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Before bible became Bible, it was book. Our concept of book has become so deeply entangled with the dominant book technology of nearly the last two millennia, the codex, that we forget book has not always been codex. Depending on how broadly we want to define book and its relationship to writing, we could imagine book going all the way back to cave walls and stone tablets. I won’t take us all the way down that road here to avoid the detours it might provide, but in the life of bible as book, it is at least important to consider the codex’s immediate technological ancestor, the roll.1 We find roll books mentioned by authors in the ancient world and in the bible itself. βιβλιον is the Greek word often translated “book” in the Septuagint and the New Testament. Yet, this word for book that becomes the signifier for the cultural phenomenon of Christian scripture, and so much more, always refers to something otherwise than a codex in these ancient Greek texts, because the codex did not yet exist. Here are a few examples:2

LXX Exodus 24.17 - “And taking the book (το βιβλιον) of the covenant, he read it into the ears of the people and they said, ‘All things, which the Lord said, we will do and we will hear.’” LXX Nehemiah 8.8 - “And they read in the book (βιβλίω) of the law of God, and Ezra taught and ordered [them] in knowledge of the Lord, and the people understood when he read.” 2 Timothy 4.13 - “When you come, bring the cloak, which I left in Troas with Carpus, and the books (τα βιβλια), especially the parchments.”

In English translation, with our deep assumption of book as codex, it is easy to read these passages and picture these ancient readers holding a giant leather bound codex. Yet, such a thing did not even exist at the time of these writings.

Rolls were regularly used in early gatherings for worship in communities that came to be known as Jewish. As an example, the book mentioned in the gospel of Luke, from which Jesus read, was a roll. In his book The Rise and Fall of the Bible, Timothy Beal offers a detailed look at this scene in the Gospel of Luke and the way Jesus would have used the roll as an interface for reading.3 In an accident of history, the most complete biblical manuscript found in the caves of Qumran happens to be a roll book containing the biblical writing of Isaiah, which is the text from which Jesus reads in Luke 4. I will use this passage from the Gospel of Luke as a entry into exploring this ancient bible interface found at Qumran, 1QIsa^a^, otherwise known as the Great Isaiah Scroll. I will start with a close look at the description of the user involvement in this interface provided in Luke 4 followed by an evaluation of the possibility of affording high surface area, collaboration, and anarchy in 1QIsa^a^.

The pertinent portions of Luke 4 for our purposes are as follows:

And he went to Nazareth, where he was reared, and he went to synagogue on the day of Sabbath according to his custom, and he stood to read. And the roll (βιβλίον) of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and having unrolled the roll (τὸ βιβλίον), he found the place where it was written…and after closing the roll (τὸ βιβλίον) and giving it to the attendant, he sat down (Luke 4:16-17,20).4

The Great Isaiah Roll

Though many translations read βιβλίον as “book” in this passage as elsewhere in the bible, I have chosen to translate βιβλίον as roll to interrupt our contemporary tendency to imagine Jesus reading from a codex. In this episode, Jesus is not handed a leather bound King James bible, but a roll that likely operated much like the Isaiah roll found in cave one at Qumran. The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsa^a^) was one of the first seven manuscripts found at Qumran and is the largest and one of the most well preserved of the entire collection. This bible interface is such a treasure that it is on display at the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.5 1QIsa^a^ is approximately 24.5 feet long and was made from 17 sheets of parchment like material sewn together with linen thread. Stretched out, this scroll would be just shy of the width of the singles lines on a tennis court, so you can imagine how substantial this book interface might feel in a user’s hands.6 On these sutured together skins, the text is written in Hebrew in fifty four columns that encompass the entire text of the biblical writing of Isaiah.

