Lecture 06: Materials and Methods in Making Ancient Books | Free Online Biblical Library

Lecture 06: Materials and Methods in Making Ancient Books

Course: Textual Criticism

Lecture: Materials and Methods in Making Ancient Books


I. Materials and Methods in Making Ancient Books

A. Two Kinds of Books

This helps by giving us a glimpse at what we have in these manuscripts and the materials and methods they used in making these manuscripts. There were two kinds of books in the ancient world: the scroll and the codex. The scroll or roll as we know and understand and if you have anything that is bound on the left side with cut pages that flip, that’s a codex. Both of these have very ancient roots; the codex was not something that was produced in the Middle Ages; rather it was produced in the 1st century AD, late in the 1st century as far as we can tell. Over five hundred years, the codex was used by Christian writings eighty percent of the time. Only twenty percent of all non-Christian literature was written on a codex during the same time. This was the first and only time in history that the church was ahead of the technological curve and yet they were at the very beginning. There has been fascinating discussions on why they used the codex and how soon they began using it. Was it there from the beginning? Some scholars think it was; it was made in order to get to the proof text faster unlike using a scroll which takes a lot longer. Just about every book in the world was produced on a scroll, especially the Old Testament books. So why go with the codex? We still don’t really know why. The New Testament had to have been written on scrolls originally, almost surely.

B. Books of the New Testament

In the letter to the Hebrews, for example, the author doesn’t mention his name or his associates. He doesn’t mention who he is writing to; why? It would have been unusual if it had been a codex. But on a scroll, letters were of two types: they would be the addressee on the inside of the papyrus roll and in rolling that papyrus up, that was where it was most protested. Or they would put the addressee and author on the outside and often buy an affixed label on the outside, and then a courier would carry this across the sea or land to some other place and in doing so, it would rub against other things. I have looked at a number of ancient papyri, hundreds. These papyrus letters where the author and addressee were written on the outside or verso of the papyrus, they were always fainter than the text on the inside. So, whoever the courier was in carrying this scroll, the author and addressee gets rubbed
off. The courier still knew who he was talking it to and they knew who the author was. Meanwhile, how does Paul write his letters; he always puts his name on the inside along with the addressee and that is why we haven’t lost that information. So the Book of Hebrews did it one way while Paul did it another way. This is one of the reasons why I would argue that Paul didn’t write the Book of Hebrews.

Now, in Revelation 5:1, John says, ‘then I saw in the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne a scroll written on the front and back and sealed with seven seals.’ Well, writing on the front and back is unusual for a scroll because it was made out of papyrus, a reed that grows on the Nile River and a few other places in the world. They would take these long strips of papyrus and lay them down and beat the juice out them until they adhered into a cross pattern and then cut them into long rolls. Normally it was written just along fibers that went horizontally. The vertical fibers were on the outside to make it bine better and so people didn’t write on those vertical outside fibers because it would have been against the grain. If a manuscript was written on both sides, it was called an epistograph; episto meaning the backside. So John says that it was an epistograph that he saw, written on the front and back which was it was sealed with seven seals. Now, if this was a codex and it was sealed with seven seals, you then could get to any one of these seals by just breaking that seal open. But if it were written on a scroll, you couldn’t; you would have to open one seal after another, one at a time. But if the seals were on a codex you would only need to break one of the seals for the place you wanted to read. So this is why John is talking about these seals in sequence. Revelation 6:1-8:1 we see that the lamb opens the seven seal book one book at a time and in sequence but that wouldn’t be necessary if that was a codex.

Then we have Mark’s Gospel, the debate in terms of its text has to do with the end of it. Did he write 16:9-20 or did he just end it at verse 8 which has a bazaar ending in itself; yet verses 9-20 also contains some bazaar things. The third point, is the real ending of Mark’s Gospel lost? Until the middle of the
20th century, most scholars agreed that it was lost. Okay, now Mark’s Gospel would have been written on a scroll, the codex form had not been invented yet, but later his copies would have been on a codex. So if Mark wrote on a scroll, what is the most protected part of that manuscript? Of course, it would have been the end of the scroll. So, for Mark 16, you could not have lost those verses. Stephen Fond who is a professor in Jerusalem and works on the Dead Sea Scrolls; I ask him about some of these scrolls he had seen; had he ever come across a scroll that had not been rewound, where the end part was the most exposed. Of all the hundreds he had looked at, he had only seen one. So for Mark’s Gospel, the most protected part of it would have been the end of it. To argue that the copy that Luke and Matthew had finished at 16:8; so both of them must have been using a codex copy of Mark’s Gospel is to suppose two linked and exceedingly weak hypotheses and almost surely impossible. You would have to have assumed that Mark’s Gospel would have had been earlier on and then converted into a codex form and that last leaf of the codex fell out. I don’t think this is what happened.

Let’s think about the copies of the New Testament. Why weren’t they on scrolls? All but four papyri that we have of the New Testament were written on codices. We have 127 copies of papyri so far and counting which are written on codices. I think we have two or three other manuscripts that were written on a roll, but it is a vertical roll, not a horizontal roll. The four that were written on scrolls were reused scrolls, with the New Testament on the verso and some other text on the recto. The recto is the inside or the horizontal fiber side where the verso being the backside or the vertical fiber side. So, the manuscripts that were written on scrolls were written on the back of a used scroll. So these four scrolls had some other purpose before they were used for the writing of the New Testament. There are no New Testament manuscripts written on scrolls that were intended to be written on. This is somewhat astounding. We have some that go back very early, the 2nd century.

