[N]o differentiating features of early Christianity require us to think that the publication and circulation of early Christian texts proceeded along unique or idiosyncratic lines. Without evidence to the contrary, it ought to be supposed that Christian writings were produced and disseminated in much the same way as other literature within the larger environment. [Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church p. 93 - 94]In spite of this bold proclamation in the middle of his classic work on literacy in the early Church, Gamble nevertheless fails to take his observation to its logical consequence - Christian books only became canonical once they were copied and disseminated from exemplars found in archives in the public libraries of the Roman Empire and most likely Rome. Indeed this is exactly what one would expect if, as Gamble notes nothing distinguished the publication and circulation of Christian books from those of the pagan world around them. There is what one might term 'unconscious resistance' to the books received into the canon 'won out' owing to their acceptance into a 'worldly' institution like the public libraries in the Roman Empire.
Yet isn't the uncomplicated nature of the argument - namely that the writings of the apostles, disciples, elders and Church Fathers that have come down to us were defined by an anonymous deposit of a scrolls in the late second century - is perhaps the greatest point its favor. How do we know what the 'true text' of a Stephen King novel is? King's representatives sent a copy to the Library of Congress and that text - not the original manuscript but a copy made in the proscribed form has come to define the novel to future generations of readers. A very similar process was carried out in antiquity and which undoubtedly shaped the final edition of the New Testament.
As Davies notes "[b]efore the age of mass production of books (i.e., printing), the accumulation of a literary corpus involved many stages: composition, copying, editing; but also classifying, collecting, and archiving, since the growth of a corpus depends on its physical preservation. The equation being made in this book, which is fundamental if the thesis is to be understood, is that copying and archiving are the very stuff of canonizing. A work does not become canonized by being included in a formal list: that is a final flourish. A work becomes canonized (a) by being preserved by copying until its status as a classic is ensured; and (b) by being classified as belonging to a collection of some kind. Scrolls can be canons in their own right, but multiple scrolls need to be archived: that means labeling and storing in a sort of order. That means collecting. The result is various canons, groups of classic texts or classic collections on scrolls. [p. 9]
Theoretically then, if the publication and circulation of Christian books was in no way distinguished from that of other books, we should expect that the New Testament was effectively 'canonized' in a public library in Rome. When did this occur? The most likely answer is of course the age of Irenaeus, during the reign of Commodus when, Eusebius says of the Catholic community "our condition became more favorable, and through the grace of God the churches throughout the entire world enjoyed peace, and the word of salvation was leading every soul, from every race of man to the devout worship of the God of the universe. So that now at Rome many who were highly distinguished for wealth and family turned with all their household and relatives unto their salvation." [Church History 6.21.1]
It is not surprising then that in an age where a great influx of members of good society came to the Church documents like the Pastoral Epistles become critical to redefining the core values of Christianity. Accordingly these new texts imposed "everyday bourgeois living" on to authentic Pauline thought and made what Dibelius and Conzelmann called“bourgeois Christianity" - a desire to live respectably and comfortably but not provocatively in the world. In such this new landscape it is hard to believe that there would be any resistance to edifying the Christian scriptures in a public place - most obviously the public library. Indeed given the manner in which Irenaeus himself rails against the heretics for possessing 'secret gospels' and 'hidden mystery rites' while at the same time embrace the contemporary age as messianic 'the year of favor' (Isa 61:2) the ignoring of the possibility that Christian writings might have been in a public archive in Rome is difficult to reconcile.
After all, Celsus is generally acknowledged to have read Christian texts a few of which are cited verbatim in his True Account. Moreover Lucian of Samosata references the posthumous publication of epistles associated with a revered saint in the Christian community which sound suspiciously like the Ignatian corpus. In the third century Alexander of Cappadocia built a library in Aelia (Jerusalem) which contained both Christian and secular works and escaped the reign of Diocletian. It is difficult to imagine that this integration of Christian texts into public libraries was limited to Jerusalem.
