Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Introduction

I have written several posts for my friend Yuri regarding the various roles that speech and words take in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (so far parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6a, and 6b — together with a post on texts and another on oceanic models of causation in The Brothers Karamazov). This project has forced me to read Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church. Gamble deals with questions of orality and literacy in ways that bear directly upon the arguments I was making in response to questions I was asking; since his focus is the relationship between orality and literacy, attention to his work is very rewarding. 

Therefore, here is an introduction to the book, to be followed by posts concerning each of the five chapters, each with some critical analysis from scholarly reviews, and my own impressions. 

Harry Y. Gamble is Professor Emeritus in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia. He joined the Religious Studies Department at the University of Virginia in 1970, was Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, chaired the Department from 1992 to 2006, and retired from full-time teaching in 2014. There was a conference in 2015 that celebrated the legacy of his Books and Readers in the Early Church, which had a readership beyond biblical studies (the 2015 conference included work on Islam and modern Tibetan literary culture). Books and Readers is not his first work; Gamble had already published two books before, the 1977 The Textual History of the Letter to the Romans and the 1985 The New Testament Canon: Its Making and Meaning (Gamble suggests in the preface to Books and Readers that the seed for this book began during work on The New Testament Canon), with several book chapters in the meantime (I know of at least six [1]). The courses he taught at the University of Virginia must have been epic, judging from the quality of his writings and the hints of course materials one can find online (I’ve emailed him, but he hasn’t responded, and for about five seconds I thought —wrongly— that this was because he died; if anyone has syllabi from courses they’ve taken with him, please do send them to me! I’d love to dig through the readings, and enjoy a class by proxy).


Some preliminary words about Books and Readers would be in order before talking about its reception. In the briefest terms possible, Gamble’s Books and Readers is “a sociology of early Christian literature” [2], given that the conception, production, possession, use, and prizing of books are part of social processes and interests. Typically, in the modern world, particularly in the United States, we think of religious texts mostly as the disposable receptacles of ideas, distributed for private study and consumption of their contents, and only secondarily as objects in themselves, reflective of, and embedded, in a social world.  The medium of idea transmission, and the social world it lives in, is considered essentially irrelevant beyond an aesthetic surplus, to be shucked in order to get at the main thing. Even historical analysis has typically looked at the ideas in these texts, not the medium as essentially connected to these ideas, and more than just the ideas. The ideas found in such texts, rather, are inseparable from a whole ecology of professional and ritual practices, cultivated ethical dispositions, technical skills, social environments, material constraints, social-political organization, and the shape of pathways by which these texts are generated, engaged, and transmitted. The original meaning —the original “ideas”— of these texts cannot be separated from the significance they had within that whole ecology. This is why AnneMarie Luijendijk writes of Gamble’s work, in her “Books and Private Readers in Early Christian Oxyrhynchus” (collected in the volume edited by Shuve), that Books and Readers 

ushered in an exciting material turn in scholarship on early Christianity and late antiquity, effecting a change of focus from the study of textual variants —important as that is— to manuscripts as “social artifacts.” (Shuve, 101)

Gamble does not permit us any anachronism, nor does he concern himself, here, with the religious content of the texts in question. As Gamble himself states with regard to a part of this,

the failure to consider the extent to which the physical medium of the written word contributes to its meaning —how its outward aspects inform the way a text is approached and read— perpetuates a largely abstract, often unhistorical, and even anachronistic conception of early Christian literature and its transmission. [3]

So he asks, stating that these questions are “almost never raised by historians of the canon [of scripture] even though the whole process of the formation of the canon depends upon them”:

What physical form(s) did early Christian writings take […]? How and by whom were they transcribed? By what means was a text published and made known to a readership? Once published, how were these books duplicated and disseminated? How rapidly and extensively did they become available to Christian communities? Who were the sponsors and custodians of such texts? How were they transported, stored, collected, and used? Who, in fact, read them, and in what circumstances and to what purpose? […] [I]n standard histories of early Christian literature these questions are neither asked nor answered. [4]

