As previously stated, one of the goals of this blog is to provide book reviews. I am currently examining the new entry into the Anchor Bible series, Fitzmyers’ 1 Corinthians commentary. While I finish up that review, I decided to post a review I wrote last year. Harry Gamble is one of my favorite scholars and thus, it is no surprise that I highly recommend Books and Readers in the Early Church.
Books and Readers in the Early Church: a History of Early Christian Texts, by Harry Y. Gamble. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995. Pp. xii + 337. $21.
Harry Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church is an exhaustive examination of early Christians and their literature. He covers a wide range of topics, with chapters labeled literacy, the early Christian book, publication and circulation of Christian literature, Christian libraries, and the uses of early Christian books. Each chapter is further divided into many smaller topics. The presentation of the book is excellent as each topic is clearly denoted and contains a brief opening summary. The number of topics addressed is staggering and nearly every aspect of early Christian literature is addressed.
Gamble begins with literacy in early Christianity and the ancient world in general. He agrees with the conclusions of William Harris who postulates that the rate of literacy in the Greco-Roman world was about ten percent. Gamble claims that the literacy rate in Christianity was similar to the Greco-Roman world and thus, most early Christians were illiterate. However, despite rampant illiteracy, Christians valued their texts greatly. Additionally, most Christians did have access to the literature through public readings, especially in liturgical settings. Gamble concludes that although literacy was not a requirement for joining the community, it was certainly important for early Christian teachers and leaders. He bolsters this claim by demonstrating that early leaders such as Paul, Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias produced written texts. In fact, Gamble states that we are aware of these leaders precisely because they wrote texts which survive today. Finally, Gamble concludes that it is unlikely that Christian communities existed in which no one could read the texts.
Next, Gamble successfully demonstrates that Adolf Deissmann’s classification of texts as either hochliteratur (high culture literature) or kleinliteratur (low culture literature) is not useful for labeling Christian literature. Gamble claims that since Deissmann’s labels are based on Greco-Roman literature they do not accurately assess Christian literature, which was shaped by Judaism.
Chapter one also contains topics such as the scope of early Christian literature, the interaction between oral and literary culture, and the character of early Christian literary culture. Especially interesting is Gamble’s examination of the relationship between oral and literary culture. He questions the conclusions of Parry and Lord, prominent oral culture scholars, who claim that oral and literary cultures are mutually exclusive. Gamble concludes that oral culture continued to be important after the publication of the gospels and that literary culture was important before the publication of the first Christian gospels. He states that the modern distinction between oral and literary is anachronistic as oral and literary culture was more intertwined in the ancient world. In fact, people usually read aloud. Additionally, Gamble claims that Christianity always valued literacy since it originated from Judaism which was a literary culture in the first century.
In chapter 2, Gamble examines the early Christian book. He begins by describing how papyrus rolls were created and used in the Greco-Roman world. Next, he explores the rise and Christian preference of the codex. After examining the available theories he concludes, and provides extensive evidence, that the codex was first used to hold the letters of Paul. He proposes that Paul’s letters were collected soon after their publication and any collection of Paul’s letters was too large to fit on one papyrus roll. Thus, a codex was used to hold all of his letters in one volume. This eventually led to Christians using the codex for all Christian texts. Larry Hurtado’s recent book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts contains many theories concerning the Christian preference for the codex that are not addressed by Gamble. However, Hurtado concludes that Gamble may indeed be correct in claiming that Paul’s letters were the origin for the Christian codex.
Gamble also examines the construction of early Christian books and addresses topics such as the physical characteristics of Christian books, the nomina sacra, the amount of corruption in early texts, and who wrote these texts. He includes illustrations of texts and plates of important early manuscripts which add even more depth to his work.
In chapter 3, Gamble examines the method of publication and circulation of early Christian texts. He begins by examining publication of texts in the Greco-Roman world and concludes that most works were circulated by individuals copying texts from those in their social network. Copies were made on an individual basis rather than mass produced. Even a book seller would have only a few copies of any one work. Gamble concludes that early Christian texts were also transmitted through private channels although among communities rather than individuals. He states that Paul’s letters, the earliest extant Christian texts, were not addressed to individuals but rather to communities. They were read aloud to the community, copied, and then distributed to other communities. Gamble demonstrates that Christian documents of the second and third centuries also circulated via private networks. For instance, Polycarp of Smyrna sent a collection of the letters of Ignatius to the Christians in Philippi who had requested a copy. Gamble also provides extensive analysis of the problem of textual corruption. Texts could be emended by their owners for a variety of purposes and differing theological views was a primary motivation for such changes. Marcion’s extensive editing of the Gospel of Luke is just one example of many individuals who altered their texts.
Gamble provides extensive information about Christian libraries. He proposes that early Christian communities must have had, at a minimum, small collections of book to use for their liturgical ceremonies. Although these initial collections were small, Gamble concludes that beginning in the early third century, larger libraries emerged in important Christian areas such as Jerusalem, Caesarea, and Alexandria. Furthermore, additional libraries were founded after the death of Constantine in areas such as Rome, Constantinople, and many monastic centers. Gamble also provides extensive information concerning private Christian, Greek, Roman, and Jewish libraries.
In Gamble’s final chapter he addresses the use of early Christian books. He notes that public readings were common for ancient texts and Christian works were no exception. In fact, in Paul’s letters he often states that they should be read aloud to the community. Gamble further proposes that canon lists were tied to liturgical usage. He states that works gained theological authority by their extensive liturgical use. Gamble also outlines the roles of the reader, a Church office which developed during the second century. Additionally, he examines the manner in which texts were read publicly. Gamble claims that texts were often chanted and that evidence for this claim is provided by reading aids present in some texts. Furthermore, he examines the private and magical use of Christian texts. One interesting example of a magical use for a Christian text is attested to by Augustine, who comments on individuals sleeping with the Gospel of John under their pillow in order to relieve headaches.
Gamble’s work is an impressive investigation into the writers and readers of early Christian literature. The amount of topics covered is overwhelming. I would strongly recommend this work for anyone interested in early Christian literature. Although Books and Readers is not an introductory work to Christian texts, it would be a valuable supplemental text for any course concerning Christian documents. It is also a useful reference tool for topics such as libraries, literacy, and circulation of texts. Additionally, information is easily found due to the numerous chapter divisions and the inclusion of illustrations and plates also add to the value of this work.
Although, I highly recommend this work there are a few problems. Gamble claims that early leaders must have been literate and that early second century leaders such as Ignatius, Polycarp, and Papias provide evidence for this claim. While I suspect that Gamble is correct, I am not convinced there is enough evidence to support his conclusion. First, we do not have written works of many leaders from the late first and early second centuries. Though other leaders may have been literate, we do not possess copies of their work. Second, although Paul was literate, there is no evidence of literacy for the leaders of other Christian communities. Paul certainly received letters from various communities, but there is no indication that the leaders themselves wrote the letters. Gamble also postulates that the gospels, which did not have titles until the second century, were given titles so that they could be more easily found on bookshelves of community libraries. While this may be the case, there is absolutely no evidence to support such a claim. Despite a few minor issues, Books and Readers is an impressive collection of information and should be in the library of every New Testament scholar.