I have argued in numerous places–articles, blog posts, books–that Scripture played a central role in the life of early Christians. They not only read and preached from these books, but they copied and distributed them in great numbers.
An additional (and rather curious) example of the role of Scripture in early Christianity was the phenomenon of the miniature codex. From the time of the third century, and especially in the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians began to create these little “pocket Bibles” that contained portions of Scripture and sometimes even held multiple scriptural books (e.g., see my analysis of P.Ant. 12).
The early Christians probably used the miniature codex format for a number of reasons including private reading, portability for long journeys, and sometimes even in a “magical” sense (thinking it provided protection for the one who possessed it).
But, it seems they also used these books as a visible sign of their Christian identity. Christians would carry these books on their bodies, often hung around their necks, as a sign that they were devoted to Scripture and thereby devoted to Christ.
Aside from the miniature codex in particular, we know Christians often treated scriptural books in just such a fashion. For instance, a biblical codex was placed on a throne at the Council of Ephesus (c.431) as a powerful visual representation of the presence of Christ.
Similarly, Epiphanius describes the power of just seeing scriptural books, “The mere sight of these books renders us less inclined to sin, and incites us to believe more firmly in righteousness.”
The monk Philoxenus of Mabbug (fifth century) shows a similar devotion to the Gospels as a physical object: “Take the Gospel in your hands. Place it on your eyes and your heart…place the Gospel on the cushion and prostrate yourself before it up to ten times… [and] you will conceive in your heart the internal adoration and the effect of divine grace.”
In light of this context, we have a few possible examples of the “devotional” use of the miniature codex. For instance, Maximus, disciple of the fourth-century Martin of Tours, hung a “book of the Gospels” around his neck during his travels, along with the instruments of the sacrament (a small paten and chalice).  Apparently the tiny Gospel book was a way for Maximus to put the tools of his divine trade on full visual display; i.e., to identify himself as minister.
In 304, a Christian deacon named Euplus was martyred in Catania under the Governor Calvisianus with the “book of the Gospels” hung around his neck. Indeed, he presented this very gospel book to the authorities as proof that he was a Christian.
Similarly, Chrysostom, noting how the Israelites were commanded to carry the Scriptures with them in Deut 6:6-9, commends those who do the same, “Many of our women now wear Gospels hung from their necks. And in order that by another thing again they may be reminded …and remember the commandment.”
These examples provide an interesting glimpse into the mindset of early Christians. So devoted to Scripture were they, that they often wore the books on their body as a signal to all watching that they were committed to following these books and the message they contained.
 Benedicta Ward, trans., The Sayings of the Desert Fathers: The Alphabetical Collection (London: Liturgical Press, 1984), 58 (Epiphanius 8).
 Rapp, “Holy Texts,” 198.”
 Raymond Van Dam, trans., Gregory of Tours: Glory of the Confessors (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1988), 37.
 H. Musurillo, Acts of the Christian Martyrs (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 319 (Latin recension).
 Hom. Matt. 72.2. Scholars are divided over what Chrysostom is doing in this passage, but we cannot explore that issue further here.
Lois Westerlund says
Today what people wear around their necks is a cross–instead of the Gospel in written form. The symbol of an event, instead of the true meaning of that event, revealed by God, in all its fullness!
Thank you for this!
Bryant J Williams III says
Very good resources.
Although Christians did not invent the Codex or bookroll, they certainly put it to good use. It seems that Christians have always put to use extensively the next medium to come along for the propagation of the gospel; and for the teaching and study of the Scriptures even if they did not invent the next medium.
Also, I would highly recommend Dr. Larry W. Hurtado. He has mentioned several of his books on the subject of the preference of the early Christians especially in the Second Century for the Codex. His blog is at https://larryhurtado.wordpress.com/
Whether one agrees or disagrees with some of his conclusions, it is best to check out his thoughts. One will not regret it.
Rev. Bryant J. Williams III
Ben Scotus says
Thanks for the thoughts here, Prof. Kruger. Fascinating to see that early Christians were creating “pocket Bibles” very early on! Some armchair lay commentary, if you’ll humor me: The modern understanding of the term “magical” probably doesn’t describe the way early Christians felt about these mini-codices (maybe that’s why you put the word in quotes). They most likely viewed Scriptures sacramentally, e.g., the written word of God as a manifestation of Christ. Just as prayer and faith in God protect us according to His will, so does devotion to His Word – written, spoken, painted or Incarnate. Which is my last thought: Rather than the carrying/wearing of Scriptures serving as “a sign that they were devoted to Scripture and thereby devoted to Christ,” perhaps it’s the other way around? I.e., A sign that they were devoted to Christ and thereby devoted to Scripture. Maybe just semantics, but I thought I’d run these thoughts past you. Interesting that, every Sunday, the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy includes the “Small Entrance,” when the clergy proceed to the altar carrying the Book of the Gospels as everyone sings from Ps. 95 and worships Christ the Word. Forgive me for bringing things up that you’ve undoubtedly studied and probably already addressed elsewhere. Thank you again for the work you do here.
David King says
Chrysostom makes the same point as Epiphanius in note #1 – See F. Allen, trans., Four Discourses of Chrysostom, Chiefly on the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, 3rd Sermon, §2-3 (London: Longmans, Green, Reader and Dyer, 1869), pp. 62-68; cf. also Concionis VII, de Lazaro 3.2-3 PG 48:993-996 (Paris: J.-P. Migne, 1857-87). Cf. PG 62:485.
Moreover, we often hear from Roman apologists that the scriptures were unavailable to Christians in the early church, but Chrysostom urged his hearers repeatedly to procure the scriptures, and he could scarcely have done so if physical copies were beyond their reach…
Chrysostom (349-407): Tarry not, I entreat, for another to teach thee; thou hast the oracles of God. No man teacheth thee as they; for he indeed oft grudgeth much for vainglory’s sake and envy. Hearken, I entreat you, all ye that are careful for this life, and procure books that will be medicines for the soul. If ye will not any other, yet get you at least the New Testament, the Apostolic Epistles, the Acts, the Gospels, for your constant teachers. If grief befall thee, dive into them as into a chest of medicines; take thence comfort of thy trouble, be it loss, or death, or bereavement of relations; or rather dive not into them merely, but take them wholly to thee; keep them in thy mind.
This is the cause of all evils, the not knowing the Scriptures. We go into battle without arms, and how ought we to come off safe? Well contented should we be if we can be safe with them, let alone without them. NPNF1: Vol. XIII, Homilies on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Colossians, Homily 9.
TC Robinson says
I love these ancient tidbits. Thank you. But after reading it, a thought came to mind: how great it would be not only to physically wear the gospels but live them.