The content of early Christian texts have been studied intensely, but this is not Gamble’s focus. Instead, he seeks “to bypass issues of content and concentrate on ‘the bibliographic substructure'” of these early texts, as Robert Grant puts it (partially citing Gamble) [5]. That makes Books and Readers a welcome change, and a needed preliminary handbook to early Christian studies. Aho & Davis, writing for The Library Quarterly, note that there is an abundance of studies of the content of these early texts, but that

this is the first comprehensive effort to provide a prolegomena —an introductory work— to the study of those texts. In other words, this excellent book does not discuss the actual contents of the early Christian writings but examines the preliminary matters: [they give a list of preliminaries that largely repeats Gamble, above]. The lack of earlier comprehensive studies on these issues illuminates the failure to see that the questions posed by such studies are fundamental in enabling us to gain a proper interpretation of those same texts and in understanding the collection of those texts into a canon. [6]

At the risk of redundancy, I’ll note that Joseph Trigg writes that “[t]he questions [Gamble] asks, and to a large degree answers, are fundamental: What was an early Christian book? What did publication mean? Who read? What role did reading play?” [7] Before reading Gamble, I am not sure that I would have understood what was at stake in these questions.


Books and Readers was innovative when it came out. Karl Shuve notes that Books and Readers 

was published at a moment when the history of the book was still in its infancy, and it served as a model and an inspiration not only for scholars in New Testament Studies but also for [“geographically and historically remote” fields]. [8]

There were noted historical precedents to Gamble’s book within 20th century Biblical studies specifically. I suspect that there were precedents also within the field of the humanities generally. (I am thinking specifically of Eric Havelock and Marshall McLuhan, but others are noted by Shuve, below.) The field of Biblical studies seems to have emphasized oral tradition and memory, paralleling the transition from orality to literacy in Greece that Havelock covers (I have discussed Havelock’s work only briefly here). I myself wrote in an earlier post about what seemed to me to be the primarily oral medium of earliest Christianity, and that, within it, writing was largely a proxy for speaking:

the literary activity of [the earliest Christians] is not, however, undertaken in order to be a virtuoso or contribute to a body of literature for a culture or civilization, or as an abstract expression of creativity merely to be appreciated, or as a form of play, or as a product to entertain, but in order to change the hearts of hearers, urgently, immediately, and to build up the hearts of Christians who have received these words within a network of communities.

This was my informed judgment from my relatively well-acquainted reading of some of the key secondary texts and my minor proficiency in the original language (Koine Greek). Something similar seems to have been the opinion of scholars for much of the twentieth century. As Timothy Teeter put it: “[t]he prevailing view of earliest Christianity has been of a community much more interested in oral tradition than textual transmission, and that when it produced written material, even apologies, this was almost entirely for use within the community.” [9] Karl Shuve paints an entire backdrop for the position Gamble stakes out his claims against:

In the years preceding the publication of Books and Readers in the Early Church, questions of orality were dominating the field, as indeed they long had been. The form critics of the early twentieth century assumed the oral nature of early Christian culture, and they concerned themselves with establishing the original (oral) forms of later (written) traditions about Jesus. Influential studies by Albert Lord [here], Ruth Finnegan [“Literacy vs. Non-Literacy”, here], and Walter Ong [here], however, compelled scholars to rethink how they conceptualized the relationship between oral and written traditions. This led to the publication in 1983 of Werner Kelber’s monograph The Oral and the Written Gospel, in which he takes to task not only Bultmann and the form critics but also Birger Gerhardsson and his memory approach, for chirographic bias and for downplaying the radical differences between oral and literary cultures. Kelber agrees with the form critics that early Christian culture was fundamentally oral in nature, but he postulates that this means that the writing of gospel traditions represented a transformative break, not an inevitable development. He concludes his book by forcefully arguing, “The decisive break in the synoptic tradition did thus not come, as Bultmann thought, with Easter, but when the written medium took full control, transforming Jesus the speaker of kingdom parables into the parable of the kingdom of God.” [10]

Books and Readers in the Early Church thus represents a profound reorientation of the field of New Testament studies itself. Gamble calls into question Kelber’s argument that there is a deep disjuncture —perhaps even a mutual exclusivity— between oral and written cultures, although he does so not to posit a smoother transition from an oral stage to a textual one but to argue that Christianity had been a deeply literate culture from its inception, even as “an oral tradition was both current and influential in the first century of Christianity’s existence.” [11] For Gamble, if one wants to understand Christianity, even in its earliest stages, one must understand the material dimensions of texts. [12]

