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Church History

Church History and and

Religious Culture 95 (2015) 1–18 Religious Culture

The New Self and Reading Practices

in Late Antique Christianity

Guy G. Stroumsa
University of Oxford and The Hebrew University of Jerusalem


The article deals with the complex relationship between the religious revolution of
late antiquity and cultural changes in the Roman world. It focuses on new attitudes
to books, and analyses them in parallel with new conceptions of the self emerging in
early Christianity. In particular, it seeks to understand the paradox of the early monks
having been at once fierce opponents and carriers of Greco-Roman paideia.


self – books – reading – early Christianity – late antiquity

On September 12, 2008, Pope Benedict xvi delivered an important speech, in

French, at the Collège des Bernardins in Paris. In this speech he sought to
explain how Christian monasteries had become the locus, at once, where the
treasuries of ancient culture were preserved and where a new, Christian cul-
ture slowly emerged.1 Pope Benedict stressed the fact that neither of these two
major developments had been intended by the monks. The monks’ much sim-
pler motivation, insisted the Pope, was only to search for God, quaerere Deum.
Here as on other occasions, Pope Benedict made an important theological

1 Benedict xvi’s speech is easily available on YouTube. I am deeply grateful to Professor Bas
ter Haar Romeny and his colleagues from the Centre for Patristic Research of the Vrije
Universiteit Amsterdam and the Tilburg School of Catholic Theology for their generous
invitation to give the Third Dutch Annual Lecture in Patristics, at the Dutch Academy in
Amsterdam, on 19 December 2012, and for their exquisite hosting on that occasion.

© koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 2015 | doi: 10.1163/18712428-09501002

2 stroumsa

point, while treating history in a rather cavalier fashion. For him, it was in the
monasteries of the Medieval West that this great cultural transfer and creation
took place. I shall argue here that it is, rather, in the monastic movement of
late antiquity that one must search for the roots of the cultural transformation
of Western society, and that the new reading practices are directly connected
to the new perceptions of the self developed in early Christianity, in particular
among the monks.
In various studies, I have sought better to understand the complex relation-
ship between the religious revolution of late antiquity and the cultural changes
that it entailed. In one of those studies, I questioned the idea of early Christian-
ity as a religion of the book.2 In another one, I enquired into the role of the early
monks in what has been called the scriptural movement of late antiquity.3 In a
third one, I asked how the new Christian elites struggled to redefine the param-
eters of culture, between the scriptural corpus (ta biblia) on the one hand, and
Greco-Roman paideia on the other hand.4 We shall see now how the Chris-
tian use of the codex permitted the development of new attitudes to books and
reading practices.5
As I shall presently argue, the emerging attitude to books had much to
do with the development, in late antiquity, of new conceptions of the self,
of the human person. More than anything else, Christianization processes
reflect and incorporate the religious revolution of the Roman world. The end
of public sacrifices—until then perhaps the clearest and most widely partaken
expression of public religion—may be seen as the epitome of this revolution,
while the Christian ascetic movement, culminating in the birth and fast growth
of monasticism in the Mediterranean and the Near East, and from there its
move to other parts of the Empire, represents one of its most striking aspects.

2 ‘Early Christianity: A Religion of the Book?,’ in Homer, the Bible and Beyond: Literacy and
Religious Canons in the Ancient World, ed. Margalit Finkelberg and G.G. Stroumsa [Jerusalem
Studies in Religion and Culture 2] (Leiden, 2003), pp. 153–173.
3 ‘The Scriptural Movement of Late Antiquity and Christian Monasticism,’ Journal of Early
Christian Studies 16 (2008), 61–76.
4 ‘Scriptures and paideia in Late Antiquity,’ in Homer and the Bible in the Eyes of Ancient
Interpreters, ed. Maren R. Niehoff [Jerusalem Studies in Religion and Culture 16] (Leiden,
2012), pp. 29–41.
5 See already my ‘Reading Practices in Early Christianity and the Individualisation Process,’ in
Reflections on Religious Individuality: Greco-Roman and Judeo-Christian Texts and Practices,
ed. Jörg Rüpke and Wolfgang Spickermann [Religionsgeschichtliche Versuche und Vorar-
beiten 62] (Berlin, 2012), pp. 175–192.

