Gamble, Harry Y. Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-300-06024-6 (cloth); 0-300-06918-9 (paper). Pp. xiv+337. US $35.00 (cloth).

1. "For 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). Some scholars have used these words to bolster their claims that earliest Christianity as a whole did not highly esteem the writings even of acknowledged apostles and leaders of the church, perhaps expecting an imminent eschaton. Others, and especially more conservative scholars, believe that from the beginning the written words of important Christian figures were treasured and passed on with the greatest degree of regard and fidelity. Harry Gamble sets out to address the questions and suppositions that lie behind these views (and others somewhere along the continuum between these two) in his Books and Readers in the Early Church. His book is a history of Christian texts in the first five centuries rather than of Christian literature during that period, since he is more interested in the reception, reading, copying, archiving, and dissemination of texts than in their prehistory, composition, and interrelationships. Another difference from typical treatments of the subject is that Gamble is not content to examine the early Christian references to reading, writing, and copying of texts; he expands his field of view to include the whole phenomenon of literacy and literary production the Greco-Roman world.

2. Gamble first addresses the question of literacy in the early church. Since Christianity originated in a Greco-Roman context, it is reasonable to assume that the typical Christian church was a reflection of the surrounding society in terms of education, literacy, and attitudes toward written texts, but Gamble recognizes that Christianity's roots in Judaism, as well as its own special concerns, preclude overgeneralization. Studies indicate that literacy in the ancient world in which Christianity was born usually hovered around ten percent of the population, never exceeding fifteen or twenty percent. This low rate of literacy does not imply, however, that the population as a whole had no interaction at all with written texts. On the contrary, public readings of famous authors' works were popular, as was the staging of plays. Christians inherited from their Jewish forebears a respect for written testimonies of their faith, although their distaste for "things pagan" kept many out of the Greco-Roman schools, based as they were on pagan texts. Chistians who held positions of responsibility in the early church were certainly expected to be able to read, and new converts often advanced quickly up the ecclesiastical ladder because of their literary abilities, sometimes (according to their critics) without being fully grounded in matters of doctrine. The almost ubiquitous appeal in early Christian writings to Jewish scriptures suggests that converts, Jew and Gentile alike, were expected to be familiar with them (perhaps in the form of testimonia), another indication of the importance of at least these books in the early church.

3. Should early Christian writings be considered literature or as transitory works designed for use only in a particular historical setting? Gamble looks at these positions and finds both wanting. While early Christian writers might not have been self-consciously creating Hochliteratur, there are many indications that they intended for their works to be copied and used by people other than the original recipients. Adolf Deissmann's famous dictum that early Christian works were written in popular, colloquial Greek (Deissmann 1978: 69-72) must now be modified to recognize that these writings are written in the professional prose of the day. Early Christian letters are similar to official and philosophical letters, and the gospels are similar to other Greco-Roman biographical literature.

4. Gamble's evaluation concerning the place of early Christian writings within their larger Greco-Roman context is both informative and convincing, for the most part. His suggestion that a literacy rate of about ten percent was probably typical for Christian congregations in the first few centuries is believable despite an obvious predilection for both Jewish and Christian texts among Christians, since most members of the congregation would have acquired their knowledge of these writings through public rather than individual reading. His comparison of Christian writings with contemporary professional works (particularly those associated with philosophical schools, which had similar apologetic and hortatory goals) is also enlightening, although one must question whether the Greek of most of the New Testament, filled as it is with Semitisms, can really be considered completely on a par with even the relaxed Greek of technical writers. Nevertheless, the quality of the Greek of the New Testament (with a couple of exceptions) is closer to that of the professionals than to that used in less formal communications and notes written on both papyrus and ostraca.

