People of the Book: A Theology of Publishing

People of the Book: A Theology of Publishing

ancient codex BibleChristians are People of the Book. But the Bible doesn’t actually call us “people of the book.” That phrase isn’t in Scripture. It comes from the Koran. Islam refers to Jews and Christians as people of the book. The Koran says “If only the People of the Book had faith, it would be better for them,” (sura 3.110) and “O ye People of the Book! Believe in what we have now revealed,” (sura 4.47).

So the phrase comes from Islam, in a somewhat disparaging way. But Christians have received it and taken it on as our own because it resonates with us. Puritans, Baptists, Methodists have all described themselves as People of the Book. Christian missionaries in Africa and Asia were known as People of the Book because of their focus on Bible translation and producing written versions of Scripture. It’s consistent with our Christian history and theology.

The God Who Publishes

Theologically, it goes back to God’s identity. Christians are People of the Book because God is God of the Book. John 1: In the beginning was the Word—the logos—and the Word was with God and the Word was God. We root our theology of publishing in two main themes: revelation and incarnation. Revelation: God has spoken. God communicates. God has a word for humanity. And incarnation: The Word has become flesh. God pitched his tent among us. God reveals the word in ways that we can hear and understand—in our own human language, embodied in local words. The divine Word is expressed and understandable in human language, using our communications media.

A key text for us is John 20:30-31: “Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

These are written that you may believe. This is a revolutionary statement. The Gospel writer has every confidence that this text, these written words, can bring someone to faith in Jesus. It’s a contrast to mystery religions where you had to have some sort of secret knowledge or mystical experience. In Christian tradition, you can read a text in Greek, in Latin, in English, in your own heart language, and that text has the capacity to generate belief. It’s revelational, it’s incarnational. And for Christians, writing is not just informational. It’s formational. It’s transformational. The biblical writers were convinced that written texts could change people’s lives. That’s why the Scriptures were written. These markings on a page, pen and papyrus, somehow still conveyed all the transformative, revelatory power of God.

Making Things Public

As publishers, we take on the ancient role of the herald. The herald’s vocation is proclamation. The herald is an agent of the king. A king’s herald declares to the inhabitants of a kingdom what needs to be known so that all in the realm may flourish.

If you want to see where publishing shows up in Scripture, read the old King James. The King James uses the word “publish” to describe the announcement of news.

  • Isaiah 52:7: “How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation.”
  • Mark 1:45: “But he went out, and began to publish it much, and to blaze abroad the matter.”
  • Mark 13:10: “And the gospel must first be published among all nations.”
  • Acts 13:49: “And the word of the Lord was published throughout all the region.”

The etymology of “publish” is to make something public. The work of publicity and PR (public relations) makes things public about a company, product, or individual. Good publicity means that good things are being said publicly about something, that someone’s name is being spread more widely across a realm.

God is a publisher. He makes things known about himself. Jesus is a publisher, publishing good news across the land. And Christians are publishers, making public the story of Jesus. The Greek word euangellion, translated as “gospel,” means “good news.” In the first century, “gospel” had military connotations for when Caesar sent messengers to spread word that his reign had come to a new territory. We make public the reality of the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, and its implications for all of humanity. Proclaiming the gospel is “good newsing.”

Christian publishing is rooted in this sense of public proclamation and external witness. We are publishers in God’s image. The king has good news for the world—his kingdom is at hand! Slaves will be set free, the blind will see, the lame will walk, the poor will rejoice. We are heralds of this king and publish this good news for all to hear.

Heralds proclaim news to those both inside and outside the kingdom. To those who are not yet subjects of the king, the news is evangelistic and invitational. Come join this kingdom and find liberation and freedom in service to this king! To those who are already in the kingdom, the news is more educational, like civic lessons—here is what it means to be a citizen of this kingdom. This is how the kingdom works, and how you can grow and live as kingdom people.

So publishing is missional. Christian publishing focuses outward. And this is the difference between writing and publishing. A private journal may be devotional writing for personal reflection for the writer. But unless it is made public, it is not publishing.

Publishing requires an audience. As Andy Crouch puts it in his book Culture Making, culture making requires a public. “Culture making requires shared goods. . . . Until an artifact is shared, it is not culture.” Christian publishing is a vocation with a public culture-making purpose. So a question for us: Who is your public? To whom are you making things public?

The Codex Revolution

Because publishing is incarnational, it takes form in the physical media of the day. As People of the Book, Christians were instrumental in developing the physical book—the codex. Parchment notebooks with leaves and covers. While Christians didn’t invent the codex, they popularized it in a media revolution. In the Old Testament Jewish era and Greco-Roman era, books were rolls and scrolls. But in the first and second centuries, Christians were early adopters of the codex.

For the early church, the portability of the codex book meant that itinerant preachers could carry Scripture with them wherever they went. Christian writings didn’t need to be housed in a synagogue but could travel on the road. In times of persecution, it was easier to hide a codex than a scroll. As the gospel went forth, it did so not only in word and deed, but also in conveniently carried books that enabled Christian mission and ministry to flourish.

Codices were convenient for preaching and teaching. Scrolls were good for sequential access, reading through a Gospel, but the codex was better for random access. A codex of Paul’s letters was easier to use, because you wouldn’t need to unroll past Romans and 1 Corinthians to get to Ephesians or Colossians. You could just open the codex to the right passage. Also, a codex was less expensive than a scroll. It was good stewardship; you could write on both sides of a page in a codex, not just one side of a scroll.

Codex books were the earliest Christian artifacts. Before art and architecture, before crosses and cathedrals, books were evidence of the early church. The codex became a distinguishing mark of early Christianity.

Being in codex form was a sign that writings were Christian. Acts 19:19 notes that in Ephesus, those who had practiced sorcery who became Christian publicly burned their (pagan) scrolls. Christian converts disavowed the textual forms of their old religion and adopted a new format for sacred texts. If you were a pagan, you had scrolls. If you were a Christian, you had codex books. As the church spread, Christian codices supplanted scrolls in the general book trade. Codex books were just 1.5% of books in the first century, but by the fourth century, they were fully half the market.

By the second century, codexes were compiled and canonized as the body of Scripture that we know as the New Testament. In the fourth century, Jerome’s Latin translation was a biblioteca divina, a divine library. By the thirteenth century, it had shifted from “the books” to ta biblia, the Book. And then Christians launched another media revolution in the sixteenth century with the printing press and the Gutenberg Bible.

Publishing as a Missionary Order

We stand in the tradition of the scribes in the scriptoriums, the makers and keepers of the books. And these scriptoriums are missionary orders. Our work as editors is to commission and send out books to herald their messages to those who need to hear them. Publishing is a missional calling.

Books are little missionaries. Books can go places that we can’t. One of IVP’s authors is an extreme introvert and rarely travels. But her books have been translated into a dozen languages. She rejoices that they are going places that she would never go, and can speak to readers in heart languages that she could never learn.

And so it continues with us. Publishing is revelational, incarnational, transformational, missional. That’s the tradition we have inherited, the vocation we’re called to continue. May we go and do likewise, as People of the Book.


This article was originally a presentation for the Academy of Christian Editors, September 2017.

2 Replies to “People of the Book: A Theology of Publishing”

  1. “Books are little missionaries.”
    That’s such a great thought, and I was completely ignorant of the history of the codex — and the fact that our “people of the book” designation was actually a back-handed compliment.
    Thanks for all your efforts here!

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