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The Mechanics of Scripture: Materials Used to Write the Bible

Freelance author with broad knowledge concerning the fields of political philosophy and social psychology.

Papyrus Showing Matthew Chapter 1

Papyrus Showing Matthew Chapter 1

The Mechanics of the Scriptures Involve:

  1. The need for a developed system of writing
  2. Materials to write on
  3. Writing instruments
  4. A means by which to organize the written material into a readable format
  5. An easily referenced reading format

The Development of Writing

Writing appears to have been invented early in the fourth millennium BC. There were three stages in the early development of writing:

1. Pictograms – drawings used to depict their respective object.

  • (ex: a drawing of the sun to mean "sun")

2. Ideograms – drawings used to depict ideas rather than objects.

  • (ex: a drawing of the sun to mean "heat")

3. Phonograms – drawings used to depict sounds rather than objects or ideas.

  • (ex: drawings of the sun used to depict a "son")

There is ample evidence that by the second millennium BC the alphabet and written documents were beginning to develop, particularly in the area of Palestine. Thus, it is fully plausible that Moses, a man raised by the royal Egyptian family, was not only quite literate but was also likely to be fully capable of setting the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament) into written form as is traditionally attributed to him. Some of the evidence for early writing in the area of Palestine is listed below.

Evidence for Early Writing in Palestine

  • Mesha Stele – the Moabite Stone of Mesha, king of Moab (850 BC)
  • Zayit Stone – wall inscriptions (950 BC)
  • Eridu Genesis (2100 BC)
  • Epic of Gilgamesh (2300 BC)
  • Early Eqyptian Papyrus (2500 BC)
  • Instructions of Kagemi (2700 BC)
  • The Teaching of Ptah-Hotep (2700 BC)

The Writing Materials Used for the Ancient Scriptures

Essentially, there were four common types of materials used to pen or inscribe writings in the ancient world; however, it should be noted that a truly wide variety of materials were used for this purpose. Some of the materials noted in the Scriptures and routinely used in the ancient world are listed below:

  • Clay (Jer. 17:13; Ezek. 4:1)
  • Stone (Ex. 24:12, 31:18, 32:15-16, 34:1; Deut. 5:22; Josh. 8:31-32)
  • Papyrus – reeds glued together (2 John 12; Rev. 5:1)
  • Vellum, Parchment, Leather – animal skins (2 Tim. 4:13)
  • Miscellaneous Items – metal, wax, potsherds, etc. (Ex. 28:9, 28:36; Job 2:8, 19:24; Isa. 8:1, 30:8; Hab. 2:2)

Writing Instruments Used for the Ancient Scriptures

The Scriptures mention five instruments that were used by the ancients for the purposes of writing or inscribing words:

  1. Stylus – a three-sided instrument with a beveled head used to carve into clay or wax tablets. Also called a "pen" in Jeremiah 17:1
  2. Chisel – a chisel was used to inscribe words into stone. Also called an "iron stylus" or an "iron pen" in Job 19:24 (see also Josh. 8:31-32).
  3. Pen – a pen was used to write on papyrus, vellum, leather, and parchment. (3 John 13)
  4. Penknife – used to sharpen a writer's pen once it became dull. It was used to destroy a scroll in Jeremiah 36:23
  5. Inkhorn and ink – the container and fluid employed in use with the pen.

Composition of Ink

The Hebrews used ink made of four ingredients: gall-nuts, a gum base made from the acacia tree, water, and magnesium and copper sulfates; sometimes honey was added as well to thicken the ink mixture.

The ink used by the Greek scribes for writing on papyrus with their reed pens was a carbon-based ink, black in color, and made from soot, gum, and water. Another kind of ink was devised later on since this kind of ink did not stick very well to parchment. This latter ink was composed of pulverized nut-galls (oak-galls), water, iron-sulfur, and gum arabic.

Reading Materials

Egypt provided the ancient world with its famous papyrus, made from the stalks of a reed plant. As the papyrus was imported into Greece through the Phoenician harbor of Byblos, the Greeks began to call a book biblios. The word Bible is derived from its plural ta biblia, "the books," and the Greek word for library biblioth ē k ē meant "a container for a book." Papyri sheets were normally written on one side, and they could be attached together to form long scrolls (an Egyptian papyrus roll could be over 100 feet in length). Greek papyri rolls were generally shorter. The longer books of the New Testament, such as Matthew or Acts, would require a 30-foot scroll.

