Writing on Papyrus Reinforces Importance of the Book in Religion
March 8, 2001
An exercise in writing scripture with a reed quill on papyrus is helping students in a Davidson College religion class to understand that books can carry cultural significance beyond the collection of words within them.
As a way of coming to terms with the material aspects of ancient books and their production, students cut their reeds to a proper writing shape, dipped them in ink, and scratched out portions of the Gospel of Thomas on a piece of papyrus. They then joined the separate pieces together to form a bookroll.
The Gospel According to Thomas is a non-canonical gospel, discovered in Egypt in 1945 that differs from the canonical gospels in that it contains no miracles, no crucifixion, and no resurrection. However, it does contain 114 enigmatic sayings of Jesus, about half of which are found in the Biblical gospels.
That was the form books took in much of the ancient world, Assistant Professor Greg Snyder told students in this upper level religion course entitled "The Idea of the Book." Books were tedious to produce, fragile, and difficult to decipher to all but skilled lectors because the writing often lacked any punctuation or word spacing.
That contrasts sharply with the modern idea of a book, which assumes a mass audience, portability, and consistency of typography. Material aspects of books and texts are therefore significant for understanding so-called "religions of the book"--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--since the process of committing knowledge to texts and of appropriating knowledge from texts was very different in a world where all books were laboriously copied by hand. Under such conditions, people would have possessed a very different set of assumptions about their texts. "We have a half-million books in our school library and think nothing of it," he noted. "We have no idea what it was like for ancient readers to manipulate a 20-foot scroll that might be poorly or erroneously written and to perform it for others."
The birth of Christianity coincided with and certainly influenced a corresponding revolution in book technology. Christians were among the first to adopt the "codex" form for their scriptures. Rather than pasting sheets of papyrus together and rolling them into a scroll, they bound individual sheets of papyrus on the side like modern books. This allowed scribes to use both sides of the sheet, which was more efficient, and provided better protection for the document because it could be easily bound with a sturdy covering. Moreover, it allowed for a very different mode of access to the text: rather than unwinding a lengthy scroll, a reader was able to flip back and forth from different passages with relative ease.
The next major chapter in the history of the book--the development of printing, also coincides with yet another religious revolution, the rise of the Protestant Reformation. In both cases then, the mechanics of books and book production are deeply intertwined with religious developments.
Snyder said the course could also be entitled "Script and Scripture" because the Bible, which shares physical characteristics of books generally, also has particular spiritual significance for those who read it as scripture. The idea of a "holy book" surfaces in many different religious traditions. Religious believers of various kinds, Jews, Christians and Muslims, all hold a unique and complex set of beliefs about their scriptures.
Whereas the Christian Bible derives from many different authors and evolved into its current form over nearly 1,000 years, Muslims believe that the Qur'an represents the undiluted word of God as dictated by the Angel Gabriel to the prophet Muhammad over a relatively short period of time. That assumption lies behind Islamic beliefs about the authority of the Qur'an.
The course has three main themes, Snyder said. First is a general discussion of orality and literacy, considering what happens when a culture goes from an oral tradition to a written one. Secondly, the class studies the history of the Bible and how it became the document we know today. Finally, the class reflects on the nature of scripture and what it means to read a text as scripture.
Davidson is a highly selective independent liberal arts college for 1,600 students. Since its establishment in 1837, the college has graduated 23 Rhodes Scholars and is consistently ranked among the top liberal arts colleges in the country by U.S. News and World Report magazine. Davidson recently launched "Let Learning Be Cherished," a $250 million campaign in support of student financial assistance, academic resources, and community life.