The Material of the Greek Manuscripts

 •  10 min. read  •  grade level: 10
THE first thing is the material on which the copies were written. In the word itself we read (2 John 1212Having many things to write unto you, I would not write with paper and ink: but I trust to come unto you, and speak face to face, that our joy may be full. (2 John 12)) of "paper and ink." This alludes most probably to the papyrus of Egypt. This was known to have been used before the time of Christ; but being frail and brittle, it did not endure the ravages of time. The specimens now in existence owe their preservation to being buried in tombs or ruins of cities.
The rolls found in the tombs had been placed under the arms or between the legs of the deceased, and sometimes on the stomach. There seems to be no doubt that these rolls were considered somewhat like passports to bliss. In the collection of Trinity College, Dublin, there is a papyrus which contains a rubric to this effect, as interpreted by Dr. Hincks: "If this book be recited on the earth, and this chapter be put in writing upon a person's coffin, he shall be manifested in the light with all the honors due to him: when he goes to his house he shall not be turned back; there shall be given to him bread, liquors, and the choicest meats on the altar of Osiris; and he shall go to the fields of Aalon." From this we learn that the delusions of Satan not only embraced the quieting of the conscience for time but extended to a hope of eternal bliss. How blessed to be delivered from his delusions!
There was a good trade done in the funeral papyri. Many are preserved which prove that they were prepared beforehand, and a blank left for the person's name, which in some cases has been filled up evidently by a different hand from the body of the writing, while in some cases the name was not inserted from some cause, and the blanks remain to this day.
This papyrus was made from an Egyptian plant. Underneath the coarse exterior rind of the plant lie a number of successive thin layers of the inner cuticle, about twenty in number. These were separated from each other, and two of them pasted together transversely, then pressed, dried, and polished. By joining the leaves together they were made into a long roll.
There are no manuscripts of the Greek Testament now in existence on the papyrus, (except a few leaves containing a portion of 1 Cor. 6, 7) nor in the form of rolls; but this particular form explains the "book" referred to in Rev. 5 It will be noticed that this is said to be "written within and on the back side." It was usual to write only on one side of the roll, which was placed on two rollers. One was held in each hand, and by gradually unrolling with one hand, and rolling up with the other, the entire manuscript could be read. It was the duty of the librarian to re-roll them ready for the next reader, as of course they could only be read one way. But it occasionally happened that the whole writing could not be got in on one side, and in that case a portion was written on the back. The roll in the Revelation, being written within and on the back, pointed out the full revelation God was going to make of His future actings.
Another point of interest is that the book had seven seals, and the breaking of each seal was followed by a further revelation. This is easily explained by the above roll. As we may say, a portion was written, rolled up, and sealed; another portion written, rolled up and sealed, and so on to the seven. By opening one seal a portion of the roll was able to be read, containing the first revelation: then another seal presented itself, which had to be broken open before the second portion could be read, and so on. It was God's seven-sealed roll, containing seven revelations.
Further, in 2 Tim. 4:1313The cloke that I left at Troas with Carpus, when thou comest, bring with thee, and the books, but especially the parchments. (2 Timothy 4:13), we read of the "books" and the “parchments. The oldest copies of the Greek Testament now in existence are written on vellum or parchment, and the three oldest of them are remarkable for the beauty of the vellum on which they are written, later copies being on that which is thicker and coarser. The Codex Sinaiticus is believed to be written on vellum from the finest skins of the antelope or ass, and the pages are so large, that it is estimated the skin of an animal would not furnish more than two leaves. This will give some idea of the value of sufficient parchment to form a New Testament. The name "parchment" is supposed to have been derived from Pergamos, where it was first made.
Paper made of cotton is believed to have been invented about the ninth century A.D. There is a Lectionary in existence, written on vellum, of about that date, but in which two leaves are inserted on paper made of cotton, and which appear to have been written on by the same hand as the vellum. About the twelfth century a much finer paper was made of linen: when highly finished it much resembled vellum.
The supply of papyrus was abundant from the Egyptian market during the early part of the Roman empire, but on the complete division of the empire this supply was in a measure stopped, the intercourse with the East being both difficult and irregular. This led to a revival of the practice of rubbing out from the parchment anything that was not valued by the owner in order to put thereon what he desired to commit to writing, or it might have been done simply as a matter of trade, clean parchment being always salable.