5. Gamble begins his second chapter, "The Early Christian Book," with the following insightful comment:

By observing precisely how the text was laid out, how it was written, and what it was written on or in one has access not only to the technical means of its production but also, since these are the signs of intended and actual uses, to the social attitudes, motives, and contexts that sustained its life and shaped its meaning. From this perspective a clean distinction between textual history and the history of literature is neither possible nor desirable [p. 43].
Early Christian books are almost exclusively codices rather than rolls, and the acceptance of the codex in the Roman empire was clearly the result of Christians' use of this form of the book. Originally used to hold non-literary items such as notes and sketches, codices were used by the early church to hold more permanent works as well. It is unlikely that Christians were the first to use codices in this manner, however, since a similar use is mentioned by Martial in the late first century. Why did the church choose the codex as its preferred medium for transcribing its most important writings? Gamble finds the suggestions that have been offered to date--the codex was more economical, since writing was on both sides of the page; it was more convenient to use than a roll; sayings of Jesus were recorded in codex notebooks and then transferred to codex gospels--unconvincing, and he offers his own proposal. Following the lead of Edgar Goodspeed (Goodspeed 1926: 20-32), he suggests that Paul's letters were the earliest to be collected and copied as a group and that they were copied in codex form. The use of the codex implies that, though the earliest Christians thought highly of Paul's letters, they did not consider them equivalent to the scriptures they had inherited from Judaism, which were transmitted on rolls. Other indications that the church saw their own writings as practical rather than authoritative (i.e., on a par with the Jewish scriptures) are the use of the less formal "documentary hand" rather than the more formal "bookhand" in codices before the fourth century, the abbreviation of numbers, and the enlarging of initial letters in sections.

6. Gamble says that early Christians apparently produced their own books rather than relying on professional scribes. This statement is supported by several considerations: the high number of corruptions in early manuscripts; unusual features (fewer letters per line than normal, fewer lines per page, heavy use of accents and breathing marks) that suggest that several manuscripts were intended for use in public worship; use of contracted nomina sacra. In regard to this last phenomenon, Gamble offers an interesting proposal for the development of the use of nomina sacra in Christian writings. Noting that Jewish Greek manuscripts used Hebrew or Aramaic script for transcribing the Tetragrammaton, Christian scribes copying the Old Testament substituted <grc>kurios</grc> (a reading tradition in the Greek synagogues?) but contracted it to retain a graphical differentiation from the surrounding text. When Christian scribes copied New Testament manuscripts, they followed the same procedure of contracting <grc>kurios</grc>, and they likewise began to contract <grc>qeos</grc>, <grc>Ihsous</grc>, and <grc>Xristos</grc> (the latter two under the influence of a high Christology). The final step in the process was that Christian scribes, forgetting the original tie to the Tetragrammaton, began abbreviating other significant words in their manuscripts, including "David," "Jerusalem," "Spirit," "cross," and "heaven."

7. Gamble's observation that the form of Christian books tells us something about Christian attitudes toward those books is an important one, largely overlooked in other studies. His assertion that it is "nearly certain" that the introduction of the codex as the distinctive Christian form of the book was associated with the letters of Paul (p. 63) is perhaps an overstatement, but his is certainly a good hypothesis. One can, of course, argue with certain details of his proposal. For example, his claim that the order of the Pauline epistles as well as the number was determined by their incorporation into the codex (p. 63) is not supported by the evidence, which seems rather to support the parallel circulation of Pauline codices that contained at least three different orderings of the letters. His overall argument seems solid, however. Gamble's outline of the development of the nomina sacra raises interesting questions that should be taken up in other settings. Did Greek synagogues really have a reading tradition of pronouncing <grc>kurios</grc> for the Tetragrammaton? What are the implications of the early use of nomina sacra for the development of a high Christology? What are the implications of a "low" view of Christian writings in the first three centuries for the study of the New Testament text?

8. The third chapter, "The Publication and Circulation of Early Christian Literature," is the centerpiece of the book, and it is of special importance to text critics. Gamble begins by describing the publication of a typical Greco-Roman text. When an author was ready to release his work, he would let his friends know, and they would make their own personal copies of the work. Their copies would likewise be borrowed by others for copying. Some particularly important works might be deposited in a library, where the general public (or at least privileged members of the public) could have access and make their own copies. The book might even be offered to a bookseller, who would make several copies for his buyers. No concept of copyright existed in the ancient world; authors hoped to make a living not from the sale of their books but from the patronage that might arise from their writings being noticed by the right person. Before mass-production scriptoria, which did not become common until the early medieval period, the primary way that Christian works, too, were transmitted was by this type of private publication.

9. Evidence exists that many books of the New Testament were intended to be copied and circulated among the faithful, and perhaps even to interested non-Christians. Several Pauline letters mention other letters of his or give instructions for copying the present letter. The book of Revelation was a self-conscious literary production, warning its readers not to impede its circulation and exhorting them to guard the integrity of the book by careful transmission. Letters addressed to groups of people, like James and 1 Peter, were also apparently intended to be copied and circulated in at least a limited geographical area, and perhaps more widely. The gospels themselves were surely intended not merely for a single audience but for more widespread reading.

