What Media has the Bible been Written On?

After writing 13 articles on the canon, I’ve started researching a new topic: New Testament manuscripts. I haven’t exhausted the subject of the Biblical Canon (I’ve focused on the New Testament canon and haven’t written about the Old Testament canon), but I’ve exhausted my current interest in studying it.  

The books of the canon make the Bible, but how did the Bible get from the early church to us? How do we know the Bible has been accurately transmitted from the New Testament authors to us over the past 1900 years? Ancient Biblical manuscripts allows us to study the text of the Bible the Church fathers used, and confirm what the Bible teaches hasn’t changed.

Bible verses have been written on almost every imaginable surface. Today I want to give a partial list of the types of media on which scripture has been written since Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. I’ll focus on the media which was used in the ancient world, but I’m undoubtedly missing some types here. For a few of these, I was able to find a Bible verse which mentions the media, although not always in the context of writing. Most of the pictures here aren’t from Biblical times, but show what could have been used.

Animal skins

Most existing ancient manuscripts are made of animal skins. There are three ways of preparing skins for writing on:

Leather

Leather is tanned skin from almost any kind of mammal. Leather is often too thick to be used as pages, and the inside may be rough, so only one side can be written on. The tanning process leaves the leather slightly porous, so ink tends to soak in and blur. Leather is often used for embossing rather than writing.

Parchment

Parchment is specially prepared skin from goats, sheep or cattle1. The outer hair and inner fat would be scrapped off, then it was soaked in water with lime, salt or chalk to cure it, then it was stretched and scraped. The process of preparing parchment is much more time-consuming than leather, but the skins are much thinner and both sides can be written on. Ink doesn’t soak in as much as leather, so writing could be scrapped off (although a faint image often remains) and the parchment reused (a reused parchment is called a palimpsest).

When you [Timothy] come, bring the cloak that I [Paul] left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments. (2 Tim 4:13 ESV)

Most of Codex Sinaiticus was found at Saint Catherine’s Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Sinai, between 1844 and 1859, although some pages were found as recently as 2009. The codex still has missing pages, but contains large parts of both the Old and New Testaments, and some non-Biblical works, and was likely written between A.D. 325-350. The image below contains John 1:1-38.

Codex Sinaiticus, John 1:1-38 (© CodexSinaiticus.org)
Codex Sinaiticus, John 1:1-38, A.D. 325-350 (© CodexSinaiticus.org)

Vellum

Vellum is a very high quality skin prepared from calves2. In ancient times, vellum was sometimes dyed purple and gold or silver ink was used.

The Vienna Genesis is an illuminated manuscript, written about A.D. 500-550. This page contains the picture God’s Covenant with Noah.

Codex Vienna Genesis, God’s Covenant with Noah (© KhanAcademy.org)

Clay

In ancient Palestine/Israel, clay was made with soil and alumin, or sometimes with lime, magnesia, alkali and metallic oxides. Fresh clay is pliable, but becomes hard when sun-dried, and is especially long-lasting when baked in a kiln.

“Now, son of man, take a block of clay, put it in front of you [Ezekiel] and draw the city of Jerusalem on it.” (Ezekiel 4:1 NIV)

The Hezekiah and Isaiah bullae were found in Jerusalem, in dirt excavated from the Temple Mount. A bulla is a piece of clay stamped with a signet to seal a document, showing it’s authenticity. The Hezekiah bulla is from the Israelite King Hezekiah, while the Isaiah bulla may be from the prophet Isaiah, Hezekiah’s adviser. 