There are some interesting things that we can’t yet explain about the text of the New Testament. First, why is it that all of them except these four were written on a codex when the codices were invented about the time when the New Testament was completed and yet it they really weren’t used in the non-Christian world. Secondly, why is it all of our New Testament manuscripts had what was known as nomina sacra or sacred names that were abbreviated. There are fifteen words that were used as sacred names, such as the spelling for Yahweh, which uses those Hebrew letters but using the vowels points for another word, ‘Adoniah’ meaning the Lord is my God. Every time the Jews would come to read Yahweh, they would not pronounce Yahweh, but instead say Adoniah. European scholars, who didn’t understand what those vowel points meant, came up with the word Jehovah, which is a completely made up word. The four earliest nomina sacra were Jesus and Christ, Lord and God. Later, they used Jerusalem, Mary, David, and the Cross. There is not a single New Testament manuscript that has these words in it, that doesn’t have them as abbreviated forms. We have no evidence as to why the Christians did this or how soon they did it. But it had to be from the very beginning; more and more scholars are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that this must have happened pre-AD 70. Then you have this third feature; when it comes to the writing of ancient Greek literature, we have virtually no examples where numbers are abbreviated. They would always write out the word for the numbers. So if you said a thousand in Greek; you would spell that out instead of using a number. They didn’t use Arabic numbers then but what they had were letters that represented numbers. So, for example, you would have Petros Epistala Alfa which means the first letter of Peter. There would be a bar over Alfa to tell us to read it as one and this was the same for the vowel points of Yahweh. Why is it that these New Testament manuscripts don’t follow that literary pattern and they don’t? We have a number of manuscripts, early on through to the 4th century and even some into the 5th century that use the number of abbreviations instead the literary.

It seems that the reason is that earlier scribes for the New Testament were not professionally trained; they were scribes who had learned how to write out text because they were bureaucrats and bean counters or CPA’s who were dealing with numbers all the time. So how did they write out numbers? For
us, we just use the numbers or what we call symbols. It seems that the earliest scribes for the New Testament were trained enough to write out these texts. They were not the creative kinds of people to figure out ways to deal with the text but instead simply faithful copyist. The text may not have been pretty yet they would have been faithful copies. This is where Bart Ehrman would say that our earlier scribes were not professionally trained and this was true in terms of being a literary scribe but they were professionally trained in other educated ways, especially working well with numbers. So, all of the New Testament manuscripts had this nomina sacra and all written on a codex and then many of the early ones had these numbers written as abbreviations instead of fully written out. Those three things seemed to have converged very early. And I am wondering whether a place like Jerusalem or even Antioch, the church before the end of the 1st century decided that this was how that they would distinguish their books. This was something to let other Christians know fairly that this was a Christian document. But nobody really knows this yet.

C. The Making of a Codex

This involves the use of what is called quires which were one or more double leaves (bifolio), folded in the middle and then sewn into the binding. The earliest codices were single quire books. I’ll illustrate this with P46 written in about the year 200. It is a single quire codex which originally had at least ten of Paul’s letter within it. It had one hundred and four leaves. The average-sized quire by the 4th century progressed to eight leaves or 4 bifolios. So the technical terms were: sheet, page, and leaf. These were all different. For papyri, the manuscripts with horizontal lines with four sheets which again were folded in half resulted in a quire of eight leaves and thus with sixteen pages. From the 4th century on, books used four bifolios per quire. And this is how books today are made! They are made the same way, that is, a hardbound book. But for P46, instead of eight leaves, it has one hundred and four leaves and the inside pages had shorter lines and thus less material and the outside pages would have had longer lines. We will talk more on this in regards to P46 because it is missing the Pastoral Epistles: 1st and 2nd Timothy and Titus. Why? It relates to the size of the codex. So we have this text that starts out with rectos to begin with. It is recto and verso, recto and verso, etc. In thinking about this, I suggested that if we had recto on one side of a leaf and on the backside it was verso. Then that means that it was the first half of the quire. So, here is this papyrus that had Acts chapter 2 on the verso. If they were producing them this way that says that on the recto was Acts chapter 3. That means that it was in the second half of the quire. If that is the way they did the production, then this was a manuscript that had more than Acts in it. One of my students, Rex Howe, did his master’s thesis on this fragment to see if it had more than acts. So here from this bandaged size strip of papyrus, he was trying to determine if this manuscript perhaps had one of the Gospels in it. He discovered that they hadn’t followed this method and so we can’t be sure if it had the Gospels in it.

As the art of making books improved, the standard quire size became eight leaves or four bifoios. So the folding of many leaves resulted in the inside pages having shorter lines of text than outside pages. The first half of the quire will have a different verso-recto relationship than the last half of the quire. In counting the leaves of the quire, it is the fastest way to tell when a manuscript has its complete text or not. If all of the quires are eight leaves, we will have the whole manuscript. Sometimes we will find a six-leaf quire or less than eight leaves, it will not be complete.

Biblical Training

The BiblicalTraining app gives you access to 2,300 hours of instruction (129 classes and seminars). Stream the classes, or download and listen to them offline. Share classes via social media, email, and more.