Why Christians Love Books
A Brief History
The published works of John Piper brought together in thirteen volumes are scheduled for release in March. Gather up some pennies and clean off some bookshelf space because the whole set measures just under 8,500 pages (or three million words) in total length.
Turning from paper to pixels, the total number of words on desiringGod.org right now adds up to about 12.3 million (excluding our 120 published books). About 8.5 million of those words (or 70%) are from Piper himself.
Add his books to all his other digital content, and Piper is responsible for at least 11.5 million published words. Start reading all of Piper’s writings, nonstop, at the average pace of 200 words per minute, you would be reading from now until Valentine’s Day 2020.
Shrug. What can we say? Christians are a wordy people.
Piper’s output may be abnormal, but the bookish nature of Christianity is not. We can trace our evangelical bibliophilia all the way back to the beginning of the Christian church, writes Larry Hurtado in his new book, Destroyer of the gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World.
What built the “bookish” tradition in the first three centuries of the church? And how was it unique?
1. Early Christians embraced letter-writing.
We formally call them “Epistles,” but they’re really just what the people of the day would think of as letters — circular letters to be shared and read aloud. Christians embraced letter-writing, as the letters of Paul, John, and Peter all attest.
We grow familiar with the Epistles, and we lose the distinctiveness of letters. But Hurtado writes, “I know of no other philosophical or religious group of the time that exhibits an appropriation of the letterform as a serious vehicle for its teaching that is comparable to what we see in letters of Paul and subsequent Christian texts, such as the letters of Ignatius of Antioch and other ancient Christian writers” (121).
In the serious business of legacy-building, the ancient aristocrats were not using letters. Christians were.
“Christians will not stop writing until the earth is submerged under a second global flood — a tsunami of truth.”
This pattern didn’t end in the first three centuries, however. The model was carried on by the prolific letter-writing ministry of John Newton, for example. In eighteenth-century England, several factors came together so that “letter writing emerged as the popular social media of Newton’s day, and religious leaders like Newton turned to pastoral letters, sometimes writing letters that rivaled sermons in both substance and usefulness” (Newton, 22).
Newton is a later example of the early Christian skill in capturing the potential of the available social media of the day for edifying gospel purposes.
2. Early Christians wrote serious letters.
According to one foundational study, about 14,000 ancient papyrus letters from the Greco-Roman era have been preserved. The average letter is 87 words long. “Essentially, these letters served basic and simple communication needs,” says Hurtado, “such as assuring the recipient, ‘I am well and I trust that you are, too.’”
A letter of 87 words just happens to be the optimal length for a good email, which uploads the discussion to the digital age. Boomerang, an email marketing service, tracked all the emails sent from their services in 2015 to determine an “optimal” length. At the end of the year, they determined that the most effective sales emails were somewhere between 75 and 100 words in length.
So perhaps we can think of the average length of a Greco-Roman papyrus letter and the average length of an optimized email as virtually the same. (Nobody wants long emails.)
Now, factor in the rare ambitious letter-writers of Rome, who took advantage of elaborated letter-writing: Cicero’s 796 letters range from 22 to 2,530 words, and Seneca’s 124 letters range from 149 to 4,130 words.
The Roman word counts are dwarfed by the Pauline totals, though. Paul’s letters include 2 Corinthians (4,450 words), 1 Corinthians (6,800 words), and the granddaddy, Romans (7,100 words).
“Early Christians favored texts over temples. Pagans built buildings. Christians wrote books.”
No doubt conditioned by the lengthy writings of the Old Testament, Paul was a prolific longform writer, and for his verbosity he gained the reputation as a small guy who wrote huge letters (2 Corinthians 10:10). So when the Roman Christians first received Paul’s letter, “they were probably more stunned by the letter’s length than by its content” (121).
Christians were not only letter-writers, they were serious letter-writers, and they pushed written words to the limit, and beyond.
3. Early Christians wrote a lot.
Early Christians wrote not only letters, but also books.