In general, as an interface, the roll offers a two handed user experience when reading that combines the analog, a continuity, and the digital, discrete bits. The typical roll book consists of several sheets of papyrus or parchment, glued or stitched together from edge to edge, written on one side in columnar fashion and rolled up for easy storage and protection. To read, a user would use one hand to unroll in the direction of reading, right to left in Hebrew, left to write in Greek, and the other hand to reroll the used portions of the text. A more contemporary, but already out of date, technology that emulates the mechanics of a roll is a cassette tape or a reel to reel film. If you can imagine rolling the two spools of a cassette tape by hand and reading for text on the tape, that is similar to how users interfaced with the roll. In fact, some rolls had handles that functioned like spools to enable the user to more easily move back and forth through the book. Imagine the inefficiency and frustration in this interface. Once you get to the end of a roll book, a user has to unroll (or is it reroll?) all the way back to the beginning to read again. I can imagine an ancient library staffing a circulation station with aspiring student scribes or scholars, where their only task was to roll back books from end to beginning after they had been used by a patron. Perhaps one of the reasons we find author attribution and colophon at the end of ancient roll manuscripts is because users often did not rewind.

The columns of writing in a roll book effectively delineated what we would call pages today as a user would roll with both hands in concert until a single column or maybe a few columns of text were visible, they would read that column, and then would roll again when ready to move on. In this sense, roll as interface offered the user both a linear analog7 experience of rolling through the trajectory of a book along with a kind of digital processing of the discrete bits of text encountered column by column. Unlike an automated cassette tape, but much like the page turn of the codex, rolling to expose one or a few columns of text at a time breaks up the experience of a text, even if only for a second. This horizontal roll was not the only interface available for reading and writing used in antiquity, it was simply the preferred interface for longer texts and became the dominant roll book form for Israelite scriptures. Shorter decrees, contracts, and letters could be found in a vertical arrangement with the rolling mechanism the same as the horizontal roll, but in a different orientation and the writing was continuous along the roll, rather than being written in discrete columns. With the absence of the columnar interruptions, the vertical roll provided a more continuous reading experience for the user than the horizontal roll.8 Yet, if a user allowed for multiple columns to be in view at once when reading from a horizontal roll, it would be possible to time rolling over a first column while reading a second column to reveal a third column, and so on.

If we turn back to the scene portrayed in Luke 4, with a roll similar to 1QIsa^a^ in mind as the interface in which Jesus is participating when he reads this passage from Isaiah, what kind of affordances do we see at work? Though we know very little about the practice of reading in ancient synagogues,9 it is unlikley that Jesus had to unroll this large scroll from the beginning to reach the passage he reads from chapter 61 of Isaiah, which in 1QIsa^a^ is in column 49 of 54 on the third to last piece of parchment. Given the common cycle of readings, the typical use of readings from the prophets, and the presence of an attendant in synagogue practice, it seems more likely that Jesus was handed the roll already positioned toward the text of interest. So, we can imagine the attendant handing Jesus the roll with a large amount of material in the right hand and just the last few sheets rolled up in the left hand.10 Holding the bulk in his right hand, Jesus unrolls the roll a small amount to expose the column having the passage of interest, he reads a small portion, rolls the two ends back together, and hands the roll back to the attendant.11

So, in our passage of interest here, after Jesus is handed the roll, he may have placed it on the reading table and then unrolled it as needed and read.

Surface Area: One Column at a Time

I suggested in the last chapter that the affordance of high surface area in an interface indicates many points of contact, which encourages participation through many potential points of participation and resists a user’s ability to master or control the whole interface. In a sense, the columnar organization of this roll interface, particularly when used to find and read a small bit as a part of a larger ritual gathering, provides high surface area. The demanding access technology of a roll, requiring two hands to negotiate the location of any one column of text requires a level of user participation that is unfamiliar to us, given both the nonlinear access afforded by the codex and even more so the one handed thumb swipe enabled by Kindle reader on an iPhone. Each column, when in focus, offers one point of contact with the interface and the small bit of text read by the user in this example of Luke 4 also offers simply one of many points of contact with this interface. Though the reader and the community gathered may have a sense of the whole text of Isaiah and even the whole of Hebrew scriptures, this interface event offers one small surface of contact from a large possibility set of surfaces of contact such as other passages, other columns, even other prophetic writings. In terms of the material interface of the roll, the discrete engagement of the user with one column (or even a few) at a time could actually resist the capacity to master the whole. In the episode of Luke 4, there is no attempt to contextualize the passage read aloud by reading the rest of the column or by explaining the location of this particular pericope in relation to the whole of Isaiah, it is simply offered as a bit, or even a sound byte. This offers us an important reminder about interface and the role of both platform and user in performing or producing interface. In its simple material form, requiring linear access to any piece of text by proceeding through the entire whole of the text, a roll book might seem to offer very low surface area. Yet, in use, attending to one column, even one line at a time, this interface becomes rather high surface area, demanding participation in framing the column and resisting the mastery of the whole by distancing the user from the parts of the text which are not visible or even easily accessible.