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 3

Oddly enough, the early monks, those radical opponents of traditional

paideia, played a crucial role as cultural brokers in a world where civil society—
and the cultural koinè of pagans and Christians represented by paideia—was
fast disappearing. It is a mistake to consider most early monks as uncouth and
illiterate peasants. The Pachomian Rule, after all, does not tolerate illiterate
From the Pythagoreans to the Essenes, there had been in various Mediter-
ranean societies a long tradition of marginal communities of ascetics and
religious virtuosi. In a sense, the early Christian monks were indeed follow-
ing an old tradition of liminal, elitist communities of wisdom. But nothing
as dramatic, it seems, had ever occurred previously: in great numbers, young
Christian men and women were now freely rejecting a fundamental social
imperative.7 Although etymologically, monachos (Syriac iḥidaya), points to the
monk living alone, anachoretes in the Egyptian or Syrian desert were soon out-
numbered by monks living together in coenobia, communities of ascetics. The
monks themselves were quite aware of the linguistic paradox, and monastic
literature, both in Greek and in Syriac, retains a traditional etymology of mona-
chos according to which the term refers to the monk having learned, through
his ascetic practices, to unify his own self, to have become a new, fully inte-
grated individual.8 The monk is not only a virtuoso in his search for God. To
some extent, actually, monastic literature warns against the dangers of spiri-
tual visions. In a world from which martyrdom had for all practical purposes
disappeared, the demand for imitatio Christi was fast becoming an attempt at
transforming oneself.
During his last years, Michel Foucault became fascinated by patristic liter-
ature and by the phenomenon of early Christian monasticism, whose revo-
lutionary character he sought to interpret. In the footsteps of Pierre Hadot,
Foucault focused on the spiritual exercises, a Greek philosophical tradition
involving the ‘care of the self’ (epimeleia heautou), a care the nature of which
the monks had transformed. Foucault argued that this transformation led to

6 See Chryssi Ktosifou, ‘Books and Book Production in the Monastic Communities of Byzantine
Egypt,’ in The Early Christian Book, ed. William E. Klingshirn and Linda Safran (Washington,
d.c., 2007), pp. 48–66.
7 Peter Brown, The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity
(New York, 1988).
8 See Antoine Guillaumont, ‘Monachisme et éthique judéo-chrétienne,’ in his Aux origines du
monachisme chrétien: pour une phénoménologie du monachisme [Spiritualité orientale 20]
(Bégrolles en Mauges, 1979).

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the suppression of the self.9 Neither Foucault nor Hadot, however, were able
to quite understand the nature of the difference between pagan and Christian
care of the self. To some extent, a better understanding of the role of books in
introspection might lead us to the right track.10

1 A New Self

The Christian ‘care of the self,’ or what I propose to call ‘sapiential activism,’
must be understood within a religious context where the individual was not
seeking to define and refine his or her own self within the cosmos at large, and
in contradistinction to it. For the Christian, the cosmic drama is epitomized
in the life, death, and resurrection of one single individual, Jesus Christ, both
human and divine. And yet, it is through the constant reflection on the Holy
Books of divine revelation that the Christian could find his own self: text and
self would now be deciphered through one another. The self-presentation of
early Christianity as a ‘school’ of wisdom was certainly useful for apologetic
purposes. But it also reflected the deep conviction of a self-perception.11

9 Michel Foucault, L’ herméneutique du sujet: Cours au Collège de France. 1981–1982 (Paris,

2001). Cf. Pierrre Hadot, Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique (Paris, 2002). As shown
by Winrich Löhr, spiritual exercises in the philosophical vein can also be found among
Christian teachers. See W. Löhr, Pelagius: Portrait of a Christian Teacher in Late Antiquity:
Souter Memorial Lectures on Late Antiquity, i (Aberdeen, 2011), pp. 16–17.
10 I wish to call special attention to Foucault’s Du gouvernement des vivants, cours au Collège
de France, 1979–1980 (Paris, 2012), where the author analyses the early Christian concept
of metanoia, as it appears in patristic texts, and in particular in Tertullian’s De poeni-
tentia. Foucault’s argument seeks to show that early Christianity established what he
calls a ‘régime de vérité’ different from the one that existed in Greco-Roman philosophy.
According to Foucault, more precisely, Christianity moved between two polar ‘régimes
de vérité,’ that of faith and that of confession (aveu)—the former representative of the
Greek East, the latter of the Latin West. Foucault then follows the historical implica-
tions of the early Christian conception of confession in Western Christianity in general,
and in monastic practice in particular. Although I cannot discuss here Foucault’s ideas
any further, I believe that some of his insights might have an impact on patristic stud-
11 See Frances Young, ‘Christian Teaching,’ in Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature,
ed. Frances Young, Lewis Ayres, Andrew Louth (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 464–484. One
should further note that in Rabbinic Hebrew usage, the ‘house of study’ (bet ha-midrash)
is more prominent than the synagogue (bet ha-knesset).

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 5

From the first to the fifth century, a new perception of the individual pro-
gressively took shape in Christian literature, which eventually permitted the
emergence of a newly reflexive self.12 ‘Reflexive self,’ and ‘person,’ although not
identical, belong to the same nexus, and describe the late antique sensitivity
to the individual. The Augustinian synthesis insisted on the radical reflexivity
of the self—a reflexivity based on sin, and quite lacking in the ancient world.
Bequeathed to the West, the Augustinian conception would remain the lead-
ing thread of anthropological perceptions, until at least the end of the Middle
Ages. More than a new anthropology, it is a new attitude to the self that emerges
in early Christian literature. This new attitude is grounded in a few fundamen-
tal points of Christian theology, and highlights the relationship between the
reflection on God’s nature and conceptions of man.
The first theological conception informing Christian (as well as Jewish)
anthropology is of course the biblical idea of man having been created in God’s
image, homo imago Dei (Gen 1,26). This idea entailed a dignity given to the
human body and a unity given to the human person as a whole, soul and body.
Both ran against the grain of Greek thought, or more precisely against Platon-
ism, a leading philosophical trend in the Roman Empire. This new anthropol-
ogy entailed a broadening of the self, not restricted any more to the intellect
or the soul, and a new status of the body, highlighted by the idea of divine
incarnation. Hence Tertullian could coin his famous lapidary expression: Caro
salutis cardo, the flesh is the axis of redemption, a sentence quite incompre-
hensible to a pagan.13 The broadening of the concept of person was synchronic
with another movement: the fast growing importance of sin—and in particular
of original sin—with its ineluctable consequences. Together, these two move-
ments would form the backbone of Augustinian anthropology, thus opening
a major chapter in the history of Western consciousness.14 Indeed, although
Augustine’s views cannot be said to have been representative of contemporary
perceptions, their impact on medieval perceptions in the Latin West would
remain unequalled. The capital importance of original sin, however, would be
mitigated by the concept of metanoia, repentance, and the cleansing of the

