From Scroll to e-Book—Scrolls, scribes and tablets

A consideration of the early Bible manuscripts takes us way back into antiquity and the days when writing was done on parchment (animal skins), papyrus, and even clay tablets and pottery. This page introduces early writing and its methods and materials, and how some of these were used in Bible times. We also examine some of the practises of the ancient scribes which give further assurance of the likely accuracy with which the Bible has been handed down.

Writing in the Ancient Near East likely began with pictograms which became increasingly stylized into hieroglyphs. We have examples from Egypt dating back 3500 years, and it is likely that the wedge-shaped cuneiform writing of Sumeria and Babylon developed from pictograms also. All told we have more than half a million clay tablets in cuneiform, and almost half of these date back beyond 1800BC. We have documents from several cultures dating back around two millennia BC which mention a major flood, just like the Biblical account.

Early writing was done on several different media. We have limestone scrawls, soft clay tablets that were easily marked with a wedge-shaped stylus and then baked, carving on gravestones and stele, and of course papyrus. There are examples of all of these dating back beyond 2000BC. Papyrus was made from plant stems which were dried, woven, beaten and then smoothed and polished. Lots of Egyptian papyrus was sourced from Byblos, and it is from there that our word ‘Bible’ (‘book’) is originally derived.

The earliest Biblical documents were probably written on papyrus or on dried-and-scraped animal skins. The advantage of animal skins was that they could be sewn together and made into scrolls. The early Biblical manuscripts that we possess are typically on parchment of this type. According to the book of Exodus, the 10 Commandments were engraved into tablets of stone by God Himself.

The Scribal Tradition

Although we do not possess any of the original texts (known as ‘autographs’) written by the hand of Paul, say, or Isaiah, we have copies of those texts which are very old, as discussed elsewhere on this site. The Biblical texts were recognized as sacred from a very early stage and they were therefore copied with meticulous care. Of course there were no printing presses in those days, which meant every copy had to be made laboriously by hand, and while such a process is prone to mistakes, the scribes put various mechanisms in place to minimize these. For instance, they would count up the total numbers of letters and words, and even the number of times individual letters and words occurred. This would give them a cross-check to reduce the possibility of copyist error. We also know that the interpretative tradition of paying very close attention to the individual words and form of words (and taking meanings from this) is very old, and this too would have reinforced the premium of accuracy as the texts were copied and handed down. While some mistakes of transcription and copyist error have certainly crept in, the remarkable fact is that there are relatively few. As discussed on the Is your Bible accurate? page, the number of ancient manuscripts, fragments and translations that we have demonstrates the remarkable accuracy with which the Bible has been handed down. The ancient scribal practices only served to reinforce this.

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