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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: The Words of the Bible

Don Stewart :: In What Form Were the Biblical Books Originally Written?

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In What Form Were the Biblical Books Originally Written?

The Words of the Bible – Question 7

The common book format of antiquity was the papyrus scroll or the leather scroll. As far as we can tell, all of the books of the Old Testament were originally written upon scrolls.

The Use of Scrolls

The papyrus scrolls were made by gluing sheets of papyrus together and then winding the strips around a stick. The leather scrolls were made by sewing together a number of pieces.

This was a difficult form of book to work with because it required both hands: one to hold the scroll, and the other hand to slowly draw out the sheets. After the scroll had been read, the reader would reroll it.

Some of the scrolls were lengthy. The standard size of a papyrus scroll was ten inches high and about thirty feet long.

The Division of the Biblical Books into Scrolls

This standard scroll size was probably the reason that the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, were divided into five equal parts. It would be similar to a modern work that is published in five volumes; it was a large, unified work by one author.

While First and Second Samuel are two different books in modern English Bibles, the Jews considered them as one book. The same holds true for the books of Kings and Chronicles. Each of these books could be written on a single scroll in Hebrew. However, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek, it was necessary to use two scrolls for each of these books. This is due to the fact that Greek writing uses more space than the Hebrew because it has vowel letters, while the original Hebrew did not. Hence we now have First and Second Samuel, Kings and Chronicles.

The Isaiah Scroll

The only biblical scroll that was found complete was the one from Isaiah. There were seventeen leather sheets that were sewn side by side to make this scroll. The scroll had fifty-four columns with twenty-nine to thirty-two lines of writing. The entire scroll had 1,633 lines.

Jesus Read from the Scroll of Isaiah

Jesus read a portion from the scroll of Isaiah in a synagogue in Nazareth. Scripture records the event as follows:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-20 NIV)

This passage speaks of Jesus unrolling the scroll. He would have held the book in both hands and unrolled it with his left hand. To reach chapter 61 of Isaiah, Jesus would have had to unroll most of the scroll and then roll it up again.

The Scrolls Were Plentiful

Scrolls were plentiful during the time of Christ because they were not that expensive to make. It has been calculated that the entire Isaiah scroll could have been copied in three days. Therefore, to produce a scroll of that size it would cost hiring the scribe for three days as well as the cost of the materials. For a cheap papyrus scroll, a scribe would be paid about two denarii a day. Therefore, if a person wanted to buy a copy of the Isaiah scroll they would pay about six denarii for the work of the scribe as well as the cost of the materials. Consequently, to own a scroll of Isaiah, the total cost would be about four days wages for the average working man of that time.

The Codex

The codex was different from the scroll. It was made with papyrus sheets which were assembled in leaf form and written on both sides. There is good evidence that the codex was invented by Christians in the first century A.D. to arrange the different biblical books into one volume and make the passages easier to find. There are remains of papyrus codices containing Greek texts of the Old and New Testament books that have survived from the first and second centuries A.D.

At first, the codices were made of papyrus. However, it was soon discovered that parchment, or treated animal skins, could also be written on both sides. These animal skins were more durable and would last longer than papyrus. The parchment codex made it possible to produce many, or all, of the books of the Bible in a single volume.

All of the early existing manuscript copies of the New Testament were written in codex form, they all have pages. Until this time, the codex was only used for note-taking. This is in contrast to the Old Testament and the Greek literature of the time which were all written upon scrolls. It was not until the fourth century that we find more texts in book-form rather than in scroll form.

The Codex Encouraged the Books to Be Placed in a Certain Order

In fact, it was the invention of the codex that caused believers to consider what order to place the various books. When only scrolls existed, this was not a problem. They could all be kept separately in a container. However, once you place a number of writings in codex, the books must be placed in some kind of order. At first, the order of the books was not consistent. Eventually, it became more standardized.

Some Advantages of the Codex over the Scroll

The codex had the following advantages over the scrolls:

  1. The scribe could write on both sides of the papyrus or parchment manuscript rather than just on the one side.
  2. Because the codex had writing on both sides, only half as much space was used to write the document. The scroll was much more wasteful because only half of it was used.
  3. The codex was much easier to carry. It allowed Christians to put their sacred books into one bound volume instead of carrying a number of scrolls.
  4. The scroll was awkward to use. To find a particular passage it may have involved unrolling several feet of the scroll. A person could find a particular passage much easier in a codex.
  5. The codex would encourage some sort of regular or standard order to be given to the books of Scripture.

However, even after the invention of the codex, scrolls continued to be used for some time.

Summary – Question 7
In What Form Were the Books of the Bible Originally Written?

The biblical books were originally written on scrolls. Eventually, they were put into codex or book form. The codex, or book, form made reading and studying much easier. There is evidence that Christians actually invented this particular form in the first or second century A.D.

Upon What Materials Were the Books of the Bible Originally Written? ← Prior Section
How Is the Age of an Ancient Manuscript Determined? Next Section →
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