12 G.G. Stroumsa, The End of Sacrifice: Religious Transformations in Late Antiquity (Chicago,
2009), Chapter 1, pp. 1–27. For a more detailed study of the early Christian transformation
of the self, see G.G. Stroumsa, Barbarian Philosophy: The Religious Revolution of Early
Christianity (Tübingen, 1999), pp. 168–190 (‘Caro salutis cardo: Shaping the Person in Early
Christian Thought’).
13 De resurrectione mortuorum 2.
14 See David Hunter, ‘Augustine on the Body,’ in A Companion to Augustine, ed. Mark Vessey
(Malden, Mass., 2012), pp. 353–364.

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individual from the blemish of his or her past sins. Metanoia (Hebrew teshuva;
in contradistinction to Greek epistrophè) entails moral progress, which plays a
leading role in the constant dynamism of Christian anthropology.15
The new parameters of personal identity emphasized the integration of soul
and body into the definition of the human person as a composite. In the emerg-
ing picture, however, the person was not quite a harmonious one. Instead of the
divide between soul and body typical of Platonism, the idea of an original sin
brought with it a new break, now within the soul itself. The break was due to
a sense of guilt, unavoidable because sin was inherited and ever present. This
state of affairs strengthened the need for a salvation which went far beyond
the individual and his behaviour. Repentance for one’s sins thus expressed this
need of salvation only in part. Christian salvation entailed ridding oneself of
the consequences of the original sin. Such an attitude was bound to enhance
a tension within the soul unknown among Greek philosophers. In this frame-
work, faith became not only the condition sine qua non for salvation, but also
almost its equivalent. Faith in Jesus Christ and his redemptive sacrifice, in itself,

Identity, however, is collective as much as it is personal. Social identity, too,

underwent a radical reinterpretation in early Christianity. For the first time
in the ancient world, identity became defined essentially in religious terms,
rather than in mainly ethnic or cultural and linguistic ones, as had so far been
the case in the Hellenistic and Roman worlds. This approach to social identity
is well-known from texts such as the second-century anonymous Epistle to
Diognetus: the Christians do not have a single language, culture or territory,
no objective criteria of identification. It is perhaps best reflected in the corpus
of laws established from Constantine to Theodosius ii, and collected in the
Theodosian Codex. These laws reflect the crucial importance of defining the
Church and the centres of authority within it.16 Defining the Church, in its
turn, implied a constant effort at defining the boundaries of the Christian
community, as the traditional Jewish criteria, such as ethnicity, language, and
religious law, halakha, were no longer available. Dogma could provide the
definition of the new social identity, i.e., the proper way to understand Jesus
Christ, his nature and his mission. Hence, collective identity became now

15 See my Barbarian Philosophy (above, n. 12), pp. 158–167 (‘From Repentance to Penance in
Early Christianity: Tertullian’s De paenitentia in Context’).
16 See Caroline Humphress, ‘Judging by the Book: Christian Codices and Late Antique Legal
Culture,’ in The Early Christian Book, ed. Klingshirn and Safran (see above, n. 6), pp. 141–158.

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 7

defined in terms directly rooted in internalization, i.e., in belief. True belief,

or orthodoxy, was itself defined by its negation, and reflected the many faces
of error: schism and heresy from within, Judaism and paganism from without.
With the Christianization of the Roman Empire, the dramatic simplification of
the heavenly world, into a dual division between the kingdom of God and that
of Satan became reflected in social identity: those who belonged and would be
saved, versus the outsiders to the Church, who would not.
The social definition of Church boundaries, however, did not only reflect
opposition to error, but also the desire, inherent to Christianity from its very
beginnings, to broaden its appeal; in other words, these boundaries reflect
Christianity’s very catholicity, its strong and successful urge to convert. Conver-
sion is the other side of the essentially dogmatic definition of the new religion:
it entails a choice between truth and error.
Consequently, both individual and collective identities were redefined in
early Christianity in direct relation to the internalization process. As pointed
out above, both also reflect the limitations of this process. The fight between
faith and sin within the individual, and the fight between truth and error at
the collective level, seem to follow parallel patterns. Since truth comes from
God and Jesus Christ, error comes from Satan and from the Antichrist. A choice
of belief stands at the basis of the formation of both individual and collective
identity, and inserts a strong element of intolerance in the very definition of
early Christian identity: while truth is univalent, the hydra of heresy, to use
Ireneus’s metaphor, has multiple heads, which must all be cut out.17

2 A New Status of Books

As I argued elsewhere, the ‘scriptural turn’ is one of the most striking facets
of the religious revolution of late antiquity. From early Christianity to early
Islam, through the various Gnostic trends, Mandaeism, Manichaeism, and even
the Neoplatonists, many religious movements granted a central place to holy
books, prophetic or otherwise revelatory, to their hermeneutics and to their
ritual roles.18 It is doubtless to its Jewish roots that Christianity owes the central
role it attributes to the collection of revealed books which became the Biblia.

