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SCROLL. The scroll, or roll, was the usual form of a book in Bible times. It had been used in Egypt from very early times, the early ones being made of papyrus, the paperlike tissue taken from the reeds growing along the Nile. As the successive columns (Jer.36.23 leaves kjv, mof) of Jeremiah’s scroll were read, the king cut them off and burned them. Since the burning of skins in an open fire pot would have produced an intolerably bad smell, the roll of a book, mentioned three times in the OT (kjv megillath-sephēr, Jer.36.2, Jer.36.4; Ezek.2.9; scroll for [of] a book niv; megillath[“roll, scroll”] appears by itself another eighteen times, twelve in Jer.36.1-Jer.36.32 alone), was probably made of papyrus. The papyrus was imported from Egypt. Several sheets, glued together to the desired length, were rolled on rods so that the beginning of the scroll was on the right and the end on the left (the Hebrews wrote from right to left).

A library or royal archives is called a house of rolls (Ezra.6.1 kjv). Ezekiel was commanded to eat a scroll (Ezek.2.9-Ezek.3.3), no doubt in a vision.

As time went on, perhaps after the Exile, the Hebrews began to write important works on scrolls of smoothed skins of animals. Such rolls would last much longer than those of paper. The first scroll of Isaiah from Qumran (the Dead Sea Scrolls) was written on seventeen pieces of skin of different sizes, sewn together at their edges, and in one place glued together as well. This scroll is a little more than ten inches (twenty-six cm.) wide and when unrolled is twenty-four feet (forty m.) long. It contains fifty-four columns of text. Some skins were leather, but in later times the skins were treated in a special way and were called parchment, which was whiter and in general had a more attractive appearance than did regularly tanned leather.

The Jews were extremely careful in the preparation of scrolls of the Scriptures. Only the skins of clean animals could be used. To the present day the scroll is the form of the book used in the reading of the Scriptures in the synagogue.

The book form, or codex, was introduced for private MSS in the second century a.d., and soon took over as a far more convenient form, except in the synagogue. The famous fourth-century MSS of the Greek Bible (Sinaiticus, Vaticanus) are in the codex form.

There were different ways of dividing the books of the Bible on the scrolls; either a separate scroll was taken for each book or several books were written on one scroll. “The Twelve” is the Hebrew name for the twelve Minor Prophets, since all were written on one scroll. To write the whole OT on one scroll would be almost impossible.

Among the awful portents of the Day of Judgment, it is said that “the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll” (Isa.34.4).——JBG

Rarely were both sides written on (exceptions: Ezek 2:10; Rev 5:1). The writing was in short vertical columns a few inches wide, side by side, separated by a narrow space; usually written with an ink which was astoundingly durable. The scroll was read by uncovering one column, then rolling it up on the other roller as the reading continued.

The use of the standard length papyrus scrolls necessitated the division of the Heb. Pentateuch into five books. One scroll was sufficient for a book the length of Isaiah. The Egyptians used some scrolls of enormous lengths, such as the Papyrus Harris (133 ft. long by 17 inches wide) and a Book of the Dead (123 ft. long by 19 inches wide).

The substitution of the more convenient book form (codex) for the scroll was first made by the Christians and was unknown to the Jews before the 2nd or 3rd cent. a.d. Most of the DSS were of leather, and Talmudic law required that copies of the Torah intended for public reading be written on scrolls made of leather of clean animals, for papyrus was a great deal more perishable than leather. Scrolls were often stored in pottery jars, such as those found in the caves of Qumran.


M. Burrows, What Mean These Stones? (1941), 30-59; R. H. Pfeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (1948), 71-79; A. Bentzen, Introduction to the Old Testament, I (1957), 42-50; E. Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament (1957), 5-9; D. R. Ap-Thomas, A Primer of Old Testament Text Criticism (1964), 7-18.

See also

  • Roll