How Were the Scribes in Antiquity and What Were Their Tools and Materials?

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Edward D. Andrews
EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored ninety-two books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

One of the greatest tragedies in the modern-day history of Christianity [1980 – present] is that churchgoers have not been educated about the history of the New Testament text. In fact, they are so misinformed that many do not even realize that the Hebrew text lies behind our English Old Testament, and the Greek text lies behind our English New Testament. Sadly, many seminaries that train the pastors of today’s churches have also required little or no studies in the history of the Old or New Testament texts.

Textual Criticism Defined

Again, New Testament textual criticism is the study of families[1] of manuscripts, especially the Greek New Testament, as well as versions,[2] lectionaries,[3] and patristic quotations,[4] along with internal evidence, in order to determine which reading is the original. Comparing any two copies of a document even a few pages long will reveal variant readings. “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g. a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.”[5]

BIBLE DIFFICULTIES

When we use the term “textual criticism,” we are not referring to something negative. In this instance, “criticism” is a reference to a careful, measured or painstaking study and analysis of the internal and external evidence for producing our New Testament Greek text, generally called a “critical text.” The goal of many New Testament textual scholars today is to recover the earliest text possible, while the objective of the remaining few, such as the authors of this book, is to get back to the ipsissima verba (“the very words”) of the original author.[6]

Variant readings occur only in about 5 percent of the Greek NT text, and so all the manuscripts agree about 95 percent of the time. Only about 2,100 variant readings may be considered “significant” and in no instance is any point of Christian doctrine challenged or questioned by a variant reading. Only about 1.67 percent of the entire Greek NT text still is questioned at all. We may be confident that our current eclectic, or critical, Greek NT text (an eclectic, or critical text is one based on the study of as many manuscripts as possible), is far beyond 99 percent established. In fact, there is more variation among some English translations of the Bible than there is among the manuscripts of the Greek NT. God’s Word is infallible and inerrant in its original copies (autographs), all of which have perished. Textual critics of the Greek NT will continue their work until, if possible, the original of every questioned reading is firmly established. (Brand, Draper and Archie 2003, 1575)

An investigation of the enormous supply of Greek manuscripts, as well as the ancient versions in other languages, shows that they have preserved for us the very Word of God.

Throughout the period of the first five books of the Bible being penned by Moses (beginning in the late sixteenth century B.C.E.), and down to the time of the printing press (1455 C.E.)–almost 3,000 years–many forms of material have been used to receive writing. Material such as bricks, sheets of papyrus, animal skin, broken pottery, metal, wooden tablets with or without wax, and much more have been used to pen or copy God’s Word. The following are some of the tools and materials.

9781949586121 BIBLE DIFFICULTIES THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

stylusStylus: The stylus was used to write on a waxed codex tablet. The stylus could be made of bone, metal, or ivory. It would be sharpened at one end for the purpose of writing and have a rounded knob on the other for making corrections. The stylus could also be used to write on soft metal or clay.

reed-pensReed Pen: The reed pen was used with ink to write on papyrus or parchment manuscripts. Καλαμoς (kalamos) is the Greek word for “pen.” (2 John 12; 3 John 13) There is no doubt that all the early extant papyrus manuscripts were copied with a reed pen, which can produce an impressive and pleasing script.

Quill PenQuill Pen: The quill[7] pen came into use long after the reed pen. Quill would have been unsatisfactory for writing on papyrus, but parchment would have been an excellent surface for receiving writing from a quill pen. Of course, history shows that as parchment more fully displaced papyrus, the quill pen likewise replaced the reed pen. The quill was sharpened for use much like the reed, by having the tip sharpened and slit.

The first page of papyrus 66, showing John 1.1-13 and the opening words of v.14
The first page of papyrus 66, showing John 1:1-13 and the opening words of v.14

Papyrus: Papyrus was the writing material used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant. It was cut into strips, with one layer laid out horizontally and the other vertically. Sometimes it was covered with a cloth and then beaten with a mallet. Scholarship has also suggested that paste may have been used between layers, and then a large stone would be placed on top until the materials were dry. Typically a sheet of papyrus would be between 6–9 inches in width and 12–15 inches long. These sheets were then glued end to end until scribes had enough length to copy the book they were working on. The writing was done only on the horizontal side, and it was rolled so that the writing would be on the inside. If one were to attempt to write across the vertical side, it would be difficult because of the direction of the papyrus fibers. The scribe or copyist would have used a reed pen to write on the papyrus sheets (cf. 3 John 13). Papyrus was the main material used for writing until about 300 C.E. It was used with a roll or scroll (a document that is rolled up into itself), as well as the codex (book) form.

APOSTOLIC FATHERS Lightfoot APOSTOLIC FATHERS

Writing on the papyrus sheet, even the correct side, was no easy task by any means because the surface was rough and fibrous. “Defects sometimes occurred in the making through retention of moisture between the layers or through the use of spongy strips which could cause ink to run; such flaws necessitated the remaking of the sheet.” (Abbot, 1938, p. 11) The back pain from long periods of sitting cross-legged on the ground bent over a papyrus sheet on a board, dealing with running ink, the reed pen possibly snagging and tearing the papyrus sheet, having to erase illegible characters, all were a deterrent from personally writing a letter.

