin H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1.
6Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, trans. Erroll. F. Rhodes, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 81.
7Bruce M. Metzger, The Text of the New Testament, 3d ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 4, n. 1.
9United Bible Societies, Scripture Language Report 2003 (Reading, UK: United Bible Societies, 2004) [http://www.biblesociety.org/index2.htm].
10A list of the original Hebrew and Greek encoding schemes used by biblical scholars can be found in the first Offline column by Robert A. Kraft that appeared in Religious Studies News, preserved online at http://purl.org/reltech/Offline/off1.html.
11Robert A. Kraft and Emanuel Tov, Computer Assisted Tools for Septuagint Studies (CATSS), vol. 1: Ruth (SCS 20; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986).