Book Review: Books and Readers in the Early Church

In honor of Professor Gamble’s recent retirement, I give you this recap of his best-known work, a must-read for anyone interested in textual criticism, material culture, and the use of Scripture in early Christianity:

Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. Pp. xii + 337.

While the contents of early Christian documents have been carefully studied for centuries by textual critics and theologians alike, very little attention has been given to the physical characteristics of these documents themselves, much less the broader questions of how and why early Christian literature was produced, transmitted, and read. Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church sets out to answer all of these questions and more.

The book is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 deals with the topics of literacy and literary culture in early Christianity. Beginning with the topic of literacy, Gamble employs comparative analysis of literacy in the ancient world to demonstrate that Christian literacy, on the assumption that it parallels that of the Greco-Roman world at large, was likely no more than about 10 percent in any given setting. Gamble is quick to note, however, that even if most Christians were illiterate, they nevertheless had frequent contact with Christian texts, through the liturgical reading of Scripture and the process of catechesis. Those Christians with a high level of education were likely quickly put forward as leaders in the church. On the subject of literary culture, Gamble is particularly concerned to refute the view of form critics who maintained that Christianity was a nonliterary phenomenon which played oral tradition against the production of texts. Gamble, however, uses parallels from Qumran and the existence of written documents from even the earliest years of Christianity (e.g., Q and early testimonia collections), to argue that oral and written tradition in fact stood alongside one another from the beginning. By and large, the early Christian texts, although not of a high-class literary character, were not therefore vulgar; rather, they occupied an intermediate level of style, utilizing established rhetorical conventions. Thus, early Christian literature can be viewed against the backdrop of the literary culture of the early Roman empire.

Chapter 2 focuses on the physical form of the Christian book. After describing how papyrus and parchment rolls were made in the Greco-Roman world, Gamble focuses on the transition from the roll to the codex. Against those who argue that early Christianity “invented” the codex form, Gamble takes the more moderate position that Christians were merely the first to consistently use the codex as not just a notebook but a medium of literature. Gamble deconstructs many others’ views of why the early Christians favored the codex, before advancing his own argument, which holds that the earliest edition of the Pauline letter collection must have been a codex, and it was the authority of this collection which led to subsequent Christian adoption of the codex. Gamble then turns to a discussion of the quality of the inscriptional features and scribal hands of these early Christian books, which he locates, like the language of the Greek New Testament, as somewhere between the vulgar and high-literary registers.

Chapter 3 takes up the subject of the publication and circulation of early Christian books. Again starting with a discussion of this practice in the Greco-Roman world more broadly within which Christian practice can be situated, Gamble argues that most early Christian literature was privately copied and circulated by Christians themselves. Gamble also suggests that there was little difference in how scriptural and non-scriptural texts were produced and circulated on account of the flexibility of the canon in the earliest centuries. This pattern of “publication” continued in the subsequent centuries; rather than imagining a commercial booktrade, we are to think of Christians privately making their works available to be copied through personal contacts. Despite these parallels with the pagan world, early Christian literature was unique in that it was disseminated more rapidly and more broadly than almost any pagan work, which is not surprising given the essential role that books played in Christian life and worship across the empire.

Chapter 4 takes us inside the world of Christian libraries, which could take many different forms and sizes. On the smallest scale, congregational libraries were merely the small collections of books that individual congregations had accumulated for their liturgical, catechetical, and archival purposes. Often the books were housed not at the church itself but in the homes of the congregation’s readers. On a bigger scale, the first large-scale library was founded in Jerusalem in the early third century, though this was quickly eclipsed by the research library at Caesarea, which benefited from the patronage of Origen. The Caesarean library was involved with collating and revising scriptural texts, which likely required a scriptorium, and therefore had an enormous influence on the textual history of the Bible. The best-known library in the West, though, was in Hippo, owing to the presence of Augustine. Perhaps the most important legacy of these early Christian libraries, however, was their preservation of classical literature and scholarship into the modern era.

Chapter 5 concludes the book with a survey of the various uses to which Christian books could be put. Gamble focuses on the public reading of Christian books, primarily the reading of scripture in liturgical contexts, and argues for the early and enduring role of scriptural reading in Christian worship. Gamble makes the interesting claim that this liturgical reading of Scripture was, from the beginning, in fact chanted or sung, suggesting that a cantillated style was necessary in the absence of word division and punctuation. As such, we can think of the early lectores as not just readers but interpreters of the biblical text. After a brief discussion of the extent of private reading among early Christians, Gamble concludes with a discussion of the “magical” uses of Christian books. Gamble not only highlights the well-known use of scriptural texts in amulets, but also discusses how even great theologians such as Augustine and John Chrysostom attributed special powers to the written word.

Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church is a true tour de force, filling a major lacuna in early Christian scholarship and drawing on a seemingly endless parade of both primary and secondary sources. Gamble’s writing style is always clear and well-organized, if not always particularly colorful. By answering questions that most scholars would not have even thought to ask, Gamble shines a unique and exceedingly important light on the history of early Christianity. His explanation for the rise of the codex in early Christianity is particularly persuasive and memorable. Gamble’s comments on the scriptorium at Caesarea and the evidence for its text-critical work are also most interesting in light of recent scholarly trends to dismiss the existence of any kind of Caesarean redaction or text-type; I wish Gamble would have gone on about this in more detail.

Still, this book is not without a few shortcomings. Gamble occasionally makes assumptions that more recent research appears to be overturning (e.g., his correlation between documentary hands and careless transmission) or are simply speculative (e.g., that the Gospels received their titles so they could be more easily located in a library). Perhaps the biggest improvement in a second edition would be the inclusion of a postscript or conclusion; as it currently stands, the book simply ends after Gamble’s discussion of the magical uses of Christian books. Gamble thus does not make any attempt at synthesis, nor does he suggest further avenues of study, and I cannot help but feel the book suffers from this overly abrupt ending. Finally, it must be said that Yale University Press did Gamble a disservice with the cover’s garish color scheme and use of transliteration for all Greek quotations. Nevertheless, in sum, Gamble’s “book on books” is endlessly thought-provoking and worthy of careful consideration, and I wish him a very happy retirement!


About krhughes14

Smyrna, Georgia
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