Communal Use: Affording Collaboration

There are two ways in which this roll interface demonstrates collaborative affordances. First, the details of the episode in Luke 4 suggest that it was common to have this roll interface passed around to different people to read. So, even though 1QIsa^a^ may have been rather large and cumbersome and may have only allowed for one user at a time, the involvement of multiple readers engaging the roll in this communal synagogue setting over the course of many customary gathering on the Sabbath suggests that the roll interface was used as a collaborative interface. The preparation of the roll by the attendant, the handing back and forth of the roll between the reader and the attendant, and the reading aloud for others to hear, all signal a collaborative endeavor facilitated in part by this bible interface.12 In his description of the physical appearance and wear of 1QIsa^a^, Trever hints at the collaborative capacity of this roll interface, saying, “Clear evidence of the long use of the Isaiah scroll in ancient times can be seen on the back of it both in these repairs and in the much darkened area at the center where the hands of many readers held it.”13

For example, in the right hand margin of line five of column forty nine of 1QIsa^a^, which is the column from which Jesus would have read in Luke 4 if using 1QIsa^a^, we find a heavy horizontal line with a rounded triangle on top. This marking appears 5 other times in the manuscript. Line five contains the last bit of what we now call chapter 59 of Isaiah and the line contains blank space at the end to mark the transition in textual unit, as is customary throughout this manuscript. Even though Trever, “The Isaiah Scroll,” xvi, suggests that these markings were later additions to the text to mark passages for finding and reading, it seems equally as likely that these markings were used as guides for the writing of the text of this roll. From the user perspective in the synagogue example of roll interface, the passage transition is already marked by the space left blank at the end of the line, so it is unclear as to why an additional marking would be necessary to signal the reader. Emmanuel Tov, “Scribal Markings in the Texts from the Judean Dessert,” in Current Research and Technological Developments on the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. Donald W. Parry and Stephen D. Ricks (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), 46-48, identifies this marking as a paragraphos sign, marking the division of the text into paragraphs, yet not distinguishing between original scribes, later scribes or readers.

In addition to this collaborative reading practice, the roll interface exemplified by 1QIsa^a^ signals a second collaborative capacity in the shared task of editing the text. As Trever notes, many of the emendations evidenced in 1QIsa^a^ look to be from the same hand as the scribe that wrote the body of the text.14 Yet, there is also evidence of other people participating in the emendation of the text by adding words or larger sections that were omitted by the initial scribe.15 In fact, on line twenty six of column forty nine of 1QIsa^a^, which contains the first verse of Isaiah 61 we hear read in the episode described in Luke 4, there is an example of this collaborative participation in the production of the text. In the spacing between lines, a different user has added a word just above the line where it seems a word was omitted. By the time 1QIsa^a^ was in use, in the last few centuries BCE, the text of Isaiah was rather well established. So, as users participated in this roll interface, they would easily have identified a missing word or phrase as compared to the established tradition of the text of Isaiah. In this particular case of column forty nine of 1QIsa^a^, the initial scribe left out sh’lächaniy, so another user simply added this word above the line right at the spot in the text where it would have been expected. The marginal spaces and the spacing between lines in this roll interface undoubtedly afforded both ease of reading and some protection of the text from weak points in the material of the manuscript that might develop around the stitching of the sheets. Yet, as we see evidenced all throughout the roll, these spaces become a vehicle for affording collaborative participation in the ongoing construction of the interface that is 1QIsa^a^.16