17 See G.G. Stroumsa, ‘On the Roots of Christian Intolerance,’ in Dans le laboratoire de
l’historien des religions, ed. F. Prescendi and Y. Volokhine [Religions en perspective 24]
(Geneva, 2011), pp. 193–210.
18 See in particular Wilfred Cantwell Smith, What is Scripture? A Comparative Approach
(Minneapolis, 1993).

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To be sure, early Christianity shares many characteristics with other religious

movements of the ancient world. None of them, however, can be claimed to be
more specific than Christianity in its attitude to the revealed book. Referring
to the transformation of the nature of religion in our period, Jan Assmann has
spoken of a passage from Kultreligion to Buchreligion.19 Assmann’s pregnant
expression may however be misleading, as it seems to imply the disappearance
of ritual at the core of the new ‘religions of the book.’ I would prefer to argue that
for Christianity (as earlier for Judaism, and later for Islam), the revealed book
has become the focus, the centre, of the ritual: Buch als Kult, I would rather say.
In Christian communities, or, more precisely, within the Christian elites, i.e.,
both the religious hierarchy and the ascetic virtuosi—bishops and monks—,
reading and writing were at the core of the new religion, a phenomenon quite
unknown in the Roman world, with the exception of the Jews.20 The Logos, one
could perhaps say, was not only incarnated in the corpus Christi, but also in the
corpus of the Biblia.
Such a conception, in which Scriptures play a cardinal role, also entails a
relationship to the book as an artifact, not only as the material support of the
text. This artifact was to be used for ritual purposes, but was also considered
to possess magical powers. The study of books as objects, the roles played by
their physical form in early Christian (and Jewish) rituals, public and private,
as well as their apotropaic and magical uses, have only recently started to
attract serious attention.21 We should remember, of course, that radically new
attitudes do not percolate very fast, and that we must deal with the longue

19 Jan Assmann, Die Mosaische Unterscheidung, oder der Preis des Monotheismus (Munich,
20 Books were of course also important in the Orphic tradition, but we simply do not know
enough about possible Orphic communities in the Roman world.
21 See for instance Larry W. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Chris-
tian Origins (Grand Rapids, Mich., 2006). See further the doctoral dissertation of Zeev
Elizur, The Book and the Holy: Chapters in the History of the Concept of Holy Book from the
Second Temple Period to Late Antiquity (Ben Gurion University, Beer Sheva, 2012 [Hebrew]).
Elizur deals primarily with books in Jewish context, but also offers interesting compar-
isons with early Christian aspects of the question. See further Jean-Marie Carrié, ‘Le livre
comme objet d’ usage, le livre comme valeur symbolique,’ Antiquité Tardive 18 (2010), 181–
22 I shall not deal here with the complex case of late antique Rabbinic Judaism, where
reverence for the Holy Book was so high that it seems to have prevented for a long time,
or at least strongly impeded, the writing of books, with the consequence that much of the
hermeneutical involvement of the elites with the Torah remained oral for a very long time.

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 9

Recent studies have put a new stress on the sociological dimensions of

ancient literacy. William Johnson, in particular, has studied elite reading com-
munities in the high empire, in a collection of articles on the culture of reading
in Greece and Rome.23 Such studies, however, have more often than not been
authored by classical scholars with relatively little interest in the history of reli-
gions. It seems that there is room for fresh efforts seeking better to understand
the religious dimensions of book culture in late antiquity. We still need a his-
torical anthropology of book writing and reading in antiquity. From a method-
ological point of view, it makes sense to focus on the monastic communities,
which provide the clearest example of the new ‘textual communities’ of late
The status and roles of books in the religious world of late antiquity cannot
be disconnected from the transformations in the production and form of books
in the Roman Empire: from the second century on, more and more books are
written as codices rather than in the traditional form of rolls; by the end of the
fourth century, the codex has definitively won the battle.25 This revolution in
the physical aspect of books is paralleled in the early centuries of the common
era by the new development of silent reading—a development, it must be said,
which would not really become common practice for centuries.
In contradistinction to what happened in society at large, and also, of course,
among the Jews, the Christian adoption of the codex was almost instant and
universal. Very few of the extant biblical papyri do not come from codices. By
the late second century, codices had become characteristic of Christianity, and
even could be perceived as ‘a Christian innovation.’