To be clear: Gamble is not stating that everything in the New Testament is an attempt to participate in Greco-Roman high literature, but he is claiming that it is essentially literary in character from the start, that literariness for earliest Christianity is not extrinsic to an essentially oral core, and that this literature is not simply “low (or vulgar) literature”. As Eldon Jay Epp puts it, Gamble’s position —with which he concurs— is that “the earliest Christian books […] were regarded neither as notebooks nor as fine literature, but as “practical books for everyday use” ([Gamble,] p. 66; cf. 77-78).” [13]


It was tempting to list this book’s influence at the outset, but I’ll place this here: as of this date, Google Scholar lists Books and Readers as cited by 736 works, whereas even the currently-rock-star-status Bart Ehrman is only listed as having his Orthodox Corruption of Scripture (his most comparable work, so far as I know) listed as being cited by 460 other worksBooks and Readers was published in 1995, and (if I’m not mistaken) The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture was published in 1996 — so the disparity in citations is not the result of scholars having spent significantly more time with one book than the other. Books and Readers may be unknown to you, but, as Karl Shuve puts it in his introduction to Books and Readers in the Premodern World (the results of the 2015 conference that was held to honor Gamble’s work, mentioned in the first paragraph above), it is “a book of […]  unusually broad influence”. [14]

[Books and Readers] has stood the test of time. No scholar has found it necessary to produce a similarly comprehensive work. But it played a crucial role in the flowering of scholarship on the book in early Christianity. Important works such as Kim Haines-Eitzen’s Guardians of Letters: Literacy, Power, and the Transmission of Early Christian Literature and Larry Hurtado’s The Earliest Christian Artifacts: Manuscripts and Christian Origins engage directly with Gamble’s work and reveal the extent to which the materiality of Christian books is no longer being neglected. Further, beyond the bounds of the world of Christianity are such influential and masterful works as Anthony Grafton’s The Footnote, Jonathan Bloom’s Paper before Print: The History and Impact of Paper in the Islamic World, Kurtis Schaeffer’s The Culture of the Book in Tibet, and Konrad Hirschler’s The Written Word in the Medieval Arabic Lands[15]

It would be easy to collect a number of further lauds for this book, many of which, as we saw with the Aho & Davis quote above, give a quick overview of its contents. Bart Ehrman, whom we’ve already mentioned, says that Books and Readers is “full and richly documented”, affirms that “[t]here is nothing like the study available; it completely dwarfs its closest relation[16], and that it “is a major publication of lasting significance”. [17] Aho & Davis (cited above) wrote that “[t]his study […] is a vital one”, that B&R “[is] an excellent book”, even “an admirable work”, and that “it is now the definitive treatment” for “the book as a unique artifact of human society”. Joseph Trigg calls it “both fresh and cogent”. [18] Robert Grant writes that “[i]n essence[, Gamble] has provided a ‘companion to early Christian literature’ which should be required reading.” Dennis Trout even compares the cultural shifts brought about by changes in writing technology in the ancient world to the social changes brought about by the desktop computer, and implicitly credits Gamble with having a privileged lead on this importance. [19] Michael Holmes calls it “an impressive piece of work” and “an outstanding contribution that is remarkable for its breadth and excellence” that is “destined to be heavily consulted”. [20]


Holmes also writes that “[this subject] had never received the attention it deserved until this work”. This sentence is marvelously balanced in highlighting the singularity of Gamble’s work for pulling together fields of scholarship that are not normally in frequent contact (and thus bringing an informed and coherent historical picture of the sociology of texts to our attention), while remaining silent about the degree to which Gamble’s text makes an original contribution. The consensus seems to be that Gamble is not, on the whole, engaged in advancing new propositions, but synthesizing a large body of evidence, evidence that most scholars —even specialists— know little or nothing about. Thus, Robert Grant says that Gamble “does not emphasize novelties as such but carefully revises information taken from many sources, fully discussed, and not, I believe, available elsewhere.” Timothy Teeter writes that “the book’s value does not lie principally in original contributions to scholarship, but in the meticulous gathering of the results of hitherto disparate branches of classical scholarship into one place for students of the New Testament and patristic literature.” Robin James Lane Fox , who, in his review, in turns praises and performs a kind of irritation, paints a rather sour picture of this feature of the book, and has a rather critical stance towards many of the non-synthetic proposals of Gamble; Fox judges that Books and Readers “is happiest when describing, not arguing for a new theory.” [21] Interdisciplinary work has become an aim and even an aspiration for many scholars, and even Fox has to acknowledge that Gamble’s work demonstrates it marvelously, not only in its integration of multiple disciplines, but from its range of historical precision: “[f]ew authors can move accurately between the scribal habits of Qumran and Cassiodorus”.


