Before the birth of the Christian movement, scrolls were the book-form used by most if not all people. Scrolls, also known as rolls, were pages sewn or glued together end-to-end to create a long roll, sometimes up to 35 feet long. The Dead Sea Scrolls are probably the best known and most significant collection of ancient scrolls, but rolls continued in use for 500 years after the birth of Jesus, mostly among non-Christian groups.
The codex form of the book was invented in the first century about the time Paul was crossing Asia Minor and planting churches in Macedonia and Achaia (modern Greece). The codex form is the kind of book we use today with individual pages stacked and sewn together along the same edge. We don’t know exactly who invented the codex, but we do know Christians popularized it and used it for most of their books for the first five hundred years. With a couple of exceptions the Greek manuscripts we have of the New Testament from the earliest centuries are written on codex.
Scholars have proposed a number of reasons why Christians adopted the codex book-form. First, codices (the plural of codex) are easier to use than scrolls. If you want to see something at the end of a scroll, you have to unroll it first. With a codex, you can simply open up the stack to find the right place. Second, scrolls were written only on the inside which wastes half the space. A codex is written on the front and back of each leaf. This makes better use of the pages. Remember, paper wasn’t available to them so they wrote on papyrus, sheets made of a plant material, or on parchment, sheets made of a well prepared animal skin (the soft underbelly of a goat, cow, or ibex). Both were expensive writing materials. There is good evidence that the earliest Christians were poor so they wanted to use every square inch of the writing materials they could get their hands on. Third, the codex form may help distinguish Christian books from Jewish books. The Christian movement was started by Jews for Jews (Jesus was a Jew and all his disciples were too!). But when more and more outsiders (non-Jews) entered the Church, tensions grew and eventually there was a parting of the ways. Judaism became one religion, Christianity another. At first, there was no real need to distinguish these communities, but as time went on both Jews and Christians wanted to find ways to distinguish themselves from each other. The scroll and codex form may have been part of that.
For the first 1500 years of Christian history all books were hand-copied. With the invention of the printing press (around 1450) books could be produced mechanically. That presented a huge shift in culture. Hand-copied books took a long time to create, were very expensive, and had variations in them. A machine-produced book could be printed quicker, were less costly, and had fewer variations.
In the last decade of the 20th century another huge shift took place as digital technology became less expensive and more available. Today you probably read on computers, a Kindle, a smart phone, or a tablet. These digital technologies have made books even cheaper, easier to carry around with you, and more available. When we started work on The Voice Bible project we were all well aware we’d create print copies and digital versions. I read The Voice in paper sometimes. My students read it on their smart phones in class. I often research and write on the computer using www.biblegateway.com, which has The Voice translation (as well as many others). Exactly where this is all headed it is hard to say. Some have predicted the end of print books (that is, the codex form). Others aren’t so sure.
Michael Hyatt, former president of Thomas Nelson Publishing, is a digital guru I like to follow. Hyatt thinks for many applications and kinds of reading print books are still the best format and will endure. In a recent article he acknowledges there are good reasons scientifically to continue to use paper books. Here is a link to his on-line article: