How Are We to Understand Paul’s Request to Timothy ‘Bring the Scrolls, Especially the Parchments’?

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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 over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

2 Timothy 4:13 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
13 When you come, bring the cloak that I left behind in Troas with Carpus, and the scrolls,[1] especially the parchments.[2]

[1] Lit little books; (Gr. biblia) scrolls of Old Testament Scripture
[2] Lit the parchments (Gr. biblia, membranas) notes or letters of some type in codex form

In not so many words, the apostle Paul urged his fellow traveling companion Timothy to bring him different types of written material. What did Paul mean by the scrolls and parchments? Textual scholar Philip Comfort offers us three options here,

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In Paul’s final epistle (2 Timothy), he gives a directive to Timothy that gives us some insight into what kind of writing materials he was using. He told Timothy to bring to him ta biblia malista tas membranas. This has been interpreted in various ways, three of which are quite significant:

1. Paul was asking for “the scrolls” (presumably copies of Old Testament books) and “the parchment codices” (presumably copies of various New Testament books—perhaps of Paul’s epistles or the Gospels).

2. Paul was asking for “the books” (presumably copies of Old Testament and New Testament books) and “the parchments” (perhaps blank writing material or notebooks containing rough drafts).

Both of these interpretations understand that Paul was asking for two different kinds of documents. But another interpretation (espoused by Skeat) posits that malista tas membranas is a further definition of ta biblia because malista has a particularizing function. Thus, the third interpretation:

3. Paul was asking for “his books—that is, his parchment notebooks” (which were codices—note the term membranas).

If this third interpretation is correct, it suggests that Paul was anxious to get some of his written notes or rough drafts he had left behind when he was arrested. Since he could have secured Old Testament writings from various sources, it stands to reason that he would have been anxious to have his collection of epistles and/or his writings not yet published. Of course, this is conjectural. This much we can be sure of: Paul was using codices, whether in completed book form or in notebook form. And since Paul himself made mention of codices, it stands to reason that Paul’s epistles were the first to be collected into codex form.[3]

[3] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 29.

By 65 C.E. when the apostle Paul wrote these words to Timothy, we have the canonical 39 books of the Hebrew Old Testament, which had been listed by either 22 books or 24 books (by combining certain books together as one), most of these were in separate scrolls because scrolls were rolled up and usually only written on one side. Professor Alan Millard said if such scrolls, “a price of six to ten denarii [six to ten days wages] for a copy of Isaiah. While this is no cheap, it would not put books out of the reach of the reasonably well-to-do.”  (Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (2001, p. 165) | Aug 1, 2000) Some had access to these OT scrolls. For example, in the book of Acts, we find the Ethiopian eunuch, who was “seated in his chariot, and he was reading the prophet Isaiah.” He was “a court official of Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, who was in charge of all her treasure. He had come to Jerusalem to worship.” Clearly, he was wealthy enough to have access to the book of Isaiah. – Acts 8:27-28.

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Once more, Paul requested of Timothy: “When you come, bring the cloak that I left behind in Troas with Carpus, and the scrolls, especially the parchments.” (2 Tim. 4:13) What we learn from this is that Paul carried out his missionary work on very little, yet he owned a number of books. His library was the Word of God! Looking again at the word “parchments” in this verse, paleographer (papyrologist) scholar A. T. Robertson observed: “These in particular would likely be copies of Old Testament books, parchment being more expensive than papyrus, possibly even copies of Christ’s sayings (Luke 1:1–4).” (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), 2 Ti 4:13.) “Scrolls” literally referred to little books; (Gr. biblia) scrolls of Old Testament Scripture, while “parchments” (Gr. biblia, membranas) were notes or letters of some type in codex form. It is as Comfort said above, the apostle “Paul’s epistles were the first to be collected into codex form.” Too, we must remember that the apostle Paul from his you up until his encounter with Christ was “educated at the feet of Gamaliel according to the strict manner of the law of [his] fathers, being zealous for God as all of you are this day.” Yes, Paul was taught by a world-renowned Jewish teacher of his day, “a Pharisee in the council named Gamaliel, a teacher of the law held in honor by all the people.” Therefore, we can understand how he came to have his own personal copies of the scrolls of God’s Word. – Acts 5:34; 22:3.

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Christians’ Use of Scrolls

Even so, leave no doubt in your mind, for any Christian or Christian congregation for that matter to possess any of Scripture, be it Old Testament books, Paul’s letters, the Gospels, and so on, it would have been a privilege in the extreme. Many of the Christians in the early days had access to the Scriptures of the Old Testament because for the first seven years, from 29-36 C.E., all those coming to Christ were only Jewish converts. With many of the Christian congregations by 65 C.E. having a large foundation of Jewish Christians, we note Paul’s earlier letter to Timothy, “Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching.” (1 Tim. 4:13) Public reading within the Christian congregation was carried over from the practice of public reading that had gone on in the Jewish synagogues. Public reading was a practice that had been a part of the lives of God’s people since the days of Moses. – Acts 13:15; 15:21; 2 Corinthians 3:15.

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As an aside, this is further evidence against the long-held idea that the early Christians were illiterate, as well as the early Christian’s view of the integrity of the Greek New Testament. Timothy being an elder, a traveling missionary he often read Scripture aloud to himself and in front of the Christian congregations, which benefited those who could not afford the Scriptures. We can only imagine the entire congregation sitting there listening attentively to his every word, as well as the parents discussing what had been read with their children later in the day.

When we consider the well-known Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, we are impressed with its immense size at almost 24 feet (7.3 m) in length. It would have had a rod at each end and a cover for protection. It would have been quite heavy. Generally, this would not be as effective for any kind of preaching work in their day. Paul as a  former highly regarded student of Gamaliel he likely had many scrolls of the Scriptures in his personal library. However, he likely never had them all with him in his some ten thousand miles of travels as a missionary. Clearly, he left some with his friends, such as Carpus in Troas.

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How Has Paul Set An Example for Us?

Just before Paul had asked Timothy to “bring the cloak that I left behind in Troas with Carpus, and the scrolls, especially the parchments’ (2 Tim 4:13), his second imprisonment in Rome, he had written a few verses earlier,

2 Timothy 4:6-8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faithHenceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing.

Here Paul knew he had the run the course set out for him, yet his heartfelt desire was to get his hands on the scrolls and codices, the Word of God. “The scrolls and parchments were probably the Scriptures. Paul still wanted to study, to learn. Filling his mind with the Word of God was important to him, even at the end of his life. The parchments were apparently of special value, written on vellum rather than the common papyrus. Paul’s desires were simple at the close of his life. He wanted to be in the presence of friends, to stay warm, and to refresh himself by the Scriptures.” – Knute Larson, I & II Thessalonians, I & II Timothy, Titus, Philemon, vol. 9, Holman New Testament Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 324.

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The request of Paul was no small task, as Timothy was likely still in Ephesus when he received the request from Paul. (1 Tim. 1:3) The travel from Ephesus to Rome was approximately some 1,000 miles (1,600 km). In Second Timothy, Paul had urged Timothy, “Make every effort to come before winter.” (2 Tim. 4:21) The Scriptures do not give us the answer as to whether Timothy was able to locate a boat and get to the apostle Paul in Rome before winter. What we can take away from the request for “the scrolls, especially the parchments” is that Paul sought God’s Word in the most distressful time of his life. We often wonder how Paul was able to maintain such a spiritual life when he encountered one difficulty after another. It is the Word of God and his traveling companions that was his encouragement and his source of comfort.

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Today, anyone in the world can gain access to the complete Bible, either a physical copy or an electronic one. Many, even poor Christians have many different versions of the Bible. (ASV, ESV, LEB, CSB, NASB, etc.) If we want to imitate Paul and maintain such a spiritual life when we encounter one difficulty after another, we must cultivate an eager desire to gain accurate knowledge of God’s Word, to have a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Yes, a deeper understanding is no guarantee that we will achieve and main spiritual maturity like Paul but the lack of deeper study is a guarantee that spiritual immaturity will result. Out of the fourteen letters that the apostle Paul authored, 2 Timothy was the last. If we ponder for a moment, his entreaty to Timothy ‘to bring the scrolls, especially the parchments’ came at the end of his letter, this means that it was one of his final recorded desires of his life.

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If it is your wholehearted desire to ‘fight the good fight of the faith, to take hold of the eternal life to which you were called’ (1 Tim. 6:12), then you need to do as the apostle Paul encouraged others to do. “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.” How? You do so by developing a daily personal Bible study program, which is available in more forms than and far more affordable and convenient than scrolls and codices. – 1 Timothy 4:16.

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