Mysteries of the Bible

"Unanswered Questions of the Bible"

Papyrus: Paper From The Nile

Posted by foryourfaith on December 23, 2011

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In Bible times, tall, slender papyrus reeds grew in defense clusters along the River Nile. You will not find them growing wild along the Nile today because civilization destroyed their natural habitat, ironic, since papyrus nourished human civilization by providing a great way for people to communicate and preserve their history.

Papyrus was the world’s first lightweight, inexpensive and durable writing material. That assured it a major role in the story of the Bible. In fact, many of the oldest copies of Bible books, including some of the Dead Sea Scrolls that are more than 2,000 years old, survive on paper made from papyrus reeds.

By about 3000 BC, Egyptians discovered they could make paper from the columns of soft, mushy pith inside papyrus reed stems. These reeds grew throughout the Mediterranean, but the papyrus reeds in Egypt were best suited to making paper for two reasons. First, the supply seemed endless – especially in the Nile Delta. Second, stems of the Egyptian plants were biggest: five meters (10 to 15 feet) high and up to five centimeters (two inches) thick. This meant Egypt had pretty much a monopoly on the industry.

As ancient wall paintings show, men harvested papyrus reeds by pulling them from the river bottom and hauling them in bunches on their back. Craftsman then cut the stems into short sections of about a third of a meter (one foot) long, or a little longer. Next they cut away the outside layer of the stem, exposing the soft cylinder of white pith inside.

The pith, still moist, was then sliced lengthwise into thin strips, normally about one to three centimeters (a quarter of an inch to one and quarter inches) wide. These strips could be dried and stored for use later, or they could be immediately worked into papyrus sheets.

To make a sheet, strips were laid side by side on a hard surface, such as a board. The parallel strips were just touching or slightly overlapping. Then a second row was laid on top, with its strips running crossways to the first layer. Craftsman then hammered and pressed the moistened strips until the pith fibers intertwined, binding the two layers. Afterwards, the sheets were dried in the sun, forming a strong, flexible, creamy white writing surface.

Scribes could write on individual papyrus sheets. But the sheets were often glued end to end with flour paste to form a scroll, or roll, generally about 20 sheets long. Scribes preferred to use the side with the horizontal strips, so they could move their pens with the grain. But many ancient papyrus scrolls have writing on both sides.

Ink was made of natural minerals that did not fade easily. The clearly legible writing on the Dead Sea Scrolls written centuries before the time of Jesus is a tribute to the quality of the ink.

Black ink came from carbon deposits, such as soot scraped off lamp tops or pot bottoms. Carbon also came from charcoal or burnt bones ground into a fine powder. Whatever the carbon source, it was mixed with a binding agent such as gum Arabic, a water soluble sap from acacia trees. This mixture was dried into small cakes. When a scribe was ready to write, he rubbed a moistened pen or brush over the ink cake.

Scribes commonly used red ink as well. It was made from iron oxide, red ochre or other minerals found in the soil.

When scribes made a writing mistake, they could erase the fresh ink by wiping it with water. If the ink had already dried, they could scrape it away with a rock. These methods of erasing worked because dried papyrus plant juices form a protective barrier on the surface of the sheet, keeping the ink from sinking deep into the fibers.

Pens first used for writing on papyrus paper were more like small paintbrushes. They were cut from rushes, tiny plants that grew in the marsh. The pens were cut to different lengths, often anywhere from about 15 to 40 centimeters (6 to 15 inches). Scribes would chew on the pen tip to loosen the tiny fibers and form them into a delicate brush.

When the scribes wrote, they looked more like artists at work because they did not generally rest their hands on the sheet, but held the pen like a brush against a canvas. By New Testament times, writers used reeds sharpened to a point and split like a quill pen. Pens and dried cakes of ink were often kept together in long, narrow pen boxes made of wood. Ink cakes were also kept in small stone inkwells.

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The Bible’s Name

The Bible owes its name to papyrus. Greeks called the papyrus rolls biblia, after Phoenicia’s seaport of Byblos – a major exporter of papyrus. In time, the word came to mean “book” and eventually “the Book,” the Bible.

 

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