Church Education Trust

Christian Belief



The Hebrew Text.......continued.

The point to note for our present purpose, however, is the fact of the books being in the form of rolls. It can easily be appreciated that they would not be very manageable in this form especially if you required to find a certain passage quickly.

The Christians, in their desire to search the Scriptures,were the first to discover this and to popularize the use of codices (books) instead of rolls, although still made of papyrus, codex seems first to have been formed by folding papyrus length concertina-wise. They were soon, however, formed of sheets folded into quires, much as in book making today.

This codex form was much more convenient and also could contain much more matter without becoming unduly cumbrous. The writing was still in columns, two, three, sometimes four to a page. These codices began to be in use early in the second century. Papyrus remained supreme as the material in use for the best books until the first quarter of the fourth century A.D. 

Vellum had been used before this but mostly for inferior works. Then the superior advantages of Vellum and the perishable nature of papyrus seem to have been realised quite suddenly and vellum came to be used more and more from that time for the publishing of the Bible, and other religious and secular books.

Vellum is produced from the skins of cattle, sheep and goats, and especially from the young animals calves, lambs, kids. The hair is removed by scraping, the skins washed, scraped with pummice and dressed with chalk. The material is almost white in colour, though somewhat darker on the side from which the hair has been scraped. This side is the most suitable, however, as it retains the ink better. In the Codex Alexandrinus the writing has repeatedly faded on the flesh side, but remains clear and distinct on the hair side.

Vellum was very enduring in quality and easy to write on, taking well both black ink and decoration in colour. It was no new material. It had been invented, according to Pliny, by Eumenes of Pergamum at the end of the second century B.C. because his rival Ptolemy of Egypt refused to export papyrus to him. It was called "pergamene" from its place of origin, from which we get our word "parchment".

Generally speaking parchment and vellum are the same, though some writers consider parchment to refer to a material of slightly inferior quality to vellum. Vellum continued to be used until the use of paper reached Europe in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Vellum did not finally die out until the invention of printing, for which paper was cheaper and more suitable.

These vellum Bibles were often exquisitely executed and very beautifully illuminated and illustrated. They wore, of course, entirely written and illuminated by hand. Two passages from "The Bible in Britain" give a good description of two of those kinds of books and are very interesting. The first describes some small Latin Bibles copied specially for the Friars who naturally needed small copies to carry with them in their wandering evangelism.

"These copies were wonders of human patience and skill. The vellum,smooth and tough, is of the finest and thinnest quality, The writing, in a double column, is almost unbelievably minute, and could not be much smaller. Yet anybody with good eyesight and a knowledge of mediaeval Latin can read them without difficulty.

In each of the three copies in the Library at York Minster, Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, is shown at the beginning of the Prologue which he addressed to Pope Damasus, in a "thumb nail" illumination which is remarkable for its clearness.

Often too a similar picture of the translator seated at his desk at work on his translation appears at the opening of the prologue to each book. In the capital `I` of one copy at the beginning of Genesis ("In principio", in the beginning) the stem occupies the whole of the margin between the two columns of writing, and in it are painted seven small pictures of the seven days of Creation. And the initial of the first word of each book is adorned with a picture representing some event which is related in the book."

The second description refers to a very remarkable group of seven copies of the Psalter made towards the end of the fourteenth century and owing their existence to the patronage of one family. They are called the Bohum Books after the name of the family, which was of Norman origin and contained many important personages, including royalty.

"Each of the seven books contains the Psalter; one of them contains also a copy of the Primer or Book of Hours, the layman's book of prayers in the Middle ages. All the copies are illuminated, some of them most beautifully, though they were made by different men. One has pictures that represent more than twenty events in the life of David, another has pictures set in architectural frames that are surmounted by lovely white, slender pinnacles, after the fashion of a Gothic chantry chapel in a large church.

Many of these illuminated pages are worthy of comparison with the best work of the Middle ages,`The Exeter College` copy has two exciting entries on a fly-leaf at the beginning of the book:-

This bokc ys myn. Elizabeth ye quene.
Thys boko ys myn. Katherine the queen.

Each is in the handwriting of an owner of the book. The first is that of Elizabeth, wife of Edward IV; the second, of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII. How many books are there which contain the signatures of two queens-consort of England."

One more point should be mentioned before closing this section. The various manuscripts of these books are written in two different styles, particularly the Greek ones. Some are written entirely in capitals and these are called Uncials; others are written in small letters, very often joined together as in present day writing, and these are called Minuscules or Cursives.

(b). The Hebrew Text.

The Bible was originally written in two completely different languages. The Old Testament was written in Hebrew and Chaldean or  Aramaic (which is very similar to Hebrew); the New Testament was written in Greek. This section deals with the text of the Old Testament.

The Hebrew language differed greatly from our own in that its alphabet was quite different, it was written from right to left instead of left to right, and it had no vowels. This latter point may seem to be a grave problem but the reader had no more difficulty in deciding the meaning of a word in its context than does a reader of shorthand today.

For example the consonants DBR could mean either "word", "he spoke" or "one speaking" but the context would make quite clear what was the actual meaning of the words as much as we ourselves know from the context whether the letters `C, O, N, T, E, N, T` mean "content" or "content".

The very great likeness to each other of some of the Hebrew letters did however mean that mistakes could easily occur unless there was very great care in copying. Actually the number of mistakes is comparatively few because of the carefulness of the copying. This will be mentioned again later in the section.

The present Hebrew Bible does have vowel signs but these were not introduced until the language was becoming a dead one and in danger of being misunderstood without such signs. They were invented and inserted by the Masoretes (from the Hebrew "masorah" meaning "tradition") in about 600.A.D. and the text they produced became the authorised text of the Jews and was called the Masoretic Text.

Those vowel signs are in the form of dots and dashes placed below, above, or in the body of the consonants. The extant MMS of the Old Testament do not go anywhere near so close to the original source as those of the New Testament.

< back to previous page >

©2008 Church Education Trust