Speaking of Books: Book as Object

I am well aware this is now our third post revolving solely around books this week. What can I say, we like books around here at TTAF. We like reading them, talking about them, interpreting them, and sometimes just collecting them. You may have read some of our reading lists or read Josh’s advice on why men need literature or how to read a classic, but this morning I want to take just a moment to explore as aspect of books that isn’t always given much attention: books as object.

I was first introduced to this idea of exploring books as an object at an annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature in Washington DC, when I visited a special exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Wow. That was an incredibly nerdy sentence. Let’s just pretend for a second that I started this off differently.

Larry Hurtado, a professor at the University of Edinburgh (now emeritus), had just published the book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins, which had kindled a discussion of the topic and helped spark the special exhibit. I was on my way to study at Edinburgh that next fall and naturally read his work. There are a lot of things about the New Testament and early Christianity that interest me greatly (that is, after all, what I earned my degrees in) and I’m genuinely excited when I pick up a good book relating to that history. And I was excited to read this one, but I have to admit this book caught me off guard with the level of intrigue I found in it and its subject matter.

You see, the majority of the time that we talk about a good book, our discussion revolves around said book’s content. We talk about the narrative, or the language used, or the rhetorical devices employed. We talk about the conflict and resolution, or the climactic scene. Or, in the case of non-fiction, we dissect the argument, discuss its implications, and if so disposed, offer a counter argument. But rarely do we talk about the books binding or its font size or the way the author spelled the heroine’s name “Kathryn” instead of “Katherine.”

And we certainly don’t do so when we talk about things like the Bible or the New Testament in particular. Our discussions of the New Testament are almost universally about the narrative, debates about the theology, the integrity of the theological stances, or the relevance of the “teachings.” The Earliest Christian Artifacts, though, was one of the first times I’d read someone step back and analyze the actual texts to ask, “what can this tell us about earliest Christianity?” Not the narrative, not the message, not the teachings, but the physical texts on which these teachings were found. What does it say about their socio-economic status that they could produce texts of a certain sort? What does it say about how they viewed the function of their narratives in their community that they would choose to create their texts one way over another (specifically a codex over a scroll)? What does it say about their theology that they would write certain names certain ways or distinguish certain words apart from others?

These are the type of questions for which answers are sought when we begin to look at books as objects. Hurtado looks at a few things in particular in his work: the preference for the codex in early Christianity, the Nomina Sacra, the Staurogram, etc., and uses these features of early Christian texts to argue certain beliefs and attitudes held by the community. It’s often technical, has references like “P.Lond.Lit. 204, third centurty, #43 in appendix 1” or “P.Oxy. 2684, Jude, third/fourth century, #172 in appendix 1, about 5.3 X 2.9 cm,” but is a very intriguing study.

I say all this really for no other reason than I find it interesting and, if you like books the way we do here at TTAF, I think you might also. Maybe it’s because I like to collect books, buying way more than I will ever get to reading. And maybe it’s because I seek out nice hardback editions, or compare the US and UK cover art (UK usually wins, btw), or trying to find the original art and not the “now a major motion picture” movie poster cover. But whether you care one iota about Christianity or early Christian history—and thus whether or not you’d be interested in this particular book—the study of books as just that, books, and their cultural significance as objects is utterly fascinating and worthy of your exploration, if only for an afternoon on the internet.

And if you are interested in Christianity or are pursuing your own Christian journey and find this in the least bit appealing, I’d highly recommend Hurtado’s work. You may not have ever thought about the Bible in this way before, and I think it’s worthy to do so.

If interested, look into it a little and, as always, tell us what you think.

There was an interesting article in the Harvard Gazette on Leah Price, an English professor at Harvard looking at this very subject. You can find that article here: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/05/what-books-mean-as-objects/

Professor Hurtado has a blog filled with discussions of early Christian history at: http://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/

See also, the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts: http://www.csntm.org/


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