10. Many early Christian writers, following the common practice of the day, kept copies of their own letters that they wrote both to individuals and to groups of people. Gamble suggests that Paul probably followed this practice. It is certain that the Shepherd of Hermas and the letters of Ignatius existed in multiple copies from the beginning (Hermas is ordered in a vision to make two copies of the work, in addition to his own copy; Polycarp mentions in a letter that he has a number [maybe all] of Ignatius' letters). Other early Christian writers such as Irenaeus and Rufinus also gave instructions for the dissemination of their works, including the collation of copies against the original, presumably kept by the author himself. The writings of Cyprian were so popular that they were sold commercially after his death.

11. There is evidence already in the second century that Christians "corrected" the works they copied according to certain stylistic and theological criteria. Some writers accused the "heterodox" of corrupting their works, although Bart Ehrman has demonstrated convincingly that the "orthodox" engaged in similar practices (Ehrman 1993: passim) (Gamble points to the multiple endings of Mark, the addition of the Pastorals to the Pauline corpus, and harmonization among the Synoptic gospels as examples of "orthodox corruption"). The unregulated transmission of texts led to corruption, both intentional and unintentional, and, ironically, religious texts were especially vulnerable to intentional change. Even Marcion's treatment of the Pauline letters and the gospel of Luke was consistent with established Greco-Roman standards of criticism. Sometimes changes were made to texts by the authors themselves. Tertullian and Augustine both issued multiple editions of some of their works, and readings from various editions were undoubtedly sometimes mixed together.

12. All of these observations are of tremendous importance to anyone studying the transmission of the text of the New Testament or of other early Christian writings. The fact that Christian writings circulated by means of private copying of texts rather than by controlled copying in organized scriptoria for at least three hundred years raises important methodological questions for textual critics with regard to reconstructing the earliest possible form of the text. The more or less standardized forms of the text that arose first in Alexandria and later in and around Constantinople have less claim to originality if Gamble's observations are taken seriously, and more heed might need to be paid to early "wild" texts and to their "Western" allies. Certainly the possibility of "primitive error" (à la Hort) must be considered in many cases of textual difficulty (not to mention places where no apparent difficulty is evident!). The identity of the "original text" is called into serious question when the author kept one copy and sent another one to a church, or, in the case of the Shepherd of Hermas, when there were apparently three "original texts." The possibility of multiple editions, particularly in Acts, but also in the Pauline letters as a whole, also raises the possibility that there was no single original text of some books.

13. A couple of Gamble's assertions are not convincing. When he argues that Paul, like other contemporary authors, kept copies of his own correspondence (p. 100), several objections immediately come to mind. Are we to assume that Paul, who had no permanent address, carried copies of his epistles with him on his travels? If Paul had copies of all of his missives, why is correspondence referred to in his extant letters (e.g., the epistle to the Laodiceans) missing? Why are some letters apparently incomplete or fragmentary (his Corinthian correspondence)? Finally, how would pseudonymous epistles have been mixed in with genuine letters had Paul's collection been available? It is more likely on the basis of the evidence that Paul's collection, if there was one, never entered the transmission stream.

14. A second unconvincing argument is Gamble's claim that the existence of the catholic epistles, coupled with the wide circulation of Paul's letters, led to the idea that apostles wrote to the church as a whole. Thus, he says, authors who wrote homilies in epistolary form, especially catholic letters, must have intended their works for general circulation (p. 107). He cites Apollonius' opposition to a certain Themiso, who presumed to write to the church at large "in imitation of the apostle." It is evident, however, that Apollonius' objection was not to the fact that Themiso wrote a catholic epistle but rather to the content of that letter, with which he disagreed. It is unclear, then, that the authors of books such as 1 John and Jude intended their works for circulation beyond a particular church or at least a particular, limited geographic region.

15. The final two chapters may be dealt with more briefly. Gamble's fourth chapter deals with early Christian libraries. The great persecution of Diocletian targeted church libraries, which were apparently so widespread that the emperor seems to have assumed that every church had one. That most churches had at least small collections of books is not surprising in light of the importance of the public reading of both Old Testament scripture and Christian writings in worship from the earliest period. The library in Caesarea, which escaped the Diocletianic persecution, was an important source of Christian texts following the legalization of Christianity. After this time many church libraries grew to contain hundreds or even thousands of volumes. Many large libraries existed in Rome and throughout Italy, and even the relatively unimportant city of Hippo in North Africa had an important library, thanks to its native son Augustine. Libraries were also associated with the monasteries that sprang up in Egypt under the influence of Pachomius, and the collection of writings found at Nag Hammadi might be some of the discards of Pachomian monks.