We can easily imagine the similarities between this collaborative affordance of 1QIsa^a^ and the notes we as teachers leave in the margins of our students’ papers, either with pencil on paper or with annotation bubbles and pointers on a PDF. More advanced interfaces for collaborative construction of a text have emerged in word processing technologies and cloud based document sharing and cooperative editing platforms like google docs. These emerging interfaces allow for a new scale of collaboration by working with a material canvas that allows both erasure and addition without leaving a noticeable trace of the collaboration at work and the ongoing process of making the book.17 One of the beauties of the constraints of interfaces like 1QISa^a^ is that the collaborative efforts to make the roll user friendly can not be hidden away in a differential file that only appears if a user is curious. Instead, these changes to the text in the spaces between the lines and marginal notations in the gutters are in plain view for every user of the interface to see, signaling that this book continues to morph and emerge through use.

Yet, in a Google Doc, this history of participation in the construction of the interface is tucked away neatly in a different screen so as not to clutter up the finished product of the document itself.

Hinting at Anarchy

In the previous chapter, I suggested that the third affordance of bible as interfaces is a tendency toward anarchy. Anarchy in interface “resists the closure or consolidation of use to any mechanistic determinism governed by original author, original version, or final form.”18 In one sense, the visible markings of users continuing to work on the text of Codex Sinaiticus resists closure of this interface to a pristine and fixed text. Yet, as was customary in the manuscript copying process of antiquity, many of the changes we see in this interface by the initial scribe and later users are attempts to “correct” the text to more closely resemble its exemplar or the accepted version of the text of Isaiah. Thus, in another sense, these collaborative markings exhibit archic tendencies, aligning the interface with some original source manuscript or an established proper form of the text it contains. Though 1QIsa^a^ may not exhibit many material properties signaling anarchic tendencies, the fact that users participated in this interface as a form of communal reading without explicit determinative guides in the interface itself to control or contain or close “the mysterious possibilities of exegesis”19 offered by reading a few lines from one column near the end of the book suggests the possibility of anarchy in use. The simple fact of inviting participants to read a small bit of text and allowing the listeners to make sense of that short reading as they found fit is a performance of anarchy.

The high surface area of the discrete columns, the collaboration of both communal reading and textual emendation, and the anarchy of expounding on a small excerpt read in the process of a customary ritual gathering suggest that 1QIsa^a^ has the potential to be an interface begging for participation and resisting reduction to consumption of content. It is important to note here, that for this roll bible interface, the communal reading use plays a major role in both demanding participation and resisting mastery, closure and determinism by involving many voices. We will see this combination of small bits and many voices remain as an important indicator of bible as interface.

In our reading of Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 22-23, in the previous chapter, we heard him call bible, the book of books and book par excellence. Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex, explore the relationship between the rise of the codex to prominence and the emergence of bible as book in Christianity. More recently, the title to Christopher De Hamel’s beautiful book, “The Book: A History of the Bible,” signals the intimate and important historical and cultural relationship between bible and book.

Many different interfaces have these affordances, such as other literary and textual traditions, poetry (as Levinas suggested), audience interface in oral performance, communication technologies like email and SMS, etc.

I would start with William Blake’s plates depicting Moses with the tablets looking just like a codex.