“Early Christianity was distinctively ‘bookish,’ not only in the place that the reading of certain texts held in their gatherings, but also in the sheer volume of production of new Christian texts,” writes Hurtado. “And this composition of texts was a remarkably prominent feature of the young religious movement. If we confine our attention again to the pre-Constantinian period, you can readily get a sense of the efflorescence of early Christian literature by casting your eye over the table of contents of volume 1 of the valuable catalogue of early Christian literature by Moreschini and Norelli. There are at least two hundred individual texts mentioned there, dated to the first three centuries” (118).
These two hundred texts — “published” by being carried and copied by hand! — are comparatively astonishing in the Roman world, writes Hurtado. “The number and substance of the writings produced is all the more remarkable when we remember that all through this early period Christians were still relatively few in number and small as a percentage of the total Roman-era population. In fact, to my knowledge, among the many other Roman-era religious groups, there is simply no analogy for this variety, vigor, and volume in Christian literary output” (119–120).
It was not the custom of religious movements to adopt letter-writing. And it was certainly not the custom of religious gatherings to publish volumes of texts from such a small and budding movement.
4. Early Christians favored texts over temples.
The variety, vigor, and volume of books by Christians became even more remarkably countercultural when set in contrast to the dominant religious milieu of the Greco-Roman world.
The Christians approached religious devotion by text, not by temple, Hurtado points out. “For other religious movements of the day . . . there are the remains of numerous shrines and dedicatory inscriptions, but no texts. For early Christianity, however, there are no known church structures or inscriptions prior to sometime in the third century AD, but there is this huge catalogue of texts” (119–120).
Early Christians favored texts over temples. Pagans built buildings. Christians wrote books.
5. Early Christian writers were not motivated by fame or money.
The variety, vigor, and volume of books by early Christians is also astonishing because those writers were amateurs. Unlike Roman philosophical texts, early Christian letters and books were not written by professional writers in comfortable accommodations.
“Early Christian writers were not elites or professionals. They wrote on the run, in prison, and in exile.”
“This is especially so for the earliest texts, such as those that make up the New Testament, given that Paul and other early Christian authors were neither professional writers nor of the wealthy and leisured classes with slaves to attend to their needs and with copious free time,” writes Hurtado. “Even the second-century writers — such as Justin, who is reported to have styled himself as a Christian philosopher — did not belong to the leisured, wealthy, and well-connected circles of contemporary pagan authors such as Fronto or Celsus” (128).
Early Christian writers were not elites or professionals. They wrote on the run, in prison, and in exile. “Indeed, in the case of the letters of Ignatius of Antioch, we have writings composed by a Christian en route to execution in Rome! Furthermore, throughout the period that we are focusing on here, the motivation of Christian writers was not so much personal fame, and certainly they had no hope of fortune” (128–29).
Many Christians write today prolifically — some professionally, but many are literary amateurs. We do it for love of crafting words, love of seeing beauty, love of speaking truth, love of serving others, and love of glorifying God. And all of us write in spaces far more comfortable than where the first Christians spilled ink.
The path to fame and wealth, for 99.9% of Christian writers today, will never be found in writing orthodox books. For most Christian writers, writing is a calling that feels a lot like a side-job (at best). This is more normal than we realize.
Christianity is bookish. Books, letters, and literacy form an ancient bond between the publishing in digital media, and the co-opted social media in the earliest days of Christianity (letters). We are still a people of the Book. We are readers. We are writers. We are forward-looking people, bookish people, and we will not stop writing and publishing until the earth is submerged under a second global flood — a tsunami of truth (Habakkuk 2:14; Isaiah 11:9).
Early Christians embraced the technology of the day, and used it for serious truth. They wrote long, and they wrote a lot — but they didn’t wait until life was comfortable to write. Their writing habits were counterintuitive to the image-building pattern of the Greco-Roman world. And this is our heritage today: We are bookish people — people of words, words, words, in service of the God who is holy, holy, holy.