Last week when I was working on a craft project with kids at church, I offered them the choice of using white paper or card stock with a tan swirl pattern designed to look like parchment. I was guessing that in in the time of Jesus, paper hadn’t been invented yet.
But then I started to wonder whether parchment existed yet either.
And the answers surprised me.
Papyrus, Parchment, Paper, Potsherds
The scrolls that you see in movies about the Bible—and in the TV series The Chosen—are supposed to be made of papyrus. It’s a paper-like material made from stalks of the papyrus plant. In fact, the modern word paper comes from the Greek and Latin words for papyrus. Egyptians started writing on papyrus about 5,000 years ago. So, obviously, this material was available in the time of Jesus.
A form of parchment may have been used as early as 2500 B.C., but it was refined and brought into significant production in the Greek City of Pergamon (which is now in Turkey) about 150-200 years before the birth of Jesus. So yes, parchment existed during his lifetime.
But common people may have written on potsherds more than anything else during his day. And the invention of paper was close enough in time that some of the first versions of the New Testament could have been written on paper. But they probably weren’t, for a number of reasons.
Making Stuff to Write On
If you’ve grown up with an abundance paper, like my generation, it’s hard to imagine struggling to find something to write on. But not that long ago, paper was valuable enough that it couldn’t be wasted on school children. They wrote on slates that could be erased and reused.
For permanent writing, carving in stone has long been a popular choice, at least for those with plenty of time and no need to move.
Papyrus became popular for documents because writing in ink on papery stuff is a lot faster than carving words on a piece of wood, stone, or broken pottery. Papyrus was processed for writing by cutting the stalks into two-foot lengths, splitting them down the middle, and laying tissue-thin strips on board, overlapping just slightly. The sheets were covered with a paste of flour, vinegar, and muddy water, and then other strips were laid on top at right angles. The layers would be hammered or pressed dry and then the surface would be polished with a stone or shell.
Papyrus prepared for writing would crack if folded so it was usually rolled into scrolls. So, if your synagogue had a copy of the Book of Isaiah, it would have been printed out in a bunch of scrolls. This writing medium became very popular, and the plant would only grow in a limited area, so the cost of the material rose and the plant eventually became extinct. (The photo at the top of this post does not depict papyrus but just some things growing in a drainage ditch behind my house. However, I could still try to make paper out of them.)
Papyrus rots quickly in damp soil or even humid air, so not many ancient scrolls have survived.
Parchment lasts quite a bit longer. Made from the skin of sheep, calves, or goats, parchment requires considerable effort to process, but it provides an excellent writing surface that lasts through the ages.
The animal skins would be washed multiple times, soaked in lime water, stretched, scraped, stretched some more, pared, stretched again, scraped again, shaved, and finally, rubbed down with pumice stone. It could processed to a thinness almost like tissue, yet remain quite strong.
Paper was Made as Early as 105 A.D.
The invention of paper almost goes back far enough that the books of the New Testament could have been written on paper—except for one problem. Paper was invented in 105 A.D. in China, and didn’t even make it to Japan until 500 years later. So paper would not have been available in the Holy Land until centuries after the time disciples first started writing out the Gospel stories.
Chinese papermakers used cloth fibers, Japanese monks used the bark of the paper mulberry tree, and, by 1100 A.D. or so, papermakers in Europe used cloth dipped in gelatin. Although they all used different papermaking techniques, these techniques centered on the use of a shallow wooden mold filled with pulp and dried.
Reading and Writing in Biblical Times
While many scholars have taught that reading and writing were skills held only by elite, highly-educated members of society, others believe that reading was a fairly common skill and writing was practiced by more than scribes and other specialists.
The only example we have of Jesus writing something is in the Gospel of John when he bends down to write in the dirt after Jewish leaders dragged an adulterous women before him demanding that he pass judgment on her. We are not told what he wrote, but the fact that he was writing words rather than drawing a design indicates that writing may have been more common than originally thought. He also tells a parable, in the Gospel of Luke, about a steward who was caught embezzling. To make himself popular, the steward met with several debtors and instructed them to write different amounts on their bills. It is just assumed that each of these debtors knows how to write.
Often people wrote on whatever was available, and the scrap paper of the day was pieces of broken pottery known as potsherds. Clay vessels break relatively easily, but they don’t disintegrate. So they were all over the place, literally. Excavations have revealed potsherds used to list supplies and as a type of coupon. Tax collectors and others carried wax tablet notebooks, and many notes from the time were scratched on pieces of wood. Professional scribes wrote with a steady hand, and they may been far more skilled with writing, but that does not mean that ordinary people did not practice some basic reading and writing.
The Future of Paper
The use of parchment faded as paper became cheap to produce. Mass printed text replaced handwritten text, and now more of the written word is produced, read, and stored entirely electronically. Paper could become rare again once more.
Hopefully, reading and writing will remain popular!
Much of the information in this article comes from:
While none of my books go back to Biblical times, the do cover an era when paper was expensive and not always easy to find. In George Washington Stepped Here, for instance, volunteers at a historical site quarrel over a fragment of leather supposedly written on by the Father of Our Nation when he couldn’t locate any other writing material.