Church Education Trust

Christian Belief



The Text of the Bible.

(a). Books in Bible and Modern Times.

Archaeological discoveries have proved beyond doubt that writing goes back quite as far as the days of Abraham. A code of laws of a king named Hamurabi (almost certainly the Amraphel of Gen.14) has been found in the valley of the Euphrates and also a number of private and business letters of the same time.

A number of business, political and military letters between the Kings of Egypt and their generals and representatives in Palestine have also come to light at Tel el-Amarna. Clay letter tablets have likewise been found in Egypt, written in the language of Assyria or Babylonia, showing that the knowledge and learning of Egypt in the days of Moses was not confined to their own language. They had a 'Foreign Office" such as we have.

These letters were mostly written on clay tablets with a "stilus" or sharp iron pen, and then baked or dried in the sun. Papyrus though had almost certainly come into use in Egypt by the time of Moses. Books of papyrus were made in the form of a roll (Latin - t'volumen" from which comes our word "volume").

These probably did not alter a great deal from the days of Moses till New Testament times. Alex Souter gives a good description of these papyrus rolls in his ''Text and Canon of the New Testament" (pp.6-7).
"The inner bark of the shrub (papyrus plant) was cut longitudinally into thin strips which were laid side by side. These were crossed by other strips. The combined strips were pressed hard together and the whole then dried in the sun.

The edges were then made smooth by pummice-stone probably after the sheet had been rolled up, separate portions having been glued together with the aid of Nile water, regarded as specially suitable for the purpose, until the desired length was attained. Papyrus was sold in the stationer's shops from six to eighteen inches in height, at so much a length, just as paper is sold by the quire today, and the unused part could be clipped off, or extra parts added as desired.

The writing was in the first instance on the side where the fibres were horizontal, for the obvious reason that it was easier to write on that side. The custom was to write in very narrow columns, without separation of words, without accents or breathings, and almost entirely without punctuation; these columns were sometimes numbered.

In carefully written manuscripts a new paragraph was shown by a gap in the text, and a short horizontal line in the margin opposite, which line written at the side (para.graphein) is the origin of the English word paragraph. The title of a book was either added at the end of the roll, or on a little slip containing it gummed to the top edge, or it was given in both places.

The roll was held in the hands in such a way that the left hand rolled up what had been read, while the right hand unrolled what was still to be read. A core of papyrus or another stick was used round which it was rolled and thus kept smooth. For practical convenience a roll had not to exceed a certain length and we can see that St.Luke who wrote the two longest books in the New Testament, crushed the utmost amount he could into both rolls, being doubtless possessed of much more material on the life and sayings of Jesus and the apostles than he was actually able to use in his Gospel and Acts.

Rolls when not in use were commonly kept in cylindrical cases with a lid on the top, and no doubt the four rolls containing the four Gospels would commonly be contained in one such box in the earlier days of the Church. The method of writing without punctuation etc. should be carefully noted as it will need to be referred to when dealing with textual criticism.

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