Papyrus Manuscripts

You learned in school how the Egyptians took the pith from papyrus sedges and used it to make a writing product like paper. We study ancient Egyptian society because they were literate and left a lot of written records. Also, their dry climate preserves papyrus, so that Egypt has yielded a lot of ancient writings. This makes Egypt a favorite field of archaeological study.

Some of the most-studied artifacts of the ancient world are papyrus copies of New Testament books. Scholars study, debate, quarrel, and publish frequently regarding these precious bits of early Christian culture.

        Christian “book culture”

There are some interesting things that can be learned about the early Christians from their manuscripts. This is to pass along a few things I have learned that may be of use to some of you.


The ancient papyrus manuscripts of the New Testament books are spoken of by scholars according to index numbers that were assigned according to the order in which they were introduced to the academic world. The most important papyri are P45, which contains the Gospels, and P46, which contains the letters of Paul; and P47, which contains the Revelation of John. These are all dated to the early third century or earlier, and are referred to as part of the “Chester-Beatty papyri” which is a collection that A. Chester Beatty bought from sometimes sketchy antiquities dealers, making their provenance a mystery. P46 is dated really early, definitely before the year 200 AD, and maybe as early as the middle of the second century. There are other important manuscripts besides these, from the second and third centuries and later.

The New Testament books were overwhelmingly in the form of books instead of scrolls. The primitive form of bound book is referred to as a “codex” (plural “codices”). There are very few instances of Christian scriptures in the form of scrolls. When it came to the form of the book, Christians were early adopters.

Romans and Jews continued to use scrolls for literary works long after the Christians adopted the codex form for the Scriptures. Outside Christian circles, in the first two centuries AD, codices were mostly used for ledgers and business documents. P45, P46, and P47 are all codices.

Making reading easy

In other matters regarding written Greek, Christians were early adopters, or even perhaps innovators. Christians were early adopters of such things as spaces between sentences, and spaces between words, and spaces between lines, margin space, and punctuation. Historian Larry Hurtado made a very interesting inference from this. He said that it appears to be obvious that Christians were more interested than others in making their manuscripts easier to read for novice readers. The natural reason for this would be that there were lots of Christians who were novice readers who would want to be able to read these works out loud to others. This observation leads directly to Christians using these books in worship, with novice readers reading passages aloud as an element of worship. (Spaces at the ends of sentences or paragraphs are seen in some Jewish pre-Christian scrolls, so that is probably the origin of “reading aids” in Christian Scriptural texts.)

Hurtado made another interesting inference, which is that non-Christian Romans were deliberately making literacy difficult. This was a way to preserve separation of social classes. Long after Christians had made the Bible easier to read, copies of secular works in both Greek and Latin were being made without word spaces or punctuation.

In addition to word spaces and sentence spaces, many Christian manuscripts from the third and fourth centuries exhibit additional breaks, called “sense breaks.” These breaks are at intervals longer than paragraphs, and appear to be breaks used to divide the canonical books into sections for liturgical readings. Sense breaks are also seen in some pre-Christian Jewish scrolls of the scriptures. This further indicates the commonplace practice of reading these books aloud in worship, which is a mark of use as Scriptures. The readings in worship also explains why there are so many manuscripts of the canonical books compared to secular literary works. Every congregation wanted their own copy.

Early collections of New Testament books

You might have expected that the oldest copies of the New Testament books would be from a single book, say Romans or Matthew. But the oldest existing copies of entire books are from collections. (Since many of the manuscripts are only scraps or a handful of pages, it is frequently not possible to tell if a manuscript was part of a single book or a larger collection, so there is still some historical uncertainty on this point.)

The four Gospels were commonly bound together as a single book. P45 is the earliest example; it is a collection of the four Gospels plus Acts. (It was equally common for the four Gospels to be bound together without Acts.) The Gospel of John is always last, perhaps indicating that the other three Gospels were already common as a collection when it was added. Another collection that was in circulation was Acts plus the “General Epistles” (1 Peter, 2 Peter, James, 1 John, 2 John, 3 John, and Jude). The other important collection is the Letters of Paul. Revelation was circulated as a single book.

