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Students Find ‘Writing the Bible’ a Painstaking Business

Greg Snyder's class
Prof. Greg Snyder (front, right) and students turn the college’s rare book room into a makeshift “scriptorium”—a place for writing—in their study of the evolution of writing in the Western world.

It's common to hear about people "reading the Bible," but few people consider the process of "writing the Bible."

Professor Greg Snyder, who teaches courses on early Christian history and literature, created a first-year writing seminar focused on how different technologies of writing through the centuries have influenced the evolution of the Bible. His class, titled "Codex to Cloud: Scriptures in the Digital Age," considers how different media platforms through the centuries have affected the Bible's meaning and influence.

A highlight of the class was Snyder's assignment to students that they create a codex of the Book of Mark, using the same laborious methods as early Christian scribes. The codex was a new form of writing that displaced writing on scrolls in the first three centuries AD. It employed sheets of papyrus stacked on top of each other and sewn together, after the fashion of a modern book. It offered a benefit over scrolls in that scribes could write on both sides of the page. When completed, the pages were bound between heavier material that served as a protective cover.

But the codex form had its problems, as Snyder's students discovered. The text of Mark they copied had no punctuation marks, no spaces between words or indentations before paragraphs, and all letters were capitalized. Covered solidly with text and no visual breaks, Snyder said the codex pages looked like a modern word find puzzle.

Snyder began the exercise by printing out the whole 88 pages of Mark, approximating the ancient form by removing all punctuation and spaces between words. He gave each of his 14 students six pages to copy and then read aloud.

Class member Ashley Lucey '20 found the exercise to be surprisingly difficult.

"After scribing my excerpt for hours using papyrus, ink and a handmade bamboo pen, the result was a difficult-to-read-aloud, nearly illegible copy complete with smudges from my left hand and blacked out sections from mistakes," she said. "When reading the codex aloud, I stumbled on my words, could not read my own writing and struggled without spacing to find where the words ended and began. Nevertheless, it was an interesting exercise, and at times therapeutic."

Her classmate Ben Katzman '20 was surprised at how time consuming and taxing the exercise was.

"I certainly now appreciate how difficult it was to transcribe large collections of scripture before the printing press," he said.

Student work sample
Snyder’s students follow a centuries-old process to create codex pages.

Andrew Sherwood '20 added, "The process of slowly writing line after line and making constant corrections after getting lost in the sea of letters was truly an experience that would make anyone appreciate the gift of modern technologies that allow us to do these once-difficult tasks thousands of times quicker than our predecessors." 

Form and Content

Before the Bible assumed written form, much of its content took the form of oral stories, told and retold over time. The Christian Bible began to take shape at the same time as writing evolved from scroll to codex, and though early Christians did not invent the codex, they were early adopters of the codex form.

Unlike the scroll, which requires laborious unwinding and rewinding, the codex can be easily accessed at any point within its covers. It was also more durable than a scroll, which was easily crushed. In light of its many advantages, the codex eventually displaced the scroll-form of the book.

The printing press, invented in the 15th century, changed everything. Bibles could be mass produced. Whereas every hand-written manuscript was unique, printed Bibles brought a new level of standardization to the biblical text, vastly increasing its circulation among readers who could not have afforded a hand-written manuscript of the scriptures.

The digital revolution is now in the process of transforming writing from a paper-based platform to text that exists on a screen, with limitless ability to be changed at will.

"People still think of a Bible as a bound volume with gold trim on the outside and onion skin pages inside," Snyder said. "But what does it mean when the Bible is not an object anymore? What happens when you can put the Biblical text on your phone? Does it affect its authority as a sacred text?"

Snyder was proud of his students' understanding of the material, and contended that even many doctoral students wouldn't be as well-informed on the subject of Biblical form and meaning. He plans to bind his class's final papyrus pages between hard covers into the form of a codex, which will be exhibited in the E.H. Little Library.