Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library at Caesarea

Stuart Hannabuss (Aberdeen Business School, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "Christianity and the Transformation of the Book: Origen, Eusebius, and the Library at Caesarea", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 6, pp. 467-469.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

In an age where change means development and being modern is essential, studies of the book and of libraries long ago often dwindle into obscurity. This is a book that deserves far better. Picking up the theme that what is said and published is equally fascinating and important whether it is recorded on papyrus or in cyberspace, and the further themes that scholarship develops eclectically and that the ways content is organized both represents and shapes the way we think, this new book offers challenging ideas for the reader today.

The early Christian church grew up in centres like Alexandria and Caesarea (in Palestine) during the Roman period. Such centres were not just house‐church communities: they had libraries, patrons, scriptoria, and were in fact centres of book production for Christian, Jewish, and Greek books. They were centres of scholarship. Christianity played a crucial role in shaping what scholars and believers bought and copied and read; it also influenced what they read in order to refute – Greek philosophy, rabbinic polemics, Muslim commentaries. Origen (c. 185‐253) was a Christian theologian in Caesarea whose work exemplifies these features perfectly. His work on first principles and his other work show three things: his keen absorption of contemporary scholarship, his belief that such eclectic learning served his advocacy of the Christian faith, and the complex and systematic organization of his arguments and material.

Origen's work influenced Eusebius (265‐340) in turn: Eusebius was a church historian and Christian apologist, well‐known for his history of the church, his support of the Emperor Constantine, and for his use of Origen's systematic way of organizing knowledge (above all in Origen's Hexapla, a parallel‐text version centred around the Greek Septuagint) in his own works, above all the comparative chronology in the Historia Ecclesiastica. This was a tradition of exegesis and book production to influence Jerome and later Bede, Erasmus, and Scaliger. Eusebius was also bishop of Caesarea and his exegetical work on the Gospel with its 15 sections deliberately mirrored (and was intended to refute) Porphyry's treatise Against the Christians: both Origen and Eusebius were advocates of the Christian church. Porphyry is known in history for being the disciple of Plotinus, the influential Platonic philosopher.

Christianity and the Transformation of the Book argues its case – operates – on several levels. First it is a clear and highly‐readable introduction to Christianity and key interpreters like Origen and Eusebius. Grafton (professor at Princeton University, known for his work on Scaliger) and Williams (University of Montana, with a recent study on Jerome to her credit) have digested the current historiography of the field with admirable skill, and in this book provide a portal for the general reader without over‐simplifying the issues for the expert. An understanding of Greek and Latin helps but is not essential for reading and enjoying this book.

The second level on which this book operates is that of textual criticism and exegesis, topics central to any understanding of scholarship, historiography, and textual analysis at the time (and up to the present day when we consider the primary texts of Origen, Eusebius, and Jerome, and the field of patristic studies generally). Drawing both on primary and secondary scholarship, Grafton and Williams present a fascinating picture of the role books and scholarship played for philosophers and theologians at the time, how patrons bought them books and supported scribal copying, how texts from friend and foe alike were assiduously gathered and studied and collated in order to enable commentaries and support interpretations. Origen and Porphyry were as much philologists as philosophers. Texts (written and reported, where they existed, and many remain only in fragments today) lay at the centre of theological and philosophical disputation. The Hexapla or parallel‐text polyglot Bible of Origen (there are photographs) was, in matter and manner, of seminal importance for scholarship and for the making of books.

This takes us to the third level of the book – that of the manufacture of books and the role of libraries. Casson is one to have opened up this world anew, while Carriker is one to have examined the library of Eusebius himself. For anyone seriously examining the field, above all in English‐language secondary sources, this book will be very useful, and so useful for courses where the history of the book and the history of libraries are studied, as well as for anyone with such a scholarly interest. Caesarea was a major book production centre. Origen and Eusebius (with his rich patrons and disciples) copied and distributed books in codex form (the codex was supplanting the roll, even though most “books” as we understand them today consisted of a sequence of codices).

The scholarship and bibliographical hinterland of such polyglot texts was astonishingly complex and expensive. The effort was driven in part by the wish to supersede Greek philosophy (above all Neoplatonist and Stoic) and the wish to refute Jewish and rabbinic work (which interestingly, in such things as commentaries on the Kabbalah, used similar multi‐text forms). No less a source than the Codex Sinaiticus used display methods like Origen's Hexapla, the contemporary counterpart, it might be said, to the hypertext link.

In these various ways, then, Grafton and Williams bring the period and the personalities to life. Indeed they include a list of characters at the start, in the style of a Lindsay Davis Falco story. The authors considerately keep the main text clear and simple. They support it with extensive notes (pp. 291‐353) and a thorough bibliography (of mainly English‐language sources with relevant others in German, French, and Italian). There is also an index. When you think that these methods of organizing text and argument, and bibliographic resources, are not unique to the present day but have a complex history to them, which this books brings out well, this is a book worth reading for its humanistic perspective alone. At the price this is irresistible.

Further reading

Battles, M. (2003), Library: An Unquiet History, W. W. Norton, New York, NY.

Carriker, A. (2003), The Library of Eusebius of Caesarea, Brill, Leiden.

Casson, L. (2001), Libraries in the Ancient World, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT.

Chartier, R. (1994), The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries, Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.

O'Donnell, J. (1998), Avatars of the Word from Papyrus to Cyberspace, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA.

Sharpe, J. and van Kampen, K. (Eds) (1998), The Bible as Book: The Manuscript Tradition, The British Library/New Castle, DE, Oak Knoll Press, London.

Williams, M. (2006), Jerome and the Making of Christian Scholarship, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.

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