16. Although little is known about early Christian libraries, other than their existence and partial lists of the contents of some of them, the activities associated with the great pagan libraries, particularly those at Alexandria and Pergamum, shed light on the probable activities associated with Christian libraries as well. The librarians of the pagan libraries were responsible for the types and quality of the texts in their libraries, as well as for cataloguing and acquisitions. The tasks of collation, emendation, and restoration required the presence of both scholars (from the Museion) and scribes (from the scriptorium) in the Alexandrian library.

17. Although no indepedent Jewish libraries are known to have existed, it is almost certain that one was associated with the temple in Jerusalem and that smaller ones were associated with the synagogues, many of which doubled as public schools for Jewish boys. Gamble suggests that Cave 4 at Qumran may have been the library of the Qumran community. Although he dismisses Norman Golb's contention that the contents of the Qumran caves more likely originated with Jerusalem libraries (Golb 1995: 143-149), and possibly even the temple library, the fact that the texts were written by hundreds of different scribes is strong evidence against the idea that most of them were copied in a Qumran scriptorium. In either case, however, it is clear that the Jews had libraries for their important works, just like the Romans, and they undoubtedly influenced the development of Christian libraries as well.

18. In his final chapter, Gamble discusses "The Uses of Early Christian Books." This chapter repeats some of his work in earlier chapters and almost seems an independent study that was appended to the rest of the book. Despite the somewhat rough connection to the previous chapters, it contains valuable information. Gamble returns to the theme of the public reading of Christian texts, stating that, although one cannot be certain, it is likely that early Christian worship was heavily influenced by the synagogue. In particular, the reading of texts was important for Christians from the beginning, although they laid more emphasis on the prophets than on the Torah. It is likely that testimonia, drawn largely from the prophetic writings, were read in worship, as were early Christian writings (gospels, letters of Paul). These latter works quickly gained a measure of authority, despite the fact that the idea of a New Testament canon did not arise until the second century and was not settled for at least two more centuries. By the fourth century, scriptures were often chanted rather than read in the modern sense of the word, and the Psalms were certainly sung in Christian worship well before that time. In addition to public reading, Christian works were also read in private by literate members of the church. Finally, Christian writings were also sometimes used for the practice of bibliomancy, telling fortunes from a book by opening it at random and reading what meets the eye (cf. the account of Augustine's conversion).

19. The book ends rather abruptly at this point without a conclusion, and one wishes that many of the valuable insights that Gamble offers could have been summarized in a few pages at the end of the book. Also missing is a bibliography, something that no scholarly book should be without. Typographic errors are few, and most corrections are obvious enough, but readers should mark one correction in their own copies of the book. On page 62, the average column width of manuscript P46 is given as 1.5 cm; this should be corrected to 11.5 cm (a case of haplography!). One will look in vain in the book for a discussion of scribal practices, something that has been dealt with adequately by others but that would certainly be welcome in a book dealing with books and readers. The addition of a chapter on scribes and scribal practices would enhance a second edition of this already immensely valuable resource.

20. The critiques offered here and there in this review should be seen as comments on minor faults in a work of great importance. Viewing the history of Christian texts from the perspective of their larger Greco-Roman and Jewish settings allows one to grasp more completely various aspects of the transmission and use of those texts. After reading this book, one wonders why no one thought to write it earlier. Gamble raises so many important issues and then proceeds to give such reasoned, insightful answers to his own questions that it is no exaggeration to say that everyone who deals with early Christian literature in the future will have to contend with this book, which will undoubtedly become a standard in both the classroom and the study for years to come. Gamble is to be commended for his efforts.

© TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, 1997.


Deissmann, Adolf 1978. Light from the Ancient East. Translated by Lionel R. M. Strachan. New York : George H. Doran, 1927; paperback ed., Grand Rapids: Baker.

Ehrman, Bart D. 1993. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture: The Effect of Early Christological Controversies on the Text of the New Testament. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Golb, Norman 1995. Who Wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls? The Search for the Secret of Qumran. New York: Scribner.

Goodspeed, Edgar J. 1926. The Formation of the New Testament. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

James R. Adair, Jr.
Scholars Press