23 See William A. Johnson, Readers and Reading Culture in the High Roman Empire: A Study
of Elite Communities (Oxford, 2010). See further Ancient Literacies: the Culture of Reading
in Greece and Rome, ed. William A. Johnson and Holt N. Parker (Oxford, 2009). See further
a recent issue of Antiquité Tardive (18 [2010]) devoted to the topic, with an introduction
by Guglielmo Cavallo, ‘Libri, lettura e bibliotheche nella tarda antichità. Un panorama e
qualche riflessione,’ pp. 9–19.
24 To use a concept coined by Brian Stock for medieval monasteries; see B. Stock, ‘Textual
Communities: Judaism, Christianity, and the Definitional Problem,’ in his Listening for the
Text: on the Uses of the Past (Baltimore, 1990), pp. 140–158; cf. ‘interpretive communities,’ a
term coined by the specialist of English literature Stanley Fish.
25 Guglielmo Cavallo, ‘Du volumen au codex: la lecture dans le monde romain,’ in Histoire
de la lecture dans le monde occidental, ed. Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier (Paris,

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3 Christians and Books

How should we deal with the question of the specificity of the Christian book
culture in the Roman world? As evidence is painfully missing, any suggestion
must remain hypothetical. In his synthetic work, Books and Readers in the Early
Church, Harry Gamble Jr. adopted a broad perspective, integrating the Christian
attitude toward the canonical books with the more general question of the
status of literacy among Christians in the early centuries.26 Gamble analysed
the various uses of books among Christians during the first centuries, both in
public cult, and in private, noting that up to the fourth century, there was a
clear distinction between public and private reading of canonical books. Cyril
of Jerusalem, for one, offers a strong warning against too much free access to
the scriptures, insisting on the fact that “what is read in church should not
be read privately.” This may not necessarily reflect an insatiable interest in
scripture on the part of most individuals. Gamble’s working hypothesis was
that the use and status of books and reading among Christians was similar to
what obtained in society at large. Such a method had the obvious advantage of
considerably broadening the pool of evidence, thus permitting extrapolation.
But it was also seriously flawed and deeply misleading, since much of this
evidence may not be relevant for the Christian case. There is no good reason
to believe that Christian attitudes to texts in general, and to their holy books
in particular, were identical or closely similar to those of the surrounding
It stands to reason to assume that here as in other domains, the early
Christians showed a great sense of independence and originality. The very
fact that they did not feel bound by cultural and religious traditions allowed
them, in many ways, to be innovative. Books had a characteristic status in early
Christian communities, which were what sociologists call ‘enclave societies,’
established to a great extent upon a divinely revealed book (or upon a corpus of
writings).27 In such societies, the holy book was not only held in great honour,
but also played a central role in ritual, as well as in religious education. This
status of the Bible had a significant impact on the ritualized reading and on
the complex relationship between reading and ritual.

26 Harry Y. Gamble, Jr., Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian
Texts (New Haven and London, 2000).
27 See Ian H. Henderson, ‘Early Christianity, Textual Representation and Ritual Extension,’
in Texte als Medium und Reflexion von Religion im römischen Reich, ed. Dorothea Elm von
der Osten, Jörg Rüpke, Katerina Waldner (Heidelberg, 2006), pp. 81–100.

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 11

A paradox seems to shroud the status of books in early Christianity. Despite

the major changes effected by the Christians in the status and roles of books,
there is nothing to prove that the literacy rate among Christians was higher
than that in Roman society at large. In antiquity (and far beyond it), all cul-
tures remained to a great extent oral, and literacy remained, even in the best
of times, the privilege of very few.28 In such cultures, books were often used
as instruments for the authentication of texts, rather than as the means for
their communication. This fact helps to explain why in the conversion move-
ment launched by Christianity, the role of books must have remained modest
at first. According to Keith Hopkins, “many or most Christian communities
… simply did not have among them a single sophisticated reader or writer.”29
As most Christians could not read, they heard the holy texts, or rather small
parts of them, some of the most expressive or powerful stories, figures, and
words, through “preaching, catechesis, apologetic debates, intramural theolog-
ical disputes, and personal edification.” Robin Lane Fox, on his side, notes that
“scriptural study must have ranked almost as low as sexual fidelity” among late
antique Christians and that Christianity offered “a less reverential attitude to
the written word” than that extant in both Judaism and traditional culture in
the Roman Empire.30
And yet, even if literacy rates remained rather low within the Christian
communities, the early Christians may be defined as ‘communities of the book,’
whose cultural and religious capital was, to a great extent, represented by its
books. As Gillian Clark reminds us, “Christianity uniquely offered increased
access to book-based education.”31 Indeed, the early Christians soon learned
to enjoy writing. William Harris, the author of a major study of ancient literacy,
was so struck by the early Christian literary output that he was able to speak of
the “acute logorrhea of Christian authors.”32

28 Jack Goody, who has done so much to help us understand the differences between oral
and literate societies, offered too rigid distinctions between oral and literate societies. See
for instance Goody, The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, 1987). Cf.
Goody, Literacy in Traditional Societies (Cambridge, 1968).
29 Keith Hopkins, ‘Conquest by Book,’ in Literacy in the Roman World, ed. Mary Beard et al.
[Journal of Roman Archaeology Supplementary Series 3] (Ann Arbor, 1991), pp. 133–158.
30 Robin Lane Fox, ‘Literacy and Power in Early Christianity,’ in Literacy and Power in the
Ancient World, ed. Allan K. Bowman and Greg Woolf (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 126–147.
31 Gillian Clark, Christianity and Roman Society (Cambridge, 2004), Chapter 5, pp. 78–92.
32 W.V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, Mass., 1989).

