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H - 109 : Why we have Books

Updated: Apr 10

Am reading the book “Rome and Persia – the Seven Hundred Year Rivalry” . Absolutely fabulous history of two empires who fought each other to exhaustion - only to be consumed by the emerging Muslim world in the 7th century. It occurred to me that this was also the time when bound books - as the one I hold in my hands – started to be used.

Fresco of a Roman Woman Reading a hand-held Scroll

The famous libraries in Alexandria or Pergamon kept their texts on scrolls. Bound books were not known and not in use yet. The light scrolls were stored in small boxes or piled on shelves. Always wondered how anybody found a scroll when looking for a specific writer. I guess it was all in the heads of the librarians.

Cuneiform Tablet with a Caravan Account 19th Century BC

Scrolls were a significant progress compared to the Sumer’s heavy clay tablets or the Roman wax tabs which were good for taking quick notes but not for permanent record keeping. Scrolls were made from papyrus stripes and written in ink, both invented in Egypt by 2’500 BC. The scrolls were light, hand held and tied with a short string. They were about 25 – 30 cm wide and had 20 – 30 pages, Completely adequate for the length of ancient texts. Two handles were used for longer scrolls. You did not have to unroll the entire scroll for reading.

Fresco of a Roman Couple with their Wax Tablet

In antiquity, texts were short. Antigone from Sophocles has only 11’000 words. Aeschylus four major works (the Persians, 7 against Thebes, the Suppliant Maidens and Prometheus Bound) count for 60’750 words. Galen’s 122 works on medicine account for 2.6 million words (or 21’000 per scroll). Aristoteles’ 45 works have a total of 380’000 words (about 8’500 words on average).

Fragment of Saint Paul's Epistles on a Papyrus Scroll

The Gilgamesh epos was an exception with 32’000 words, followed by Homer’s Odyssey with 134'000 and the Iliad with 193’000 words. The real exception though was the Hebrew bible (alt testament) with 306’000 words. No wonder it was rolled on two handles. It was simple too long to be on a hand-held scroll.

The Thora with two Handles was a unwieldy but ok since it stayed in the Synagogue

By around 200 AD, a new invention from India started to appear in the Mediterranean world. Indian monks compiled religious texts on folded sheets, then stitched them together with thread and cut open the folds on top and bottom. The bound pages were then put between hard backs. The book as we know was born. Makes perfect sense for lengthy religious texts.

Roman Emperor Claudius (41 - 54 AD) carrying a hand-

held Scroll with one of his Edicts in his right Hand

First, there was little use for the new technology. The scrolls did a perfect job – there was no need for change. Scrolls were easy to use and store. Scrolls had a major disadvantage though. They had no chapters, no page numbers, no indexes. They were continuously written text. As long as texts were short, this was no handicap. Over time though, society became more complex. So did the texts which increased in length. How do you handle texts as long as the Thora? For Jewish rabbis who studied the Hebrew bible all their life, this was no issue. They knew it by heart. But for everybody else, text length became a problem.

A Page from the Book of Esther from the Codex Sinaiticus - one of our oldest Bible Texts

Over time, the problem got bigger. The bible, including the new testament, has 780’000 words. Worse, the Code of Justinian, the Roman Law, had 800’000. How do you navigate these texts? Specifically when you were a recently converted Gentile. Like the  early Christians? Or a young lawyers in far-away Africa who had to apply the new Justinian code? They needed a tool to get to the relevant part of the text. What is better than an index with the relevant page number? Search engines as we know them were still 2’000 years in the future.

Medieval Copy of the Codex of Justinian from the 16th Century

Bound books with chapters and indexes were the answer. We do not know whether the 50 bibles Emperor Constantine the Great ordered in 331 AD were written on scrolls or as bound books. They were produced by Eusebius in Caesarea – the artificial port built by King Herod. None of the 50 copies survived. The Codex Sinaiticus and the Codex Vaticanus, the two oldest bible texts we have, are probably copies of these first 50 bibles. Both are written on parchment and bound. They date from the 4th century. Within less than 200 years, people in the Mediterranean had learned how to make books.

The early Bible Text like the Book of St Mark were

still written on Scrolls

Sadly, we have no copies of these early books. Of Justinian’s Law Codex no original has survived either. But the way the text is organized let us conclude that they were bound.

A Jewish Prayer Book from 840 AD - one of the oldest

I could not have written my PhD without libraries, proper books and indexes. I remember the months I spent looking for passages to quote and research done in earlier years. It would have been years had I had to unroll scrolls. Today, the internet with its search engines delivers everything at our finger tips. I could not write my blogs without it. Information and data today is so easily available and knowhow spreads fast. It is an exponential revolution in information. An acceleration in know how. So were the first books when they arrived in 200 AD. Without the wide distribution of the Bible, we would not live in a modern society with its comforts, amenities and freedoms. The words Byblos in Greek means Book.

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