Indeed a carefully reading of Irenaeus will find plenty of boasting of the antiquity of the Roman Church, the soundness of its doctrine but no reference to it possessing a library or archives of any kind. Moreover Irenaeus never makes mention of any of 'the original manuscripts' of the authors of Christian sacred literature being in its possession. Instead he consistently rails against the faulty copying methods of the heretics and offers up traditional means of keeping canonized writings free from transcription errors.
When Irenaeus accuses Marcion of 'mutilating that according to Luke' (Adv Haer 3.11.7) he does so within the context of establishing the proper number of gospels as four. It is very interesting to note that there is never a consistent ordering of those four gospels - a sign long noted that Irenaeus's gospels were not fixed in any particular order within a codex. Instead there is a consistent echo of the four gospels forming the shape of a cross. The equation of each gospel to the four living creatures of Revelations and Ezekiel necessarily hearken back to the four cardinal points in the zodiac which is cross-shaped. The four winds alluded to in the same discussion form the same shape (north, east, west and south).
The fact that the section begins with Irenaeus's identification of Jesus as the 'reed' of Isaiah and thus the very 'canon' (qnh) or 'first principle' of the Gospel similarly makes a faint echo of Ignatius:
"For I heard some people saying, 'If I do not find it in the archives [ἀρχείοις] I do not believe it in the gospel. And when I said to them, “It is written,” they answered me, “That is precisely the question.” But for me, the archives [ἀρχεῖά] are Jesus Christ, the inviolable archives [archeia] are his cross and death and his resurrection and the faith that is through him."The fact that Irenaeus can refer to the gospels in any given order of authors is a likely sign that he did not know them bound in a particular order. While single codices have been found for John, it is more usual to find Matthew and Mark in one codex and Luke and John in another. the fact that Irenaeus has the freedom to interpret any number of orderings for the gospels may be reflecting his acquaintance or preference for the scriptures preserved as scrolls in archive.
Perhaps the strongest argument in favor of Irenaeus's preference for scrolls is found in the fact his own treatises were preserved that way. In an ancient Egyptian dump a roll which travelled from Rome to Oxyrhynchus within twenty years of its production - 'not long after the ink was dry on the author's manuscript' - demonstrates in clearest terms that Irenaeus preferred the scroll to the codex. Indeed there are no known examples of codices serving as exemplars for manuscripts copied onto scrolls. It is always the other way around or scroll to scroll.
Indeed given the fact that we have another important example of Irenaeus's exactness when it comes to copying his own works it is hard to imagine that he wouldn't have shared a preference for scrolls stored in archives for the rest of Christian literature. Irenaeus apparently wrote at the end of On the Ogdoad a warning to deter adventurous copyists:
'I adjure you who will copy this book, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by his glorious advent when he comes to judge the living and the dead, that you collate [hina antibales] what you transcribe and that you correct it [katorthoses] against this copy [antigraphon] from which you transcribe, and very carefully, and that likewise you shall transcribe this oath and put it in the copy."The very terminology of antigraphon necessarily presupposes a mirror image of the thing being copied. Antigraphon was for instance used to describe a copy of a picture. The idea that Irenaeus was writing into a codex and hoping others would faithfully copy into another codex is certainly not what is being described. Rather it is a mirror image as it were of the scroll discovered in Egypt, an antigraphon of another scroll which resided in an archive in Rome.
Gamble has already noted that the Christian production of books mirrored that of secular writers. In commenting on the implications of this passage from Irenaeus he goes one step further - Irenaeus was exemplary of contemporary authors throughout the Empire:
Irenaeus, like anyone who dealt with texts, was well acquainted with the methods of their reproduction: transcription, collation, and correction. In admonishing prospective copyists Irenaeus was not chiefly worried about ordinary scribal errors that, though unwelcome, had to be tolerated under the conditions of ancient book production. His precaution was against copyists making deliberate, substantive revisions or excerptions of the text that perverted his meaning, an enduring concern of authors.When you put everything together it is difficult not to see that the revolution associated with Irenaeus was his having placed not only his own writings but that of the entire spectrum of Christian thought in the public library. His criticism of Marcion and other heretics was based on the idea that he was introducing something new, more reliable and above all more respectable than copying texts in dark and secret places.