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4 Christians and the Codex

The papyrologist Roger Bagnall has recently argued that the place of books
in ancient society and the role of the Christians in the history of the codex
has been misrepresented, mainly because much of the scholarship retains a
self-enclosed character.33 It is a remarkable fact, often noted but not easily
explained, that the passage from roll to codex was completed much faster
among Christians than in society at large. Indeed, the Christians clearly seem
to have played a pioneering role in using the codex. While the passage from roll
to codex was overall a slow and gradual process, papyrologists have noted that
almost all Christian papyri belonged to codices, while very few were written
on rolls. At the end of the second century, the codex had become, as it were,
a Christian innovation. In this regard, one has even spoken of a ‘Christian
obsession with the codex.’34 The Christian use of the codex seems to be directly
related to the new, demotic form of a ‘religion of the Book’ developed by the
Christians. For a religion that was at once outlawed and strongly missionary,
the easy circulation of books of small dimensions was particularly significant.
This is why I have described early Christianity, a bit irreverently, perhaps, as a
religion of the paperback.35
The reasons for the clear Christian preference for the codex have been
sought in various directions.36 Some of the complex reasons for this fact seem
to have been, simply, of a practical order. The codex was a new, modern, kind
of book, cheaper to produce—as it could be written on both sides of the
page, and easier to manipulate—as there was no need to unroll it. Codices,
hence, fitted a marginal and outlawed community. Christian books (which
were usually not very elegant) were meant for practical use rather than being
part of cultic activity, like the scrolls of the Torah in the synagogue cult. A similar
functionalism of books can be found in the so-called Cologne Mani Codex,
an official biography of the Prophet of light.37 This codex is, incidentally, the

33 Roger S. Bagnall, Early Christian Books in Egypt (Princeton, 2009).

34 See for instance Graham Stanton, Studies in Matthew and Early Christianity, ed. M. Bock-
muehl and D. Lincicum [Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 209]
(Tübingen, 2013), p. 169.
35 Stroumsa, ‘Early Christianity: A Religion of the Book?’ (see above, n. 2).
36 See Bagnall, Early Christian Books (above, n. 33), pp. 69–80.
37 See Eduard Iricinschi, ‘Tam pretiosi codices uestri: Hebrew Scriptures versus Persian
Books in Augustine’s Anti-Manichaean Writings,’ in Revelation, Literature, and Commu-
nity in Late Antiquity, ed. Philippa Townsend and Moulie Vidas (Tübingen, 2011), pp. 153–

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 13

smallest extant codex from the ancient world. Its tiny dimensions permitted,
it seems, apotropaic use, and also might have helped avoiding police scrutiny
in fourth-century Egypt. Another advantage of the codex on the scroll, then,
was that it could be hidden relatively easily, a useful feature for an outlawed
religious group.
The new form of the book entailed a lower, more popular status, and brought
new roles to books. Books, including the Scriptures, had become, literally,
handy, easily kept, carried, opened, and read. The codex permitted readers,
much more than the scroll, to read the Bible and carry it around easily, to quote
and move from text to text with relative freedom. It thus encouraged internal
cross-references and hermeneutics. Intertextuality suddenly became easy to
achieve, at the top of one’s fingers, as it were.38
Yet, the practical advantages alone are not sufficient to explain the religious
use of new techniques. To the Christian use of the codex, there must also have
been religious reasons, such as the lack of inhibitions and ‘loyalty feelings,’
similar to the Jewish attitude regarding the use of scrolls for the Torah and the
other biblical books. As members of a new, outlawed religious movement, the
Christians did not feel bound by traditional attitudes. More than members of
older religious groups, in particular the Jews, the Christians learned to adopt
very fast the new techniques of book production, which permitted a much
easier circulation of ideas.
It stands to reason, however, that side by side with a number of practical
reasons for the Christian preference to the codex, this preference must also
have been of an inherent or religious nature, and probably stemmed from the
self-perception of Christianity. The codex did not possess the hieratic cultural
character discernible in the roll. The early Christians, indeed, perceived them-
selves as the followers of a new religion, hence free from the inhibitions and
cultural habits of past traditions. One detects some ambivalence in the atti-
tudes of early Christian intellectuals to the idea of the book. Moreover, one may
explain the rise of the Christian codex through the marginal position of the
Christians in society. This position both permitted and encouraged disengage-
ment from hallowed patterns and accept new, more popular forms of cultural
transmission. The multiple and powerful roles of the Bible in Christian mission
and education, as well as in the very creation of a Christian culture, have been
duly noted by scholars. Yet, various aspects of these roles remain to be studied

38 See Anthony Hilhorst, ‘Biblical Scholarship in the Early Church,’ in The Impact of Scripture
in Early Christianity, ed. J. den Boeft and M.L. van Poll-van de Lisdonk [Supplements to
Vigiliae Christianae 44] (Leiden, 1999), pp. 1–19.

