The Big Question 26: Did Christians Invent the Book?
Oct 10, 2018 1927
Did Christians invent the book?
Well, they didn’t really invent it. But they were instrumental in the development of the book as we know it, I mean, with pages and covers, and so on.
The first books were just scratches on a big stone. Then some smart person discovered that that clay tablets were easier to write on than stone. Imagine being a school kid and having to lump several clay tablets – basically bricks! – around in your back-pack to and from school! Those were your schoolbooks!
The next big development in books were scrolls. Scrolls were made from the papyrus reeds that grew in Egypt. The downside to papyrus was that it was expensive Also, let’s say you were reading at the end of a scroll, and wanted to refer to something at the beginning. It really was very annoying!
Shortly after the time of Jesus, parchment made from animal skins also began to be used for writing. But they still had to roll it up into a scroll.
Then someone, and we don’t know who, had the bright idea to cut up sheets of parchment into rectangles, stack them together flat, and bind them on one side on a hinge. And suddenly, you had the very first codex, which is the technical term for the book as we know it today.
Codexes rapidly overtook scrolls as the best way of writing things down for posterity. They had lots of practical advantages. They lasted longer, they were easier to read, and they were easier to transport and store.
But there were also religious reasons that the book as we know it – the codex – became the preferred way of writing. It’s no coincidence that the rise of the codex happened at the same time as the rise of Christianity, and that Christianity’s uptake of this form of book was unparalleled and unprecedented.
You see, Christianity was a religion that gave great importance to the written word. The Christian religion promoted and fostered literacy, and it needed an economical way to spread its writings. And codexes were much more economical and easier to transport than scrolls.
At a time when Christians were being persecuted for their faith, it was a lot easier to hide a copy of the Scriptures under your robes if it was in the smaller codex form than if it was a scroll.
So that’s why some people say that Christians invented the book. Books, cheap and easy to carry, promoted literacy, and literacy promoted knowledge, and knowledge led to the scientific and industrial revolutions, which all contributed to the world as we know it today.