Irenaeus also speaks of compiling writings into a much larger volumes. "I have also made a collection of their writings in which they advocate the abolition of the doings of Hystera" (Jam autem et collegi eorum conscriptiones, in quibus dissolvere opera Adv Haer 1.21.1). The only place that this composition could logically have been placed is a public library. Celsus, for one, seems to have found many compilations of 'things the heretics wrote' and used them to great effect against all Christians. Origen's response seems to imply that Celsus should have known better that these beliefs and doctrines were not applicable to the great Church. It is clearly as if Origen knows the books or types of books that Celsus was reading and they were of the type compiled by Irenaeus against the heresies.
Indeed Celsus feels very confident that he has access to all of the doctrines of the Christians and expects the believers to run away from his accusations - "If they would answer me, not as if I were asking for information, for I am acquainted with all their opinions, but because I take an equal interest in them all, it would be well." The specific context here is that Celsus is saying he has read every book written by the Christians as Origen makes clear in his follow up:
Now, with regard to his statement that he "is acquainted with all our doctrines," we have to say that this is a boastful and daring assertion; for if he had read the prophets in particular ... and if he had perused the parables of the Gospels, and the other writings of the law and of the Jewish history, and the utterances of the apostles, and had read them candidly, with a desire to enter into their meaning, he would not have expressed himself with such boldness, nor said that he "was acquainted with all their doctrines." Even we ourselves, who have devoted much study to these writings, would not say that "we were acquainted with everything," for we have a regard for truth. Not one of us will assert, "I know all the doctrines of Epicurus," or will be confident that he knows all those of Plato, in the knowledge of the fact that so many differences of opinion exist among the expositors of these systems. For who is so daring as to say that he knows all the opinions of the Stoics or of the Peripatetics?Yet clearly Origen, having the True Account in front of him can't deny that Celsus has read a considerable amount of Christian writings - he may even have read a massive amount of material. His main bone of contention is that it would be impossible to be acquainted with everything written by Christians.
Origen frames Celsus's claim to be acquainted with all the books of the Christians as the centerpiece to his response. He makes reference to the statement no less than forty times in the course of Against Celsus. But clearly the breadth of Celsus's knowledge is impressive and it is often tied to specifically Catholic writings including the fourfold nature of the canonical gospels -   he makes numerous quotations from the Gospel according to (Matthew 1.34), Matthew and Luke - "he asserts that the "framers of the genealogies, from a feeling of pride, made Jesus to be descended from the first man, and from the kings of the Jews" - the Pastoral epistles - "Celsus appears to me to have misunderstood the statement of the apostle, which declares that “in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils" - the authentic epistles of Paul - "he has said that "we declare the wisdom that is among men to be foolishness with God" and "the world is crucified to me, and I unto the world' ... this is the only phrase which, it appears, Celsus could [accurately] remember out of Paul's writings;- the writings of Justin Martyr and Irenaeus "wherever he was able to give the names of the various sects, he was nothing loth to quote those with which he thought himself acquainted."
Indeed let's stop for a moment and wonder why Celsus thinks he 'knows everything' about Christianity. One could argue - as some have - that the pagan was just a blowhard boasting beyond measure about his familiarity with Christianity. Yet that is a dangerous assumption and is contradicted explicitly on several places by Origen. If all the evidence is taken into account Origen's point against Celsus here is more nuanced. He argues that Celsus has read many of the books of the Christians but no one has 'all knowledge' about anything.