These collections of the New Testament books do not contain unorthodox writings. These collections do not include those Gnostic writings that the anti-Christians like to call “Alternative Christianities.” It was only after early Christians started making books with the entire New Testament that some non-canonical works are found in the collections. These are limited to the two epistles of Clement, the Shepherd, the Epistle of Barnabas, and the Didache, which are all orthodox works.

The only exception is not a manuscript, but the famous list called the “Muratorian Fragment,” (a list, not a book) dated to the late third century. The Muratorian Fragment includes the Wisdom of Solomon and the Apocalypse of Peter. The Apocalypse of Peter is the only book in these lists or collections that has heterodox content, and, where it does appear in the Muratorian Fragment, it is noted that it is not to be read in worship.

Collected books

I want to make the point that these codices were early in the development of book technology, and Christians were important to the development of books. The Christians were making larger books than anyone else when they went to make a collection of all the Gospels plus Acts, or a collection of the letters of Paul. Books of this length were pushing the limits of the book-making know-how of the first century.

Anti-Christians like to grandstand on the late date of the earliest complete New Testaments. Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus are the oldest complete manuscript copies of the entire New Testament, and they are both dated to the mid- fourth century. This does not mean that Christians only decided what books they considered to be Scripture at that time. It only means that it took until then to figure out how to make a book that long.

Previously, they bound their sacred books into smaller collections of books. In the second, third and fourth centuries, Roman secular literary works were still mainly on scrolls, as were the Jewish Scriptures.

Things I learned about primitive bookmaking include the planning for the layout of the pages. The pages can be bound more securely if a double-wide sheet with space for four pages (front and back) is folded over, and then the folded sheets are nested in groups called quires. When more than two sheets are nested, allowance needs to be made for the placement of the holes for the binding thread that they will be sewn with. If the pages are to look uniform, the margins have to be different on each sheet. The easiest way to make a book is to make the blank book and then write the copy, but that requires a very exacting calculation about lines and words to make sure the book will have enough room for the text. There are a lot of other bookmaking details involved in handwritten manuscripts that I found interesting.

Reference for citation

My primary reference for this post is a book by Larry Hurtado. The Earliest Christian Artifacts – Manuscripts and Christian Origins, published in 2006:

https://www.eerdmans.com/Products/2895/the-earliest-christian-artifacts.aspx

The entire book is highly interesting, though written in a scholarly manner. One of the most interesting parts is an exploration of the unanswered question as to why the first Christians were so determined to put their Scriptures on codex form instead of using scrolls. That is an intriguing mystery, and Dr. Hurtado presented and discussed theories by several scholars on that topic.

This scholarly work has lots of footnotes, but it is written in accessible language, and might be an interesting introduction to early Christian scholarship for an interested layperson. In addition to a discussion of the appearances of the texts, Dr. Hurtado also presents a lengthy discussion of book-making in the first three centuries. At his blog, Dr. Hurtado has commented on the manuscript fragments that have been introduced to science since the book was published, and has noted in blog posts that nothing has surfaced to change any of his conclusions. Rather, the recently introduced manuscript fragments are either neutral, or else reinforce Hurtado’s findings.

Scripture

The Christians of the second and third centuries circulated a collection of the Gospels, a collection of the letters of Paul, and a collection of Acts with the “General Epistles.” Otherwise, the evidence we have yields only Revelation and a handful of other examples of New Testament books bound as single books. The appearances of these ancient manuscripts reveal that the Christians were clearly treating these collections as Scripture, at least two centuries before they learned how to produce books long enough for complete copies of the entire New Testament.

You can disregard the popular anti-Christian myth that the early Christians did not decide which books were scripture until the third century or later. Christians were treating the New Testament books as sacred and using them in worship two hundred years before they started making copies of the entire New Testament, but that was just because of the limits of book assembly.

