Ancient Materials and Manuscripts

Sceptics for so long have said, “Moses could not have written the first parts of the Bible because writing was unknown at that time”(1500 BC). But recent discoveries in archaeology have shut the mouths of those sceptics by uncovering writings thousands of years before the time of Moses . Sumerian writings dating as far back as 3500 BC (about 2000 years before Moses) ancient Hieroglyphs of Egypt , and the incredible writings of the Babylonians dating almost as far back, have been uncovered. Writing was a hallmark of civilization and progress even leading to the development of the alphabet. In this study we will be looking at Ancient Writing Materials, Writing Instruments, and Manuscripts . 

(1) Ancient Writing Materials 

a. Stone . Many famous inscriptions have been found in Egypt and Babylon inscribed on stone. The 10 commandments were written on two tables of stone 

(Ex 31:18). Two other examples are the Moabite Stone (850 BC), and the Siloam Inscription found in Hezekiah’s tunnel by the Pool of Siloam (700 BC). 

b. Clay . The predominant writing material used in Assyria and Babylonia was clay, formed into small tablets and impressed with wedge-shaped symbols called cuneiform writing and then baked in an oven or dried in the sun. Thousands of clay writing-boards have been uncovered by archaeologists. (Ezra 4:1; Isaiah 8:1). 

c. Wood . Wooden tablets were used extensively by the ancient writers. For many centuries, this was the common writing material in Greece and Rome. They were made of wood or ivory with a recess to hold a wax surface (Isaiah 30:8; Habakkuk). Even Ancient Egypt made use of wood. 

d. Leather . The Jewish Talmud specifically required that the Scriptures should be copied on the skins of animals, on leather. It is most certain, that the Old Testament was written on leather. Rolls or Scrolls were made by sewing skins together that were from 3 to 100 feet or more in length. The text was written in columns perpendicular to the roll. The rolls were 18-27 inches high and rolled on one or two sticks. 

e. Papyrus . It is almost certain that the New Testament was written on papyrus because it was the most important writing material at that time. Papyrus is made by shaving thin sections of the papyrus reed into strips, soaking them in several baths of water, and then overlapping them to form sheets. One layer of the strips was laid cross ways to the first. Then these were put in a press that they might adhere to each other. The sheets were made 6-15 inches high and 3-9 inches wide, pasted together, forming rolls that were usually 30 feet long, though one was found to be 144 feet in length. Our English word “paper” comes from the Greek word for papyrus. 

f. Vellum or Parchment . Vellum was developed in Pergammum (180 BC) when the king was refused any more Papyrus from Egypt to build his library. So he developed a new type of writing material through a new process for the treatment of skins. This was called vellum or parchment. From the skin of sheep or goats a fine quality of leather was specially and carefully prepared for writing on both sides. Most of the known manuscripts are on vellum. Later they were glued into book form, this was called a Codex . The codex made it possible to have much more Scripture in one place. 

(2) Writing Instruments 

Black ink was made from soot or lampblack and gum, diluted with water. The Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls, used burned lamb bones and oil. It is remarkable how well the writing has been preserved to this day. The ancient writing instruments were a chisel, for use on stone; a stylus made of metal or hard wood, for use on the clay tablets; and a pen, for use on papyrus or vellum. These pens were made from the hollow stalks of coarse grass or reeds. The dry reed was cut diagonally with a knife and shaved thin at the point, which was then split. In order to keep these in good condition, scribes carried a knife with them, a “penknife”. 

We need to realize that, as far as we know, none of the original manuscripts are in existence. Some may very well be discovered, but who knows? No material Biblical object has yet been found. 

(3) Manuscripts 

The word “manuscript”, as it is used today, is limited only to those copies of the Bible which were made in the same language as it originally written. At the time the Bible was first printed (1455 AD), there were over 2,000 manuscripts (copies of the original) discovered. Only some are complete, and some contain only small portions of the text, but put together a full text can be seen. At the present time, there are over 4,900 manuscripts of the New Testament. What is really amazing is that professors of Religion and History’ at Universities throughout the world discredit the Bible as history while they accept works with comparatively less copies. For example: 

* Homer’s “Iliad” (900 BC) – 643 copies; first copy found (400BC). 

* Titus Livy’s “History of Rome” (40 BC) has only 20 copies. 

Caesar’s “Gallic Wars” (65 BC) – 10 copies; first copy found (900 AD).

* Thucydides “Peloponnesian War” (410 BC) – 8 copies; first found (900 AD). 

* Plato’s “Tetralogies” (400 BC) – 7 copies; first copy found (900 AD). 

* Aristotle’s “Works” (350BC) – 49 copies; first copy found (1100 AD). 

New Testament (40-100 AD) – 4,969 copies; first copy found (125 AD). 

a. Old Testament Manuscripts 

The Masoretes . Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947 the earliest Old Testament Manuscript was dated at 895 AD. But the Dead Sea Scrolls reveal that the 895 AD. manuscript was virtually perfect. This means that the scribes copied perfectly, year after year, the Old Testament Scriptures. Let me briefly mention an interesting word about scribal customs: 

After the Jews returned from Babylon, they formed communities of scribes to preserve and circulate the precious Scriptures. These scribes, later called “Masoretes” were so careful that they wouldn’t write a word or even a letter from memory. They would be seated in full Jewish dress after having washed their bodies, and if a king should come in and address him he was not to look up. After the scribe finished copying a particular book, he would then count all the words and letters it contained. Then he checked this number with the count for the manuscript he was copying. If they didn’t match, the copy was immediately burned. In fact, the Masoretes destroyed all other manuscripts except their own and that is why we have so few Old Testament manuscripts. This is also why the Dead Sea Scrolls were so important. The main manuscripts that have been discovered are: 

* The Leningrad Codex or St. Petersburg Codex, written in 916 AD. 