Yet I think we can go even further here. We may start to wonder if Celsus has come across Irenaeus or some other treatise 'against all [Christian] schools' (κατὰ πασῶν αἱρέσεων) in the library and based his claims on his intimacy with that text. There is a strange consistency in Origen's ridicule of Celsus' 'knowing the whole account' ἐπαγγελλόμενος εἰδέναι τὰ τοῦ λόγου πάντα (1.54) of the gospel, his being a "claimant to universal knowledge" (ὁ πάντ' ἐπαγγελλόμενος εἰδέναι 2.1), "being acquainted with everything, inscribed upon his book the words, A True Discourse" (πάντ' εἰδέναι ἀληθῆ λόγον ἐπέγραψεν αὐτοῦ τὸ βιβλίον 1.40).
There is an uncanny similarity in the bombast of Irenaeus throughout his exposition against all the sects. He declares in Book One that "it is a complex and multiform task to detect and convict all the schools, and since our design is to reply to them all according to their special characters (Adv Haer 1.22.2). Irenaeus goes on to say "I have also made a collection of their writings ... It was necessary clearly to prove, that, as their very opinions and regulations exhibit them ... They have now all been exposed." (ibid 1.31.2,3) In other words, Celsus assumes he has 'all knowledge' of the schools of Christianity because this is what Irenaeus promises throughout his five volume work. This is reinforced at the beginning of each of the books that follow.
In Book Three - "you hast indeed enjoined upon me, my very dear friend ... to exhibit both their doctrines and successions, and to set forth arguments against them all ... I have sent unto thee books, of which the first comprises the opinions of all these men, and exhibits their customs, and the character of their behaviour. Call to mind then, the things which I have stated in the two preceding books, and, taking these in connection with them, thou shalt have from me a very copious refutation of all the heretics." Book Four assures readers like Celsus "by transmitting to thee, my very dear friend ... you may obtain from me the means of confuting all the schools everywhere, and not permit them, beaten back at all points, to launch out further into the deep of error." And again at the beginning of the last book "in the four preceding books, my very dear friend, which I put forth to thee, all the schools have been exposed ... [I have accomplished this by adducing] something from the doctrine peculiar to each of these men, which they have left in their writings, as well as by using arguments of a more general nature, and applicable to them all."
The fact that it is generally acknowledged that Irenaeus and Celsus were contemporaries with one another it is extremely unlikely that Celsus's bravado was simply a product of an unstable mind. Celsus thought he knew everything about Christianity because he was reading Irenaeus's refutation of all Christian schools in a public library likely in Rome.
If Celsus 'became acquainted with all the doctrines' of Christianity by visiting and copying scrolls in a public library he likely deposited his 'True Word' in the same archive. So too it becomes clear that Origen writing generations after Celsus makes clear that his response to Celsus would be deposited in a public library - "this book has been composed not for those who are thorough believers, but for such as are either wholly unacquainted with the Christian faith, or for those who, as the apostle terms them, are 'weak in the faith;' regarding whom he says, 'Him that is weak in the faith receive ye.'" What this shows is that by the late second century Christianity was fully embedded in the culture of the Empire. It was no longer an 'underground' religion; its books were openly available to anyone that wanted them.
Of course the heretics were very different. The impression we gain from Irenaeus is that their writings were deliberately kept secret and only brought out in authorized assemblies of Christians. To this end, Celsus "frequently calls the Christian doctrine a secret system, we must confute him on this point also, since almost the entire world is better acquainted with what Christians preach than with the favourite opinions of philosophers." Once again we have the same situation - Celsus is drawing information from the anti-heretical writings of the Church Fathers deposited in the public archives and applying what is said therein against all Christians when he should know better.
Yet if Irenaeus deliberately wrote malicious things against the heresies in order to distinguish the 'great Church' from its rivals do we at last expose a dark underside to this intimacy with the public archives? Can it be argued that Irenaeus abused the library system to in effect enshrine the beliefs of his tradition against those of its rivals? Or perhaps even worse was the system abused so badly that he in effect invented a Church tradition merely because he had complete control of the ancient media? Let's investigate all the aspects of this relationship that the early Church had with the public archives in the late second century.