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in depth, from the global approach of the new status and roles of books in the
religions of the book.
It would then seem that Christian literacy was a literacy of a new, revolu-
tionary kind, an oral form of literacy, as it were. Keith Hopkins has insisted on
what he called the ‘sub-elite’ literacy among late antique Christians, and on the
essential part this played in the Christian ‘conquest’ of the Roman Empire.39
As a major instance, Hopkins refers to Coptic, a language which originated
as a “script of protest,” a fact reflected in many of the preserved manuscripts,
which stem from Gnostic, Manichaean, or monastic circles, all of them, in dif-
ferent ways and varying degrees, marginal movements. Stressing the dynamic
interaction between the written and the oral, Hopkins concludes that its pecu-
liar attitude to the body of its scriptures and other, connected texts permitted
Christianity to develop the religious coherence essential for any understand-
ing of its eventual victory over traditional religion and culture in the Roman
Empire. Words indeed have much power, especially when they are holy, but
this power is reflected in a number of ways, orally as well as in their ‘origi-
nal’ written form. Words are spoken, sometimes hurled at, like in polemics,
which played such an important role in inter-religious contacts in late antiq-
All this falls short of adequately characterizing the ambivalent attitude to
the written word among Christians in the Roman Empire. The fact that the
oral dimensions of their religion remained essential for many early Christians
should not lead us to conclude that its literary character remained of minor
significance. What is reflected here, again, is the gap between ethos and praxis.
The matter is more complex. The scriptural origin of Christianity certainly
prevented it from developing into a ‘textless’ or oral religion. More precisely,
one can argue that Christianity soon developed a new, original attitude to
literacy and the written word. Popular, spoken language was a central trait of
earliest Christianity. Thus, the quarrel of the Church with the Empire can be
summed up, to a great extent, as that between two opposed attitudes toward
language, traditional and ‘high,’ or new and ‘low.’ This background entailed
the development in Christianized Roman civilization of conflicting systems
of literacy. The popular, ‘low’ level of early Christian teachings meant that
the literary ideals current in Greco-Roman culture were not applicable to
Moreover, while early Christian literature sometimes follows known pat-
terns (such as the Clementine ‘novel,’ both in the Greek Homilies and in the

39 Hopkins, ‘Conquest by Book’ (see above, n. 29), pp. 133–158.

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 15

Latin Recognitions), its genres, such as Gospels, apocalypses, and theological

treatises and commentaries, are often strongly original, quite different from
anything in Latin Belles Lettres or philosophical literature.40 This literary cre-
ativity reflects a major transformation of the attitudes to reading in early Chris-
tianity. Reading, which had been an essentially recreational activity, became for
the Christians a mainly normative one.
Recently, Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams have argued, quite cogently,
that early Christian intellectuals were able to leave a clear mark on the trans-
formation of the book in the Roman Empire. Their argument focused on the
case study of Caesarea Maritima and the figures of Origen and Eusebius.41
Incidentally, while we know that Origen, whose scriptorium was unique, main-
tained close contacts with Rabbis in Caesarea, we know very little about Jewish
books in late antiquity.42 A rich literature was written by Jews in the Hellenis-
tic period, in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek. Most of these texts, however, would
later be identified as marginal, dangerous, or simply heretical by the Rabbis
(probably under the impact of Christianity), who sought to obliterate them. As
mentioned above, Rabbinic Judaism, just like Sasanian Zoroastrianism, func-
tioned almost entirely within the oral realm. Texts such as the Mishna could
be redacted, collected, fixed, and even canonized orally. Yet, as Jewish and
Christian intellectuals could meet and discuss biblical hermeneutics, some of
the Rabbis, at least, must have expressed intellectual curiosity about Chris-
tian books such as biblical commentaries and homiletics—just as some of the
Church Fathers expressed interest in Jewish ways of interpreting Scripture. It is
a matter of frustration, however, that we do not know more about this aspect
of the Jewish-Christian intellectual interface.
From the third to the fifth century, the gradual replacement of the uolumen
by the codex would be accompanied by deep changes in society and culture.
Traditionally, reading had usually been done aloud. Medical texts even rec-
ommend reading aloud as a physical exercise, helping one to remain healthy.
The scriptio continua, which would disappear only in Christian monastic texts,
slowed reading to a considerable extent. Reading was deeply transformed in

40 See for instance Christoph Markschies’s discussion in his Haupteinleitung to the new
edition of the Antike christliche Apokryphen in deutscher Übersetzung (Tübingen, 2012),
pp. 2–9.
41 Anthony Grafton and Megan Williams, Christianity and the Transformation of the Book:
Origen, Eusebius, and the Library of Caesarea (Cambridge, Mass., 2006).
42 On Origen and the rabbis, see Nicholas R.M. de Lange, Origen and the Jews: Studies in
Jewish-Christian Relations in Third-Century Palestine (Cambridge, 1976). On Jewish books
in late antiquity, see Elizur, The Book and the Holy (see above, n. 21), passim.