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20 thoughts on “Papyrus Manuscripts”

  1. The two illustrations are both of pages from P46. The one at the top is a sliver from a page in Hebrews chapter 1 that I found at the University of Michigan website. The one at the bottom is a page from 2 Corinthians that I copied from Wikipedia.

    Regarding the collected Gospels, Hurtado cites a number of scholars who believe a collection of the four Gospels was in use very early in the second century. The impressive group of historians he cites are Theo Heckel, James Kelhoffer, Charles Hill, Martin Hengel, Graham Stanton and Arthur Bellinzoni. The reference in 2 Peter 3:15-16 to “all of Paul’s writings” has been interpreted to mean a collection of Paul’s epistles in very early circulation. Depending on whether the Christian or anti-Christian view is to be accepted, this citation would be as early as the mid-60s or as late as the 120s AD.

    Another remark from Dr. Hurtado is that the writings of the ante-Nicene Fathers include a number of commentaries. These commentaries are all written about canonical books, and not written about non-canonical books.

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  2. Alfred Chester Beatty, the collector who bought some of the key ancient manuscripts, was an interesting guy. The son of a New York banker, he became a mining engineer and made a small fortune in Colorado. After his wife died, he moved the kids to London, where he started a mining investment business and turned a small fortune into a large fortune. He remarried, retired to Dublin, and began a collection that became the Chester Beatty Library. If you go to Dublin, check it out. It is an impressive collection that I hope to view some day.

    https://chesterbeatty.ie/

    Take a look at the current special exhibit on Manichaeism.

    https://chesterbeatty.ie/exhibitions/the-mystery-of-mani/

     

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  3. Somewhere I read that archeological digs have uncovered a stone inscription with parts of John on it that is dated about 68 AD. Another stone in Iran mentions one of Nebekanezer’s ministers by name, also mentioned in the Old Testament. I take these kinds of thing to mean that the bible is an accurate historical recitation.

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  4. Devereaux:
    Somewhere I read that archeological digs have uncovered a stone inscription with parts of John on it that is dated about 68 AD. Another stone in Iran mentions one of Nebekanezer’s ministers by name, also mentioned in the Old Testament. I take these kinds of thing to mean that the bible is an accurate historical recitation.

    Archaeology is really interesting, but the specific field of Biblical archaeology is especially fascinating.  Ever since it became systematic and scientific, there have been many findings that corroborate biblical narratives.

    Hurtado’s book was aimed at historians of the early Christian period.  He was calling their attention to things that can be learned from the attributes of the ancient manuscripts.   These interesting bits of evidence were confined in the silo of papyrology and were being neglected by other scholars, who were focused on the texts to the exclusion of all else.

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  5. 10 Cents:
    How does modern paper differ from papyrus? Does anyone still make it?

    Modern paper is mostly pureed pine trees poured out into thin sheets and dried.   The paper surface is very smooth.

    High quality modern paper has a fractional content of cotton added to the puree.   Cotton fibers are thin but relatively strong.   They add a little bit of texture and a lot of strength and durability to paper.

    Papyrus pith contains lots of little fibers.   They are shorter than cotton fibers, and relatively thick.   When papyrus is made into writing material, it gets crushed but not pureed, so that it retains texture.  The puree is raked because the fibers are so coarse that the final product needs to have the fibers all going in the same direction.   When you get the final product, one side will be a little bumpy; that was the top side while the sheet was drying.   It is harder to write on, so the scribe has to go slowly and deliberately.  When writing on that side, more ink gets absorbed, which makes palimpsests last for many centuries.

    You can buy a sheet of papyrus writing stationery at any good comprehensive crafts shop.

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  6. Fascinating stuff!  My son recently received his MDiv from Seattle Pacific Seminary and plans on continuing on to achieve a PhD in Theology – wants to be a prof.