Early papyrus manuscripts, such as P45, P46, P47, P52, P66, P73 and P75 (to mention a few), all date before 300 C.E., from as early as 110 C.E. On the other hand, the larger manuscripts, such as Codex Sinaiticus and Vaticanus from about 350 C.E., were written on parchment: creamy or yellowish material made from dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or other animal hides.

Papyrus MSS

One may wonder why more New Testament manuscripts have not survived. It must be remembered that the Christians suffered intense persecution during intervals in the first 300 years from Pentecost 33 C.E. With this persecution from the Roman Empire came many orders to destroy Christian texts. In addition, these texts were not stored in such a way as to secure their preservation; they were actively used by the Christians in the congregation and were subject to wear and tear. Furthermore, moisture is the enemy of papyrus, and it causes them to disintegrate over time. This is why, as we will discover, the papyrus manuscripts that have survived have come from the dry sands of Egypt. Skin of a stillborn goatMoreover, it seems not to have entered the minds of the early Christians to preserve their documents, because their solution to the loss of manuscripts was just to make more copies. Fortunately, the process of making copies transitioned to the more durable animal skins, which would last much longer. Those that have survived, especially from the fourth century C.E. and earlier, are the path to restoring the original Greek New Testament.[8]

Animal Skin: About the fourth century C.E., Bible manuscripts made of papyrus began to be superseded by the use of vellum, a high-quality parchment made from calfskin, kidskin, or lambskin. Manuscripts such as the famous Codex Sinaiticus (01) and Codex Vaticanus (03, also known as B) of the fourth century C.E. are parchment, or vellum, codices. This use of parchment as the leading writing material continued for almost a thousand years until it was replaced by paper. The advantages of parchment over papyrus were many, such as (1) it was much easier to write on smooth parchment, (2) one could write on both sides, (3) parchment lasted much longer, and (4) when desired, old writing could be scraped off and the parchment reused.

The P52 PROJECT THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS 4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS

Scroll or RollScroll or Roll: The scroll dominated until the beginning of the second century C.E., at which time the papyrus codex was replacing it. Papyrus enjoyed another two centuries of use until it was replaced with animal skin (vellum), which proved to be a far better writing material.

The writing on a scroll was done in 2- to 3-inch columns, which allowed the reader to have it opened, or unrolled, only partially. Although movies and television have portrayed the scroll being opened while holding it vertically, this was not the case; scrolls were opened horizontally. For the Greek or Latin reader, it would be rolled to the left as those languages were written left to right. The Jewish reader would roll it to the right as Hebrew was written right to left.

The difficulty of using a scroll should be apparent. If one had a long book (such as Isaiah) and were to attempt to locate a particular passage, it would not be user-friendly. An ancient saying was “A great book, a great evil.” The account in the book of Luke tells us:

And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ – Luke 4:16–21; Isaiah 61:1-2, ESV.

The Reading Culture of Early Christianity From Spoken Words to Sacred Texts 400,000 Textual Variants 02

Codex: The trunk of a tree that bears leaves only at its apex was called a caudex in Latin. This name–modified to codex–would be applied to a tablet of wood that had raised edges, with a coat of wax placed within those raised edges. The dried wax would then be used to receive writing with a stylus. We might compare it to the schoolchild’s slate such as seen in some Hollywood Western movies. Around the fifth century B.C.E., some of these were being used and attached by strings that were run through the edges. It is because these bound tablets resembled a tree trunk that they were to take on the name “codex.”

S0-Called Agnostic Bible Scholars writes in Opposition to Christianity

Codex Vaticanus (“Book from the Vatican”), Facsimile, Fourth century. It is one of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, which includes the Greek translation of the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as most of the Christian Greek Scriptures

Codex Vaticanus
Codex Vaticanus (“Book from the Vatican”), Facsimile, Fourth century. It is one of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, which includes the Greek translation of the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as most of the Christian Greek Scriptures.
4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

As we can imagine, this bulky item also was not user-friendly! Sometime later, it would be the Romans who would develop a lighter, more flexible material, the parchment notebook, which would fill the need before the development of the later book-form codex. The Latin word membranae (skins) is the name given to such notebooks of parchment. In fact, at 2 Timothy 4:13 the apostle Paul requested of Timothy that he “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books [scrolls], and above all the parchments [membranas, Greek spelling].” One might ask why Paul used a Latin word (transliterated in Greek)? Undoubtedly it was due to the fact that there was no Greek word that would serve as an equivalent to what he was requesting. It was only later that the transliterated “codex” was brought into the Greek language as a reference to what we would know as a book.