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late antiquity, mainly thanks to the emergence of both silent and meditative
reading—two different but obviously related developments. Oddly enough, the
conceptual and cognitive implications of this new status of reading remain
largely unexplored. Silent as well as meditative reading, however, were made
possible thanks to the passage from scroll to codex.
Both the use of the codex and the centrality of the Bible brought some radical
changes in the very manner of reading. Reading, which had been mainly an
extensive activity, became essentially intensive. More often than not, it now
played a part in soul therapy, and the reader now became a meditative reader,
a point emphasized by Brian Stock.43 Reading thus was transformed into a
spiritual exercise of sorts. This is true, in particular, for the reading of Scripture.
The way in which Christian intellectuals, after the Rabbis, read the text of
the Scriptures (of which they knew significant parts by heart) entailed quite
new attitudes to reading. Through reading (or reciting) the Scriptures, one
learned to search the depths of one’s psyche: perception, knowledge, memory,
emotions. Reading Scripture was the way for Christian intellectuals to become
the successors of the ancient sages. It is through Scripture that they learned
to become wise men and spiritual guides. All in all, the codex became the
new symbol of power in the ecclesiastical hierarchy, secular civil society, and

5 The Reading System Transformed

Hence, the reading system was deeply transformed, together with the writing
methods. Side by side with the passage from scroll to codex, our period saw
the development of silent reading, a development (rather than a discovery) for
which Augustine offers our best testimony.44 In parallel, the public reading of
Scriptures had become a major aspect of Christian ritual. The kind of recitative
reading (Sprechgesang) that the monks were commonly using for the biblical

43 Brian Stock, ‘L’histoire de la lecture: Thérapies de l’âme dans l’Antiquité et au Moyen-Age,’

in his Bibliothèques intérieures (Grenoble, 2005), pp. 107–126.
44 Confessions 8.12. To be sure, the development of silent reading, which would take a very
long time, as it is not before the thirteenth century that it is well established, did not entail
the disappearance of reading aloud. Gregory the Great, too, refers to silent reading; see
the fine and important points made in B. Stock, Ethics through Literature: Ascetic and
Aesthetic Reading in Western Culture [The Menahem Stern Lectures] (Waltham, Mass.,

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the new self and reading practices in late antique christianity 17

texts highlights their close relationship with these texts.45 In both cases, to be
sure, the Christians were following the Jews, who had for centuries developed
such a dual pattern of reading the Bible, both private and public.46
Among the Christians, the adoption of silent reading—a very slow process,
which would take many centuries to be completed—seems to be directly
linked to the private reading of the Bible in the monastic milieus (in particular
of the Psalms, a corpus also central to public worship), in meditation and
oration.47 The ability to read the holy text in silence and to memorize it brought
about its internalization. In other words, it permitted the conception of an
interior book, written not on parchment, but in the heart of the believer. This
metaphor of the ‘Book of the Heart’—whose roots are to be found in the
ancient Near East—would have a long and rich future in the history of Christian
spirituality. In other words, the development of silent reading among early
Christian elites reflected the transformed status of the individual in the new
religious system, and it must have been as closely related to it as was the use of
the codex.

6 Conclusion

I have sought here to shed some light on a few complex phenomena in late
antique Christianity. These phenomena constitute together the religious roots
of the cultural revolution effected, perhaps not quite purposefully, by the early
monks. I started with the brief description of the emergence of a new, reflexive
self, a self who is at once, by nature, a sinner and strung toward constant moral
and spiritual progress. Under such conditions, the individual, or at least the
ascetic virtuoso, is not interested anymore, as was the Greek philosopher, in
cultivating his own self. Rather, it is transforming his own self that he seeks.
This inner transformation of the individual culminates in the imitatio Christi or,
in the mystical Eastern tradition, in divinization (theosis) through the beatific
vision. In his path towards inner transformation, the monk follows, as it were,
the traces left by God’s incarnation. It is through a constant reading of the

45 See Reinhard Flander, Der biblische Sprechgesang und seine mündliche Überlieferung in
Synagogue und griechische Kirche (Wilhelmshaven, 1988).
46 Stroumsa, ‘Augustine and the Book,’ in A Companion to Augustine, ed. Vessey (see above,
n. 14), pp. 151–157. On reading and readers in Augustine, see Matilde Caltabiano, ‘Lettura
e lettori in Agostino,’ Antiquité Tardive 18 (2010), 151–161.
47 See William A. Johnson, ‘Towards a Sociology of Reading in Classical Antiquity,’ The
American Journal of Philology 121–124 (2000), 593–627.

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Holy Scriptures and a constant meditation on them that such traces can be
made visible.48 By calling attention at once to the new Christian reflexive
anthropology and to the new ways of reading, and by arguing that these two
phenomena were most clearly reflected in monasticism, I hope to have pointed
out the intimate connection between self and text among the early monks.

48 See Claudia Rapp, ‘Holy Texts, Holy Men, and Holy Scribes: Aspects of Scriptural Holiness
in Late Antiquity,’ in The Early Christian Book, ed. Klingshirn and Safran (see above, n. 6),
pp. 194–222, and Douglas Burton-Christie, The Word in the Desert: Scripture and the Quest
for Holiness in Early Christian Monasticism (Oxford, 1993), passim.

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