A Short Review of Harry Y. Gamble’s, “Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts”

Author: Harry Gamble is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He earned his PhD from Yale University and has written on the formation of the biblical canon as well as early Christian book culture. His research interests also include patristic, Pauline, and historical Jesus studies.

Purpose and thesis: Gamble’s purpose in writing is to fill a gap in which scholarship has not previously dealt with the actual physical and “technological” factors in early Christian book production, specifically in the manufacturing and circulation of the book as the medium for the text. In this way, the early church’s textual endeavors did not substantially differ from the surrounding culture.

Review: Books and Readers is simply structured in five chapters. Gamble begins with the cultural environment of the early church and moves steadily through the church’s production and use of the book. The early church was not atypical from the surrounding culture in that most of its members were probably illiterate (6). In addition to the average but low literacy rate, even fewer Christians and Jews from the first two centuries could write than read (7). These hindrances ironically had no bearing on the fact that Christianity and Judaism were “bookish” religions, as both placed a “high value on texts” (8). Catechesis and congregational reading events in the context of worship, led by literate readers, drove the expansion of the church’s knowledge of its literature despite the only 10-15 percent (or less) literacy rate (10). Gamble deals with what he believes to be some of the categorical missteps of previous scholarship in chapter 1, especially in the misapplication of form criticism by Deissmann and Overbeck. Gamble holds that the church was far more similar to the surrounding culture in its reading events and literary shape than it was different, and these similarities led to the church’s expansion as it grew within the social and cultural life of the empire and accumulated both literate and illiterate converts (41).

In chapter 2 Gamble examines the physical aspects of book culture in the early church, including the Greco-Roman use of the roll book form and the shift in Christian circles from the roll to the codex. He analyzes in detail the physical aspects of both the papyrus and parchment codex as well as the discrepancy between Greek books dated before the third century that are in roll format (more than 98 percent) and the books from Christian circles during the same period that are almost all codices (49). Gamble believes the reasons for the church’s adoption of the codex may be traced to the use of early note-taking codices and the apostolic authority of Paul’s collected epistles that circulated in a collection almost immediately (63). The availability and ease of study in the codex format led to the universal adoption of the format for all Christian books. Gamble believes the author of 2 Timothy was referring to codex manuscripts in 2 Tim. 4:13, but he stretches in his explanation that the author was “contriving for verisimilitude” to sound more like Paul (64).

In chapter 3 Gamble documents the Greco-Roman practices of book production and examines early Christian practices in light of the data. He determines that “Christian writings were produced and disseminated in much the same way as literature within the larger environment” (94). To support this, he examines the tendency away from dictation as a typical means of copying and the existence of private book collections and “private channels” as the avenues for the proliferation of books (92). However, he offers little evidence for his position that the early Christians felt liberty by and large to assume control over the text of Paul’s letters once they entered circulation, textual variation notwithstanding (96-97).

The transmission of texts was directly related to letter couriers, which eventually led to the accumulation of books in centralized or congregational libraries (chapter 4). Gamble notes that the earliest Christian libraries housed pagan as well as Christian books and “carried on the heritage of classical literature” (202). He concludes in chapter 5 with the uses of Christian books, i.e., how books were read and in what circumstances. He concludes along with most other scholars that books were read aloud and publicly, especially in the context of worship (205). Gamble also connects the church’s practice of reading Scriptures aloud with the synagogue from which the Christian movement developed (210). He discusses the practices of reading that developed over time, drawing from the writings of Justin Martyr and others, noting the position of the reader in congregational worship (a raised platform) and the later modes of reading (often the chant; 228). Gamble strangely concludes the book with a section on the magical use of biblical texts (bibliomancy; 239) but ultimately draws the reader back to the power that the written word experienced during the foundational period of the church within Greco-Roman culture (241).

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