Black Ink_Scribes

The ink of ancient manuscripts was usually one of two kinds. There was ink made of a mixture of soot and gum. These were sold in the form of a bar, which was dissolved in water in an inkwell, and produced a very black ink. There was also ink made out of nutgalls, which resulted in a rusty-brown color. Aside from these materials, the scribe would have had a knife to sharpen his reed pen, as well as a sponge to erase errors. With the semi-professional and professional scribe, each character was written with care. Thus, writing was a slow, tedious, and often difficult task.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

‘I, Tertius, Greet You in the Lord’

Tertius is among the many greetings that we find at the end of the letter of Paul to the Romans, wherein he writes, “I am greeting you, I, Tertius, the one having written this letter, in the Lord.” (Rom. 16:22) Of Paul’s fourteen letters, this is the only occurrence where we find a clear reference to one of his secretaries.

Little is known of Tertius, who must have been a faithful Christian, based on the greeting “in the Lord.” He may have been a member of the Corinthian congregation who likely knew many Christians in Rome, which is suggested by the fact his name is Latin for “third.” Quartus for “fourth” is one of the other two who added their greetings: “Erastus the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus the brother, i.e., a member of the Corinthian congregation. (16:23b) Some scholars have suggested that Quartus could have been the younger brother of Tertius. (Brand, Draper and Archie 2003, 1574) Others have suggested that Tertius was a slave or a freedman.[9] This is also suggested by his Latin name and the fact that slaves were commonly involved in the scribal activity. From this we could conjecture that Tertius likely had experience as a professional scribe, who became a fellow worker with the apostle Paul, helping compile the longest of Paul’s letters. It was common for Bible authors to use a scribe, as for example Jeremiah used Baruch in a similar way, just as Peter used Silvanus (Jer. 36:4; 1 Pet. 5:12). Of Paul’s fourteen letters, it is certain that six involved the use of a secretary: Romans (16:22), 1 Corinthians (16:21), Galatians (6:11), Colossians (4:18), 2 Thessalonians (3:17), and Philemon (19).

The Epistle to the Hebrews Paul PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

Penning the Book of Romans

The letter of Paul to the Romans was written while he was on his third missionary journey as a guest of Gaius in Corinth, about 55-56 C.E.. (Ac 20:1-3; Rom. 16:23). We do know for a certainty that Paul used Tertius as his secretary to pen the book of Romans. However, we cannot say with absolute certainty how he was used. Some have argued, “from evidence outside of the New Testament that it was common practice for authors to dictate their letters to an amanuensis or secretary.”[10] (McRay 2003, 270) Did the secretary take that dictation down in shorthand, and then go on to compose the letter, even contributing content, with the New Testament author giving the final approval? Alternatively, was the secretary used in a more limited fashion, such as editing spelling, grammar, and syntax? Otto Roller makes the point that for an author to dictate a letter to a scribe verbatim would require the author to speak very slowly, i.e., syllable by syllable.[11] There will be more on this later. For now, whatever method was used, the work of a secretary was no easy job. What we do know is that the sixty-six books of the Bible were “inspired by God,” and “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21.

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[1] (Wilkins) A different position on manuscript families has won the support of most textual scholars and will be discussed in the later chapters by Wilkins. Nevertheless, it is indispensable to have an understanding of these families as background, and the conclusions drawn about individual manuscripts largely remain the same.

[2] A version is a translation of the New Testament into another language, such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and so on.

[3] A Lectionary is a book containing readings from the Bible for Christian church services during the course of the year.

[4] Patristic quotations are New Testament quotations from early Christian writers, such as the Apostolic Fathers, including Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Hermas, and Papias. There were also the Apologists: Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, to name a few. After them came the Church Fathers, e.g. St. Augustine or St. Ambrose whose works have helped to shape the Christian Church.

[5] The Number of Textual Variants: An Evangelical Miscalculation .., https://bible.org/article/number-textual-variants-evangelical-miscalculation (accessed December 01, 2015).

[6] (Wilkins) This goal, which will be mentioned in passing throughout the book, is a philosophical difference with some implications for TC practice. Both groups of critics will arrive at what they consider the earliest form of the text, but the authors take this to be the autograph as a matter of faith. One of the implications for practice is that conjectures are not considered viable options for variant readings. Another is that every word of the autograph can be found in some extant Greek NT manuscript.

[7] The quill pen was the principal writing instrument in the Western world from the 6th to the 19th centuries C.E.

[8] Cf. J. H. Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), 11.

[9] When the Roman Empire was in power, one who was released from slavery was called a “freedman” (Gr apeleutheros), while a “freeman” (Gr eleutheros) was free from birth, having full citizenship rights, as was the case with the apostle Paul – Ac 22:28 (Balz and Schneider 1978, Vol. 1, P 121).

[10] See Gordon J. Bahr, “Paul and Letter Writing in the First Century,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966): 465-77.

[11] Otto Roller, Das Formular der Paulinischen Briefe: Ein Beitrag zur Lehre vom antiken Briefe (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1933), p. 333.

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