Metal

Copper

Copper Scroll, when discovered (© École Biblique et Archéologique Française de Jérusalem)

One of the Dead Sea Scrolls is written on copper. Although the Copper Scroll is a list of buried treasure rather than a Bible verse, it shows copper was occasionally used as a writing material.3

Copper Scroll, on display (© San Diego Museum of Natural History)
Copper Scroll, on display (© San Diego Museum of Natural History)

Silver

Amulets made out of silver have been found at the archaeological dig Ketef Hinnom outside Jerusalem. These amulets are dated 800-600 B.C. and have a blessing written on them similar to the one in Numbers 6:24–26 (ESV)

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. (Numbers 6:24–26 ESV)

Silver Scrolls, Ketif Hinnom

Gold

The Bible mentions gold many times (there are 360 references to gold in the ESV), starting in Genesis 2:11 (ESV) and ending with Revelation 21:21 (ESV)

The name of the first [River flowing out of Eden] is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. (Genesis 2:11 ESV)

And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, transparent as glass. (Revelation 21:21 ESV)

Codex Aureus of Echternach (Wikimedia Commons)
Codex Aureus of Echternach, A.D. 1030-1050 (Wikimedia Commons)

Papyrus

Sheets of papyrus are made from the papyrus plant, which grows in shallow areas of lakes and rivers. This was much more common in Egypt, along the Nile, than in Palestine/Israel. Damp conditions cause it to decay, while dry conditions cause it to become brittle. Creases in papyrus could tear easily, so it was generally used in scrolls, not books. Papyrus generally doesn’t last long, but some ancient papyrus scrolls still exist. The earliest known use of papyrus was about 2,600-2,400 B.C., and it was used until about A.D. 200-300.

Papyrus 𝔓52 (P52) is the oldest known fragment of the New Testament, from about A.D. 110-150. This was likely written within a few decades of the completion of the New Testament.

Ostraca/Potsherds

 

Ostrica is broken, unglazed pottery, which has been reused as a writing surface. Potsherds are very durable and can last a long time.

Plaster

Plaster is made of limestone or gypsum and is mixed with water. A chemical reaction generates a bit of heat, which causes the player to harden.

And on the day you [Israelites] cross over the Jordan to the land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall set up large stones and plaster them with plaster. And you shall write on them all the words of this law, when you cross over to enter the land that the LORD your God is giving you, a land flowing with milk and honey, as the LORD, the God of your fathers, has promised you. (Deuteronomy 27:2-3 ESV)

Deir ‘Alla Inscription, refers Balaam, son of Beor (possibly the same person as in Numbers 22:24); 800-700 B.C.

Stone/Rock

Stone was the most durable and long-lasting media the ancient Israelites had available.

When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him [Moses] the two tablets of the covenant law, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God. (Exodus 31:18 NIV)

Tel Dan Stele, “House of David” inscription, about 870-750 B.C. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wax

Wax tablets are made by applying a thin layer of wax on a piece of wood. Wax tablets usually had a cover to protect the writing. These were used for quick notes, and could be erased easily. In hot climates the writing didn’t last long.

And he [Zechariah] asked for a writing tablet4 and wrote, “His name is John.” And they [Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s neighbors and relatives] all wondered. (Luke 1:63 ESV)

Atelier of the Boxes, about A.D. 1350 (Wikimedia Commons)

Wood

Wood might be the oldest media used for writing.

Son of man, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the people of Israel associated with him’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ (Ezekiel 37:16 ESV)

Vindolanda Writing Tablets, Late 1st Century to Early 2nd Century (Wikimedia Commons)

Resources

  • Ancient Writing Materials (Skypoint; Website) (Accessed 21-Aug-2019)
  • McDowell, Sean. An Investigation: Materials Used to Write the Bible (Josh McDowell Ministries, December 20, 2017; Website) (Accessed 21-Aug-2019)

  • McDowell, Josh and McDowell, Sean. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2017; Kindle) Chapter 2: How We Got the Bible, Section 1: How was the Bible Written, Materials Used. (Amazon)

Footnotes

  1. In modern times, parchment and vellum are almost synonymous, but in ancient times there was a distinction.
  2. In modern times, parchment and vellum are almost synonymous, but in ancient times there was a distinction.
  3. Taylor, Joan E. Secrets of the Copper Scroll (Biblical Archaeology Review, 45:4, July/August September/October 2019; Magazine and website, Subscription required) (Accessed 05-Sept-2019)
  4. Some commentaries indicate this could have been a wax tablet.

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  1. […] is a long, continuous writing surface made by joining sheets of papyrus or parchment together (What Media has the Bible been Written On?). Sheets of papyrus are glued together to make a scroll, while sheets of parchment are sewed […]

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