There is an interesting textual variant in 4:17 with several important early witnesses (Alexandrinus, Vaticanus, Washingtonianus) using ἀνοίξας instead of ἀναπτύξας for “opening” the roll. The 27th edition of the Nestle Aland critical edition marks this variant as a change from the choice made in the 25th edition, meaning the committee elected to include ἀνοίξας in the constructed text in the 25th edition and switched to ἀναπτύξας in the 27th edition. This decision was unchanged in the 28th edition of NA. The difference between these variants is not significant in terms of the overall reading of the passage, since the more generic ἀνοίξας when used in reference to a roll clearly indicates an “unrolling,” which is the meaning of the more specific ἀναπτύξας. Yet, in terms of interface, the more specific ἀναπτύξας is more helpful in indicating the particularities of the interface at work in this use of bible. So, I have translated with the constructed text, taking ἀναπτύξας as “having unrolled.” This translational choice is similar to that made in the NRSV, which reads, “He unrolled the scroll….”

This digital 1QISa^a^ interface interestingly has been designed to emulate the rolling of the scroll from right to left as a user moves through the interface, with the size of the rolls that would be in each hand changing to approximate a user’s position in the roll. For example, as you near the end of the text of Isaiah in this digital interface of 1QIsa^a^, the roll that would be in a user’s right hand is much larger than the roll in the left hand.

Trevor’s introduction to the Isaiah Scroll in Millar Burrows, The Dead Sea Scrolls of St. Mark’s Monastery, vol. 1 (New Haven: The American Schools of Oriental Research, 1950), xiii-xviii.

The important point to make in all interface analysis is that rarely do we have a binary situation because interfaces as relationships afford more than one type of use.

Hegg deals explicitly with this passage from Luke on pp. 3-5.

These mysterious possibilities of exegesis are an example of Drucker’s articulation of interface as probabilistic production.

  1. As a future project, I would like to come back to this point and explore the relationship between the two tablets of exodus and the evolution of bible as cultural icon as Timothy Beal describes in The Rise and Fall of the Bible

  2. Translations my own. 

  3. Beal, Rise and Fall, Kindle location 1245-1378. 

  4. My translation from the Society of Biblical Literature Greek New Testament (SBLGNT). 

  5. Thanks to the wonderful work of the Dead Sea Scrolls Digital Project, 1QIsa^a^ is also available for viewing online in a digitized interface at 

  6. For a detailed description of the physical characteristics of 1QIsa^a^, see John C. 

  7. I would rather find other words to describe this difference rather than analog/digital. 

  8. This vertical roll interface is akin to our contemporary relationship with reading on a web page and the act of moving around in these web pages is called “scrolling.” 

  9. For an excellent summary and useful bibliography regarding the public reading of scripture in first century synagogues, see Tim Hegg, “The Public Reading of Scriptures in the 1st Century Synagogue,” TorahResource (2007),, accessed on August 11, 2017. 

  10. Based on some archaeological evidence from later synagogues, Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue: The First Thousand Years (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), 93-95, suggests that it may have been common to have a table in the center of the meeting space upon which these rolls were placed for reading. 

  11. If 1QIsa^a^ is an indicator of the type of roll depicted in this scene in Luke 4, then the additional spacing left between the end of verse 60 and the beginning of verse 61 might have helped the user locate their position in the text in the absence of chapter and verse markings, with which we have become so familiar today. 

  12. In the manuscript itself, there are some unusual markings in the margins that could have been used to help facilitate this kind of collaborative reading process described in Luke 4. 

  13. Trever, “The Isaiah Scroll,” xv. 

  14. Trever, “The Isaiah Scroll,” xv. 

  15. As Trever, “The Isaiah Scroll,” xv, notes, to explore more about the identification of these collaborative partners in production of the 

  16. For a discussion of and bibliography for the text of and scribal practices at work in 1QIsa^a^, see Emmanuel Tov, “The Text of Isaiah at Qumran” in Hebrew Bible, Greek Bible and Qumran: Collected Essays (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008). 

  17. Google Docs does track all history of changes made to a document, including identifying the contributor, if known, instead of relying on handwriting differences or ink changes. 

  18. See chapter 1 for a fuller discussion of anarchy in interface. 

  19. This is one of the phrases Levinas, Ethics and Infinity, 23 uses to describe bible as the book of books. 

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Michael Hemenway



a proximate interface

An arcade of musings from my encounters with curiosity.

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