* The Cairo Codex or Codex Cairensis, written in 895 AD. 

* The Aleppo Codex, written in 930 AD. 

* The British Museum Codex, written in 950 AD. 

The Dead Sea Scrolls 

In 1947, young Bedouin shepherds, searching for a stray goat in the Judean Desert, entered a long-untouched cave and found jars filled with ancient scrolls. That initial discovery by the Bedouins yielded seven scrolls and began a search that lasted nearly a decade and eventually produced thousands of scroll fragments from eleven caves. During those same years, archaeologists searching for a habitation close to the caves that might help identify the people who deposited the scrolls, excavated the Qumran ruin, a complex of structures located on a barren terrace between the cliffs where the caves are found and the Dead Sea. 

Within a fairly short time after their discovery, historical, paleographic, and linguistic evidence, as well as carbon-14 dating, established that the scrolls and the Qumran ruin dated from the third century B.C. to 68 A.D. They were indeed ancient! Coming from the late Second Temple Period, a time when Jesus of Nazareth lived, they are older than any other surviving biblical manuscripts by almost one thousand years. 

There have been about 350 rolls uncovered and this discovery has been considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of the twentieth century. Since their discovery nearly half a century ago, the scrolls and the identity of the nearby settlement have been the object of great scholarly and public interest, as well as heated debate and controversy. Why were the scrolls hidden in the caves? Who placed them there? Who lived in Qumran? Were its inhabitants responsible for the scrolls and their presence in the caves? 

Portions of every book of the Old Testament, with the exception of Esther, have been found. What’s really interesting are the scrolls of Isaiah , because one of the two that have been found gives the entire book of this great prophet, and it dates to before Jesus was born. That’s incredible! Here is a Hebrew manuscript of Isaiah 1,000 years older than our oldest manuscript (Masoretic) and confirming the accuracy of the Masoretic text of the Old Testament. 

b. The New Testament Manuscripts. 

There is much more abundant and accurate manuscript evidence for the New 

Testament than for any other book from the ancient world. Lets examine a few of these manuscripts: 

* The John Rylands Fragment (125 AD). This is a very small piece of papyrus only two and a half by three and a half inches in size. It contains 5 verses’ from the gospel of John and is the oldest manuscript of any part of the New Testament. It was obtained in 1920. 

* Papyrus Bodmer II (200 AD). These contain most of John and Luke, along with the books of Jude, and 1 & 2 Peter’. These manuscripts contain the earliest complete copies of New Testament books and are in substantial condition. 

* Codex Sinaiticus (340 AD). It is considered one of the two most important manuscripts in existence. In 1844 Dr. C. Tischendorf, a German Bible professor and scholar, at the monastery of St. Catherine at Mt. Sinai, found monks lighting their fires with this manuscript. When he rescued it, it contained the whole New Testament and half of the Old Testament in Greek. In 1933, the (USSR) sold it to the British Museum for 100,000 pounds ($500,000) where it is today. 

* Codex Vaticanus (350 AD). This manuscript as well as Sinaiticus were written on vellum. It contains most of the New and Old Testaments in Greek and the Apocrypha . It was discovered in 1475 and was brought to the Vatican Library where it is today. It is considered to be highly accurate and one of the two most important manuscripts in existence. 

* Codex Alexandrinus (450 AD). It contains much of the Old and New Testaments. Although it is one of the three greatest uncial (large capital letters) manuscripts, it does not measure up to the high standard of the other two, the Vatican and Sinaitic manuscripts. It is now in the British Museum in London.

* The total count of Greek manuscripts of the New Testament is now close to 5,000. The New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger counts: 76 Papyri, 250 uncials, 2,646 miniscule, and 1,997 lectionary (special reading) manuscripts. This would total 4,969. No other book in antiquity even compares, and that’s not even counting the different ancient versions such as the Septuagint , Samaritan Pentateuch, Syriac, and Latin versions, as well as the Jewish Targums, Talmud and Midrash. The evidence is overwhelming. 

* In fact, just the quotations of many of the church leaders who wrote during the first and second centuries AD. could compile an entire New Testament. Church leaders gave their testimony to authoritative books in the New Testament Canon: 

Clement of Rome (95), 

Ignatius (110), 

Polycarp (120), 

Irenaeus (150), 

Tertullian (190), 

Origen (200), 

Not every book is quoted by every leader, but every book is quoted as canonical by some leader. Norman Geisler said, “Five fathers alone possess almost 36,000 quotations from the New Testament.” 

In Conclusion 

The Bible is trustworthy. If anyone says, “How can we know if what we are reading today was really in the original?” you can know for sure that there is overwhelming evidence for the historicity of both the Old and New Testaments. Besides, God is fully able to preserve for us a pure and accurate account of the Word of God, and He has. 

Matthew 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 

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