Unfortunately, as we say, some portions of the New Testament have been served in this way. The word of God has been rubbed out, and something comparatively worthless written in its place. In some instances a third writing has been placed on the same parchment. In 1476 one of the early editions of the Clementine Constitutions was actually printed on a parchment from which the writing had been erased.
But fortunately this erasing has not been thoroughly effected, so that the parchment still shows in faint outlines the original writing, which often, by great labor, and sometimes by chemical means, has been deciphered.
To comprehend the process of restoration it must be understood that there were two methods employed by the ancients in effacing the original writing—the wet and the dry. The first consisted in moistening the surface of the parchment, washing it with a sponge, and rubbing it with pumice stone. Of the dry there were different forms: either the entire line was scraped away with a broad tool or blade, or the operator followed the course of each separate letter and obliterated each in succession with the point of the tool. The ink again was of three kinds—metallic (which was that commonly used), vegetable, and mineral. And as the action of the ink, whatever may be its composition, was not entirely confined to the surface, it is found that even after the superficial trace of color has been partially or entirely removed, its unobserved presence may still be detected by careful scientific treatment.
The method frequently adopted by Mai was simply to wash the page with an infusion of galls, and expose it to the action of light and air. This was in many cases successful; in other cases however it blackened the parchment so that neither the first nor the second writing could be read.
The more recent mode is to carefully wash the parchment with water, then dip it in diluted muriatic acid, and finally in prussiate of potash. This in many cases has proved entirely successful.
There is at Paris a famous manuscript of this description, which contains large portions of both the Old and New Testaments, over which have been written some works by St. Ephraem the Syrian. It is called the Codex Ephraem.
Such manuscripts are called rescripts, "written again," or palimpsests, "scratched or scraped again.”
We give a specimen of one of these rescripts. It will be seen that in this case the leaf had been folded in half, and the second writing placed transversely. In other cases the two writings run in the same direction. Here only a portion of the original is covered by the second writing; but in other places and in other rescripts the entire original is covered. This, however, will show how difficult it is to read the first where it is covered by a second writing, and in some places the original is much more indistinct than in our copy, being read in places only with great difficulty. The most difficult to read are those re-written line upon line, where the characters blend and run into one another.
Our specimen is from the Codex Nitriensis. It was brought from a Nitrian monastery in Egypt, and is now in the British Museum. It contains large portions of Luke's Gospel, which are judged to have been written in the sixth century. These have been written over in Syriac by Severus of Antioch, against Grammaticus in the ninth or tenth century. The specimen contains a portion of Luke 20:9, 109Then began he to speak to the people this parable; A certain man planted a vineyard, and let it forth to husbandmen, and went into a far country for a long time. 10And at the season he sent a servant to the husbandmen, that they should give him of the fruit of the vineyard: but the husbandmen beat him, and sent him away empty. (Luke 20:9‑10), and in the common Greek type reads thus: ἀμπελῶα, καὶ ἐξέδοτο αὐτοὶ γεςργοἴς, καὶ ἀπεδήμησε χρόνούς. Καὶ ἐν καὶ ἐν καιρῷ (a vineyard, and let it out to husbandmen, and left the country for a long time. And in [the] season).
The ink that was used for the earliest of the manuscripts has not stood its color during the lapse of ages. It has often turned brown, or a sort of red, or become very pale. On parchment the ink does not sink into the material so much as on paper, and in some places it seems to have peeled off altogether; yet even there the text can sometimes be made out by the indentation left in the vellum, the writing having been made apparently by a metal pen (called a stylus, used for writing on tablets covered with wax). The colored inks have maintained their colors better than the black. The ruled lines by some sharp instrument are also still visible in some places. These ruled lines and columns enabled the copies to be written very regularly, some having almost the uniformity of a printed copy, and which has led some to suppose the letters must have been stamped instead of written.
In the papyrus scrolls the lines were very short, so as to be the more easily read as they were unrolled; but, when books instead of scrolls began to be made, the writing gradually took the form of longer lines. The Codex Sinaiticus is the nearest in appearance to the papyrus copies, having four columns on a page; the Codex Vaticanus has three; and the Alexandrinus has two. This however cannot be taken as a sure criterion of age, as manuscripts with three columns have been discovered as late as the eighth and ninth centuries. We believe the Codex Sinaiticus stands alone in having four columns. The length of the lines may be seen in our specimen on page 28. Four columns made a good size quarto page, which was the usual form for the earlier copies, a few being in folio, and some in octavo. The sheets were folded into small sections of a few leaves, each section being numbered on the first or last page.