What risks did the written word of God run?
How were the Scriptures written in the earliest days? When you have read this, you will understand the dangers of loss and corruption and how absolutely necessary was the protection of the Church for these documents not to be completely destroyed.
Various materials were used for writing in ancient times – e.g. stone, pottery, bark of trees, leather, and clay tablets. But before Christianity and for a long time after the time of Christ, papyrus was used. It was formed of the bark of the reed or bulrush, which once grew plentifully on the banks of the river Nile. It was first split into layers, and then glued by overlapping the edges, and another layer glued to this at right angles to prevent splitting. After sizing and drying, it formed a suitable writing surface. Thousands of rolls of papyrus have been found in Egyptian and Babylonian tombs, preserved because they were buried or at least kept safe from rough handling. Many copies of the Bible were originally written on this papyrus, but none have survived.
Because it was so fragile, papyrus fell into disuse and the skins of animals came to be used. This material had two names. If it was made out of the skin of sheep or goats, it was called parchment. If it was made out of the skin of delicate young calves, it was called vellum, which was much more expensive.
One result of it being expensive was that the same sheet of vellum was made to do duty twice over. It became what is called a palimpsest, which means “rubbed again”. A scribe, say, of the tenth century, unable to buy a new supply of vellum, would take a sheet containing, perhaps, a writing of the second century, which had become worn through age and difficult to read. He would wash or scrape out the old ink, and use the surface over again for copying out some other work. It goes without saying that the writing blotted out was often of far greater value than that which replaced it.
The process of erasing out the ancient ink was seldom done so perfectly that all traces of it were removed, and some strokes of the ancient handwriting might often be seen peeping out from beneath the more modern writing. About 300 years ago, it was noticed that a soiled and stained vellum containing the theological writings of St. Ephraem, an old Syrian Father, was showing dim traces and faint lines of some older writing beneath. After some work on it, what should appear but a most ancient and valuable copy of Holy Scriptures in handwriting of not later than the 5th. century! It was bought into France by Queen Catherine de Medici and is now safe in the national library in Paris. It contains two works, one written on top of the other with a period of 700 years between them!
What kind of pen and ink did they have? Well, what they used has helped us a lot. A metal pen, or stylus, was used for writing on vellum. The strokes of these pens may still be seen quite clearly on the parchment, even though all trace of the ink has vanished.
The writing was of two distinct kinds, one called uncial (meaning an inch), consisting entirely of capital letters, with no connexion between the letters, and no space between words at all. The other style, which came later, was cursive (meaning a running) like our ordinary handwriting, with capitals only at the beginning of sentences. In this case the letters are joined together and there is space between words. The uncial style was prevalent for the first 300 years of Christianity. The cursive began in the 4th. century and continued until the invention of printing.
What led to difficulties and mistakes was the fact that there was no division into chapters and verses, and no full stops or commas, to let you know where one sentence began and the next finished. So you can see how easy it was to have inaccuracies or conflicting readings. We are familiar with the division into chapters in our modern Bibles, but it was the invention either of Cardinal Hugo, a Dominican, in 1248, or of Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, who died in 1227. A man called Robert Stephens first divided chapters into verses, and the first English version like this was printed in 1560.
It is not easy to say precisely when a manuscript was written. Sometimes the handwriting gives us a clue, sometimes the pictures drawn in the text. But they are marvels of human skill and workmanship: manuscripts of every kind; old parchments all stained and worn; books of faded purple lettered with silver, their pages all beautifully designed and ornamented; bundles of finest vellum, yellow with age, but still bright with the gold and vermilion painted on by hands 1000 years ago. They are scattered throughout the libraries and museums of Europe with their astonishing beauty, clearness, and regularity of their lettering, and the incomparable illumination of their capitals and headings. All are so lovely that they are priceless today. They were all produced in convents and monasteries.
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How we got the Bible copyright © 2004 Fr. Francis Jamieson. For more about Fr. Francis, click here