“This word came to Jeremiah from the Lord: Take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken to you” (Jer. 36.1–2). This passage illustrates the various words in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin translated into English as “book,” “scroll,” or “roll.” In the Hebrew phrase mĕgillat sēper, the word mĕgillâ designates a roll. While the word sēper seems to mean “book” in this and other passages, it can also designate a letter, a legal or private document, or even an inscription. The Septuagint (LXX) renders the Hebrew phrase with the Greek chartion bibliou, “roll of a book.” The word chartēs and its diminutive chartion designated paper made from the papyrus plant; both could be used for a piece of paper of any size, including a roll. Biblos was the Greek name for the papyrus plant; biblos and its diminutive biblion acquired the transferred meanings of a roll of paper made from the papyrus plant and the work written on a papyrus roll, that is, a book; the word “bible” is also derived from biblos. The Vulgate uses the Latin phrase volumen libri, “roll of a book.” Volumen comes from the verb volvo, “to roll,” and so refers originally to the form of the writing material. Liber designated the bark or inner rind of a tree; thus, from the supposed use of tree bark as a primitive writing material, liber came to be the standard Latin word for “book.”
The phrases used in all three languages point to the roll as the standard form of the “book,” at least for longer and more formal texts. The reader needed both hands to handle a roll, one to unroll a new section for reading, the other to roll up the section already read. Luke's account of Jesus' visit to the synagogue at Nazareth mentions this procedure: “He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…’ And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down” (Luke 4.16–20).
A roll might be made up of sheets either of papyrus or animal skin. Papyrus is a marsh plant (Cyperus papyrus) which grew at various spots in Africa and the Near East, including the Sea of Galilee in Israel; but the commercial production of paper from the papyrus plant was probably always the monopoly of the Nile Valley of Egypt. Two layers of strips from the soft interior of the plant, with the upper layer at a right angle to the one below, were pressed together; this pressing released a natural gummy substance which bonded together the strips and layers. Finished dried sheets of paper would then be glued together into a roll. Animal skins (primarily of sheep, goats, and cattle) might be tanned to produce leather, or they might undergo a more complicated process of washing, depilating, soaking in lime, and stretching and drying on a frame, to produce parchment. To form a roll, the sheets of skin would be sewn together.
The Septuagint phrase chartion bibliou suggests that the Greeks preferred papyrus as a writing material. In Palestine, however, the preferred material seems to have been animal skin, at least for the writing of the scriptures. The great majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, are on skin. The reasons for this preference are unclear; it may simply be that animal skins were available locally, while papyrus had to be imported from Egypt. The Talmud apparently reflects earlier tradition when it directs that the Torah be written on animal skin, saying this rule was given to Moses at Sinai.
The writing instrument used since early pharaonic Egypt was a reed that had been chewed or frayed to produce a brush. The Greeks preferred a reed pen with a split nib, resembling a modern fountain pen. The simplest form of black ink was made by mixing soot or lampblack with gum.
Other writing materials are mentioned in the Bible or are known from archaeology. Public documents that were to be preserved or displayed might be inscribed on stone (as were the Ten Commandments) or on bronze plates (as was the decree honoring Simon the high priest, 1 Macc. 14.48). For school lessons, rough drafts, record keeping, and other temporary or personal documents, wood tablets with wax surfaces were used. The tablets consisted of two or more boards hinged to close flat. Wax filled a recess formed by a raised ridge. A stylus made of metal, wood, or bone served as the writing instrument; one end was sharpened to incise the wax, while the other end was blunt or flattened to rub out mistakes and resmooth the surface. The prophets Isaiah and Habakkuk may have recorded their oracles on such tablets (Isa. 30.8; Hab. 2.2), and the mute Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, asked for a writing tablet to write the name of his son (Luke 1.63).
These writing tablets with their hinges and multiple leaves resembled a modern book; and the Latin name for a set of wooden writing tablets, codex (from caudex, “block of wood”), became the name of the modern book form. By the late first century CE, the Romans had devised another type of notebook, consisting of sheets of parchment sewed or fastened together at the spine. The Romans called these notebooks membranae (“skins”). Paul seems to refer to such parchment notebooks when he asks Timothy to bring him a cloak left behind at Troas, “also the books, and above all the parchments” (2 Tim 4.13).
Two other writing materials were used in antiquity. Clay tablets were the principal medium for cuneiform, the writing system of wedge‐shaped signs that originated in Mesopotamia. A broad‐headed stylus was used to impress the signs on wet clay tablets; those tablets with temporary texts, such as letters and receipts, were baked in the sun, while those containing laws, history, or literary works were fired in a kiln to make them more durable. Fragments of broken pottery, called ostraca (from their Greek name), were free for the picking in ancient rubbish heaps and provided a cheap and convenient medium for writing notes or receipts.
Christianity brought with it a startling change in ancient bookmaking, namely, the rise of the codex; see Colin H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London, 1983). A codex—the form of modern books—is a collection of sheets fastened at the back or spine, usually protected by covers. By the second century CE, the papyrus codex had become the exclusive form for the books of the Christian Bible. For the Jewish scriptures, on the other hand, the roll continued to be the only acceptable form; in the case of Greek literature, the codex achieved parity with the roll about 300 CE and then surpassed it in popularity.
The reasons for the Christian adoption of the codex form remain a matter for speculation. The practical advantages of the codex over the roll seem obvious to the reader accustomed only to the modern book. The codex ought to have been less expensive, since it uses both sides of the writing material, while the roll rarely used both sides; for the same reason, the codex is more compact, therefore easier to store; and its compactness would allow the collection in one volume of previously separate texts. The roll seems cumbersome to read, given the need to unroll and reroll it. Such practical considerations must have played a role in the triumph of the codex in non‐Christian as well as in Christian literature; yet they seem insufficient to explain (in the words of Roberts and Skeat) the “instant and universal” adoption of the codex by Christians as early as 100 CE. Pointing to the Jewish custom of committing isolated decisions of the oral law or rabbinic sayings to tablets or small rolls, Roberts and Skeat suggest that papyrus tablets similarly were used to record the oral law as pronounced by Jesus and that these tablets developed into a primitive form of codex. In whatever way the papyrus codex first came into being and came to be used for Christian texts, Christians may have favored the codex because its use differentiated them from Jews and other non‐Christians.
T. Keith Dix