People of the Book

I was meant to originally post this on World Book Day, which was over a week ago. Now the event got me thinking about the influence of Christianity on books. You really cannot expect the world to acknowledge the positive impact of Christianity on books but it was quite surprising that many learned Christians did not make the connection. Yes, they tweeted about it and enjoyed the day like most of us book nerds do yet they seemed to have no idea how important Christianity has been for books. Since I was a child I really enjoyed the event because it was an opportunity to get new books but even growing up in a Christian environment I, like many Christian bibliophiles, simply did not know. However, there is profound connection between books and Christianity.

[1]In the clip above Dr Larry Hurtado describes early Christianity as “bookish”. As he explains, books have been in the DNA of historic Christian culture. Not only did the early Christian community produce at an almost “maniacal” level copious amounts of Christian texts, they had a high regard for the written word. For example, in Who is this Man? by John Ortberg, an amazing book about the powerful redemptive impact of Christianity in the world, he points out that,

[2]A Jesus-follower named Benedict collected so many ancient manuscripts that he became known as “the godfather of libraries.”

The influence of Christian monasticism on books and learning cannot be understated as Jaroslav Pelikan notes,

[3]One may perhaps begin to comprehend how completely Christ the Monk conquered the scholarly world of the Middle Ages by checking, in the standard modern editions, how many works of antiquity even exist for us today only because they were copied by monks in some medieval scriptorium … [works of] not only Christian saints but of classical and pagan authors.

Christians had an unparalleled regard for the Book i.e. the Bible, so they appreciated books in general in such a way that was quite unique in the ancient world. This love and respect carried over into subsequent ages. Now the Bible itself is the world’s best-selling book ever. So whether it is a World Book Day or any discussion of the global history of books and book culture, you cannot ignore the influence of the Bible. Having been translated into more languages than other text, its stories and sayings have infiltrated cultures throughout the world. For instance, most great works of English literature cannot be properly appreciated without a basic knowledge of the Bible. [4]This is a point that the world’s most famous atheist Richard Dawkins, gladly concedes. The King James Bible is arguably the seminal work of modern English because its relevance and wide distribution it helped standardise the written language. Similarly, the Reformer Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German vernacular had a comparable impact on German. The drive to preach the Gospel according to the scriptures to all people was the impetus translating the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts into different languages, which sometimes required completely constructing the written language including the alphabet, lexicon, grammar and punctuation. Missionaries to this day are still actively committing languages to a written form. A great example of this is Cyrillic script in which Slavic languages like Russian and Ukrainian are written in. [5]It is named after the Christian missionary saint Cyril [6]who in conjunction with his brother St. Methodius created the alphabet in order for the Slavic people to read about Jesus in their own language.

Now the bookish nature of Christianity has not only affected global language and literature. It has also influenced the very form of books we know today. In the aforementioned clip Dr Hurtado informs us that relative to their size early Christians copied, produced and distributed a large volume of texts. This was not the only distinctive feature of the early movement. They preferred to use the codex for their most prized texts, that is sacred scripture. In the ancient Greco-Roman world there were two forms of the book, the scroll and the codex. At the time the scroll was used for “high literature” while the codex was used for mundane, everyday things. The Christians deliberately inverted that order to distinguish Holy Scripture from other Christian texts. [7]The codex is the ancestor to the modern book which was constructed from sheets of paper, vellum, papyrus or similar materials, with handwritten content. Though the codex was not invented by Christians they were the first group to popularly embrace it. [8]As Christianity grew and spread it popularized the codex which became the stable book form for centuries replacing the scroll. It is because of Christianity that we have the modern recognizable physical form of the book today. The next major development in book and text technology was the invention of mass printing by Johannes Gutenberg, where the Bible was one of the first printed volumes he ever produced.

There is a narrative prevailing in many parts of the world, particularly the West, that Christianity has been detrimental to humanity. As Christians we need to counter that narrative with the truth and celebrate the positive influence of the Christian faith. We need to not only know the scriptures but how the scriptures have been historically applied in the world. We missed a very good opportunity on World Book Day to not only celebrate our own library of books, the Holy Bible, but also for educating believers on the history of the Bible and books within Christianity as well as an avenue for evangelistic outreach. The world has become an irrevocably better place because of Jesus and his faithful followers who continue his restorative mission throughout the world to this day. However, it is not enough to simply pay lip service to our history. Believers need to re-embrace their distinctly bookish roots and let reading and learning be a crucial part of our spiritual formation. We need to be once again the People of the Book.


[1] The clip is from an interview about his book, Destroyer of the Gods. Chapter 4, A “Bookish” Religion, discusses the unique importance of texts to the early Christianity.

[2] John Ortberg, Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of an Inescapable Jesus, p. 117, Zondervan (e-book version), 2012. Chapter

[3] Ibid.

[4], 1845h, May 4, 2016.

[5] John Ortberg, Who Is This Man?: The Unpredictable Impact of an Inescapable Jesus, p. 123, Zondervan (e-book version), 2012. Chapter 5 of this book gives a wonderful account of the impact of Christianity on education.

[6], 1853h, May 4, 2016.

[7], 1947h, May 4, 2017.

[8] Ibid.



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