    One of his primary focus points has been the Apocrypha, specifically on what the Protestant denominations have missed out on by completely rejecting the books.  His Masters Thesis was on the Prayer of Manasseh which he is in the process of attempting to have published.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I did a copy & paste of your original post and emailed it to him to get his thoughts on it.  I often joke that when he starts talking about his subject matter and throws out words such as “exegesis”, I respond with something like “so what do you think of the latest development in functionality on Carrier Sequential Tendering in the LTL marketplace?”

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  7. Great Adventure:
    Fascinating stuff!  My son recently received his MDiv from Seattle Pacific Seminary and plans on continuing on to achieve a PhD in Theology – wants to be a prof.

    One of his primary focus points has been the Apocrypha, specifically on what the Protestant denominations have missed out on by completely rejecting the books.  His Masters Thesis was on the Prayer of Manasseh which he is in the process of attempting to have published.

    I have read the Apocryphal books, and find them to be really inconsistent.   Tobit sounds like a fairy tale to me, and Second Maccabees sounds like those medieval miracle tales.   But First Maccabees and Baruch and Wisdom of Sirach all seem legit.   Judith is an awful lot like Esther.

    Luther said they were all worth reading, but agreed with Jerome about their lack of Inspiration.   Luther’s German translation collected the apocryphal books at the back.   That was how Bibles were published by Protestant publishers for a long time afterwards.   It is only a little over two hundred years ago that Bibles began to be published without those books.

    I hope you don’t mind, but I did a copy & paste of your original post and emailed it to him to get his thoughts on it.  I often joke that when he starts talking about his subject matter and throws out words such as “exegesis”, I respond with something like “so what do you think of the latest development in functionality on Carrier Sequential Tendering in the LTL marketplace?”

    I would be really happy to receive any feedback on my posts.   Informed feedback from a scholar would be especially useful.   Snooks is encouraging me to submit this one to our denominational magazine, and I may do that.

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  8. MJBubba:
    Modern paper is mostly pureed pine trees poured out into thin sheets and dried. The paper surface is very smooth.

    Tech note from a papermaker:  Your typical copy/laser printer paper is a blend of pine fibers and hardwood fibers.  The former for strength, the latter for a smooth finish.  (Longer/larger vs. shorter/smaller.)  Some clay or calcium carbonate is added to provide more surface for ink to adhere.  Inkjet paper has even more clay.

    Paper is made in a continuous sheet, not individual pieces, by an extrusion-like process onto a moving mesh.  The flow vs. mesh pace is carefully controlled so the fibers settle into random directions. Thin, glossy magazine paper has much less pine fiber, and a follow-up process polishes the surface.

    High quality modern paper has a fractional content of cotton added to the puree. Cotton fibers are thin but relatively strong. They add a little bit of texture and a lot of strength and durability to paper.

    Cotton is too expensive for all but the pickiest specialty writing papers.  I’ve worked in many paper mills, and have yet to encounter one them using cotton.  It is a niche market.  For which one pays through the nose.

    [/end tech note.  Back to the awesome topic…]

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  9. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washi

    Washi (和紙) is traditional Japanese paper. The word “washi” comes from wa meaning ‘Japanese’ and shi meaning ‘paper’. The term is used to describe paper that uses local fiber, processed by hand and made in the traditional manner. Washi is made using fibers from the inner bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub (Edgeworthia chrysantha), or the paper mulberry (kōzo) bush. [1] As a Japanese craft, it is registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.[2]

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  10. John Walker:
    Here is a demonstration of papyrus making at the Papyrus Museum at Giza, Egypt.

    Thanks.   That is a really interesting video.

    In the video, the docent showed weaving the papyrus slices, but that was not part of the process in Bible times.   When the slices are woven, then the face of each sheet has alternating parts with fibers going vertical and fibers going horizontal.  Her product will be sheets that look like little checkerboards.

    What the second- and third-century manuscripts look like is that the strips were all laid side by side going one way, then a second layer of strips laid the other way.  Then they were pressed, leaving the edges on right and left sides so they could be interleaved and ironed to connect the sheets into long rolls.   The result is one side has the fibers going horizontal, and the other side has the fibers going vertical.