I maintain that endnotes are Orcish things, and should not exist; footnotes are the only civilized and practical option. My feelings grow stronger in cases such as Gamble’s work, because, as Dennis Trout writes, “[t]he endnotes are a treasure trove”. Trigg and Holmes make similar claims. I’ve already written one post off of one section of one footnote from Gamble — and the footnotes run nearly one hundred pages, from 247-334. “Treasure trove” is almost a quaint understatement.

As a final note, I should mention that the book deals with some arcane things in prose that makes the subjects so very accessible. As Peter Rodgers notes: “Gamble’s chapters […] are at once thoroughly technical and readable by the non-specialist” [22], and Eldon Jay Epp reiterates this in writing that “the book is written both for scholars and for a wider audience” and the “highly technical” subjects are “more accessible to many” as a result. [23]

This is a very highly recommended read. I look forward, eventually, to that time when I can summarize the chapters.



They can be found in essay collections here (Marcion and the canon of scripture), here (scholarly research on the state of the question of the New Testament canon), here (“Bible and Book”), here (the book trade in the Roman Empire), here (“scripture and canon”), and here (“Literacy, Liturgy, and the Shaping of the New Testament Canon”).


Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1995), 43


Gamble, 42


Gamble, ix


Robert Grant, The Catholic Historical Review 82.3 (1996), 492-493


J. A. Aho & Donald G. Davis, Jr., The Library Quarterly 68.1 (Jan. 1998), 90-92


Joseph W. Trigg, The Journal of Religion 77.2 (Apr. 1997), 295-296


Books and Readers in the Premodern World: Essays in Honor of Harry Gamble ed. Karl Shuve (SBL Press, 2018), 4


Timothy M. Teeter, Vigiliae Christianae 50 (1996), 426-427


citing Kelber, Oral and Written Gospel, 220


Gamble, 32


Shuve, 4-5


Epp, 548


Shuve, 3


Shuve, Introduction, 6


This “closest relation” is the linked-to work of Frederic Kenyon, Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome. Eldon Jay Epp wrote that Kenyon’s book was “a remarkable book for the early 1930s”, but that “Gamble’s coverage of the topics is broader and deeper and, of course, benefits from sixty-five years of discoveries and analysis of data.” See his “The Codex and Literacy in Early Christianity and at Oxyrhynchus: Issues Raised by Harry Y. Gamble’s Books and Readers in the Early Church” (chapter 19 of Perspectives on New Testament Textual Criticism: Collected Essays, 1962-2004 (Leiden: Brill, 2005), 521-550), 521.

I have not (yet) read Kenyon’s work, which seems to have aged for scholars already by 1952, judging by W. B. Sedgwick’s review of it here.


Bart D. Ehrman, American Historical Review 102.3 (June 1997), 794


Joseph W. Trigg, The Journal of Religion 77.2 (Apr. 1997), 295-296


Dennis E. Trout, Speculum 75.1 (Jan. 2000), 180-182

“As no thoughtful history of later twentieth-century life is likely to be written without reference to the ripples and revolutions wrought by the desktop computer, Harry Gamble convinces us that attempts to reconstruct the social and intellectual world of early Christianity cannot afford to ignore the realities of ancient literacy, of reading practices, and of book production and exchange.”


Michael W. Holmes, Journal of the American Oriental Society 114.8 (1998), 587


R. J. Lane Fox, Journal of Biblical Literature 116.3 (1997), 552-553


Peter R. Rodgers, Novum Testamentum 39.3 (Jan. 1997), 301


Epp, “The Codex and Literacy in Early Christianity and at Oxyrhynchus”, 521


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One thought on “Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Introduction

  1. Pingback: The Burden of Unfinished Things | Into the Clarities

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