The Jews, Greeks, and Romans used papyri and parchments in scroll form. The papyrus reed was split into thin strips which were arranged in two layers at right angles and then pressed together and polished to form a smooth surface. Then the sheets were glued together to form long continuous strands, and wrapped around cylindrical shafts made of wood or bone to form scrolls. When an individual wished to read the scroll they would unroll the material from one shaft and as they progressed through the text they would begin to roll the material onto the other shaft; creating a scrolling action.

Christians, perhaps as early as the first century, began to use the codex form, that is, the folding of several sheets of parchment in a "book" form. The word codex (codices, plural) comes from the Latin meaning "tree trunk." A codex was made by stacking sheets of parchment and fastening them together with leather thongs inserted in holes bored along one side.

Scrolls, codices, and other forms of important writings were stored in ancient libraries or the archives of palaces and temples. The use of archives and libraries was restricted to priests, scribes, and other dignitaries. Though powerful individuals like the Roman emperor could borrow books, most libraries did not permit books to circulate. An inscription from Athens reads: "No book shall be taken out, since we have sworn thus, [The library will be] open from the first hour (of daylight) until the sixth."

In addition to the collection and storage of scrolls and codices in temples and palaces, there were often smaller private library collections, and to a lesser extent, some circulated works. Copies of the Scriptures would have been found in all of the aforementioned categories and locations.

The Divisions of the Text (Chapters, Verses, Etc.)

The chapter and verse divisions found in the modern Bible were not present in the original texts, but were added much later. The development of these divisions occurred over the course of a period of approximately two-thousand years.

Old Testament

  1. Palestinian sections were begun prior to Babylonian captivity (586 BC). These sections were called sedarim (sedar , singular), and were one-hundred fifty-four divisions of the Pentateuch designed for reading on the Sabbath Day in 3-year cycles.
  2. Babylonian sections came into being during the Babylonian captivity (prior to 536 BC) when the Torah (law books) was divided into fifty-four parashiyyoth (parashah, singular), which were further subdivided into six-hundred sixty-nine sections for reference purposes at a later date. These divisions were designed to be read on the Sabbath Day in yearly cycles.
  3. Maccabean sections appeared around 165 BC and were fifty-four divisions corresponding with the sedarim of the law. These covered the books of the prophets and were called haphtarahs.
  4. Reformation sections are the final divisions that were added to the Hebrew Bible following the Protestant Reformation of the Christian Church. These are, for the most part, the same divisions found in the Old Testament. In 1571 the first edition (the Arias Montanus edition) of the Hebrew Bible appeared with both chapter and verse divisions.

New Testament

  1. Ancient sections, or divisions, by chapter and verse, were non-existent; however, a very early division into paragraphs referred to as kephalaia is evident.
  2. Modern sections were first added as chapters in the Bible in 1228 AD by Stephen Langton. This was followed by the addition of verses by Robert Stephanus between 1551 AD and 1557 AD.

The modern chapter and verse divisions introduced by Langton and Stephanus are the same divisions in use today.


Johan Smulders from East London, South Africa on January 23, 2020:

Interesting and well researched article on an important subject. We often have a very simplistic view of the Bible believing that it always existed as it does today. Thanks!

Lisa on April 18, 2019:

Would the writes of the Gospel written rough drafts?

Catherne on December 13, 2018:

Very informative, concise, helpful article. Thanks

Gregory Jones from IL on February 13, 2015:

Very interesting with a lot of info I didn't know. I was particularly interested in the inks and writing instruments. It is a wonder some of the copies of Scripture have lasted as long as they have using only these simple items.

Mandrake_1975 (author) from Pennsylvania on October 27, 2012:

Thank you! I have an interest in all things historical, spiritual, theological, and philosophical.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on October 13, 2012:

I enjoyed your overview of early writing and how it might have been used for the Bible. interesting and sharing.

Tamarajo on April 06, 2011:

enjoyed this historical look at writing. I feel the same as the ancients did about checking out books. I haven't resorted to not allowing it yet but I'm pretty strict about getting them back. text can be timeless and priceless as we see with the scriptures.

Enjoyed your hub.