    The writing of a scroll is on the side with the fibers going horizontal, since that makes for easier writing.   That is the “front” side, called “recto” (the “right side”), and the sheets were pressed so that it turned out smoother than the back.  The back side is called “verso” and becomes the outside of a scroll.   (Sometimes a scroll was written on both sides, at least sometimes because new rolls were unavailable, perhaps because of cost, or perhaps because of war.)

    When making a book, or codex, then the writing goes on both sides.   Some ancient codices appear to have had their pages cut from a roll, by which I mean that, instead of the papyrus sheets pressed for the purpose of making a book, they had been formed into a roll, then purchased and cut into pages in order to make the book.

    Modern papyrus sheets that you purchase are mostly made for crafts people, so they mimic the ancient product.   But you can get a more modern version of papyrus that is made by turning the pith into a slurry and producing the writing stationery in a process that is more like paper.   (I have not seen those, but simply read about them.)

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  11. Phil Turmel:
    Tech note from a papermaker:

    Thanks for the detailed info.   I don’t know how rare it may be, but I can agree that stationery with cotton content is expensive stuff.   I encountered it when I stopped in at an art supply store with a calligrapher.

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  12. 10 Cents:
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washi

    Washi (和紙) is traditional Japanese paper. The word “washi” comes from wa meaning ‘Japanese’ and shi meaning ‘paper’. The term is used to describe paper that uses local fiber, processed by hand and made in the traditional manner. Washi is made using fibers from the inner bark of the gampi tree, the mitsumata shrub (Edgeworthia chrysantha), or the paper mulberry (kōzo) bush. [1] As a Japanese craft, it is registered as a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.[2]

    The Japanese have an entire culture of writing that amounts to a very structured calligraphy.  They have paid a lot of attention to papermaking.   The best quality stationery we have in my house is beautiful Japanese stationery we received as a gift from our expat extra son who lives in Himeji Prefecture.   It gets used only for special occasions; handwritten notes of grief or congratulations to special family members.

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  13. 10 Cents:
    One of the first reading material was reeding material. The papyrus is a reedlike plant.

    “Reed” is a word that gets used to refer to any water plant.   When someone talks about “reeds,” they might mean rushes or sedges or grasses or other water plants.

    “Sedges have edges

    and rushes are round.

    Grasses have knees

    that go down to the ground.”

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  14. MJBubba:I have read the Apocryphal books, and find them to be really inconsistent.

    As a thought experiment, have you considered that the inconsistency could be eliminated in some other way than by removing the books? As just one example, it could be eliminated by removing the book in the NT that the deuterocanonical book seems to contradict. Again, as a thought experiment why not do that instead?

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  15. JJ:

    MJBubba:I have read the Apocryphal books, and find them to be really inconsistent.

    As a thought experiment, have you considered that the inconsistency could be eliminated in some other way than by removing the books? As just one example, it could be eliminated by removing the book in the NT that the deuterocanonical book seems to contradict. Again, as a thought experiment why not do that instead?

    I cannot think of any direct conflicts between the Deuterocanon with any New Testament passages.   The one thing that I am aware of is prayers for the dead, but that is not a direct conflict; it is just absent from the New Testament.

    Rather, the style and tone just seem “off.”   1 and 2 Maccabees describe miracles and courage and faith in the resurrection and seem worthy.

    It is the flamboyant, fantastical nature of the miracles in Tobit that puts me off.   Judith sort of reads like Esther, so that is not off-putting.

    I don’t think those books need to be deleted.   I just agree with Jerome and Luther that they should not be used in worship, and they seem not to be inspired in the way that the rest of the canonical Scriptures are.

    I know that much has been made of the fact that the apocryphal books were written in Aramaic or Greek and not Hebrew, but I don’t see how that is a distinction that would be a positive indicator that they are not inspired.

    As for your thought experiment, the suggested removal of any of the apostolic witnesses to our Lord Jesus is a non-starter.

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