An Introduction to the New Testament

By Adolf Jülicher


Chapter 1 - Section 48



§48. The Original Manuscripts

[Cf. O. von Gebhardtʼs article entitled ʽBibeltext des N. T.ʼsʼ in the ʽProtestantische Real-Encyclopidieʼ (1897), vol. ii. pp. 728—773. Also E. Nestle, ʽHinfiihrung in das griechische N. T.ʼ (1899); Scrivener, ʽA plain Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament,ʼ in 2 vols. (1894), and C. R. Gregory, ʽTextkritik des N. T.ʼs,ʼ vol i. (1900). In this section we must borrow largely from that branch of philological science known as palzography. A French scholar named Montfaucon, a Benedictine of the Congregation of St. Maur,1 was really the creator of this science with his ʽPalaeographia Graeca,ʼ pub. in 1708 and the following year. Paleographical studies have now flourished for several decades, and the material has thus been enormously increased, but even so Montfauconʼs work is not yet out of date. S. Gardthausen gives a comprehensive presentation of the subject in his ʽGriechische Paläographieʼ (Leipzig, 1879). Consult also T. Birt: ʽDas antike Buchwesen in seinem Verhaltnis zur Literaturʼ (Berlin, 1882); E. Rhode in the ʽGöttingische gelehrte Anzeigenʼ for 1882, pp. 1537-63, and Dziatzkoʼs article on ʽDas Buchʼ in the ʽReal-Encyclopädie der classischen Altertumswissenschaft,ʼ published in Pauly-Wissowa, vol. iii. pp. 939-971.]

1. The original documents2 from the hands of the New Testament authors themselves were all lost at a very early date. Itis true that an unknown chronicler, writing in the fourth century at earliest, informs us that the original MS. of John was preserved at Ephesus; at Prague and Venice it was claimed until late in the eighteenth century that the original of Markʼs Gospel was preserved at both those places— the fact that it was in Latin being overlooked—and A. Scholz, in his ʽBiblischkritische Reiseʼ (1823) tells of a supposed autographon of Matthew in Laodicea. These are mere idle inventions, for if the spokesmen of the Church could have brought forward any original Apostolic manuscript in their struggle against heresy, especially against the ʽfalsifierʼ Marcion, they might have spared themselves much trouble and long dispute as to what was genuine and what was not. When Tertullian appeals to the authentic writings of the Apostles as they were still read out in the churches of Corinth, Rome and Ephesus,3 he probably means the unaltered Text as opposed to that ʽemendatedʼ by the Gnostics, or else we should perhaps rate his testimony in favour of those writings as a mere rhetorical phrase, like his ʽthrones of the Apostles.ʼ But it is always possible to obtain a clear idea of the nature of those original manuscripts through our knowledge of what was theʼ appearance of books and letters of that time, for the New Testament authors would naturally have conformed to the usage of their age and their surroundings in all the literary apparatus they employed.4

9. A wooden tablet smeared with wax, such as the dumb priest Zacharias had brought to him in order to write the name ʽJohnʼ in the soft material for the son of his old age,5 was not sufficient for the purposes of a serious writer; for books as well as for letters of a certain length, an artificial product was used which was prepared from the Egyptian papyrus shrub and resembled our paper, which derives its name from it. The Cyperus papyrus (πάπυρος) once grew in great quantities in the Delta of the Nile, as well as in certain places in Syria and Palestine and even in Sicily. Its pith (Βύβλος) was cut into fine strips, and after skilful preparation formed a material suitable for the purposes of writing.6 The further requirements for writing were: (1) a pen, i.e. the specially prepared stalk of a reed (κάλαμος),7 which had to be cut into shape almost as in the case of our ancient goose-quill (so that a penknife8 was also indispensable to the writer), and which was likewise chiefly to be found in Egypt; and (2) some ink (τὸ μέλαν),9 which was introduced into the cane by means of a piece of wool, and was prepared from soot, vitriol, and similar substances. The individual papyrus leaves (σελίδες or columns10) were of different sizes according to the needs and wishes of those who bought them; their average size, however, might be laid down as about one hand-breadth in width and not quite twice as much in length. A single leaf of this kind was quite sufficient for accounts, contracts and short notes, such as have been preserved to us in very large numbers, but for compositions of greater length several of them had to be fastened together. This was done from left to right, the left edge of the second leaf being glued to the right edge of the first, and so on. Sheets made in this manner, which were often very long, were only written upon on the upper side. Those written upon on both sides (τὰ  ἔμπροσθεν καὶ τὰ ὀπίσω γεγραμμένα11) belong, like many extraordinary things, to the visionary machinery of Ezekiel and the Apocalypse. A space of one finger-breadth at least must have been left blank at the edge of each leaf, if only to provide means for sticking them together, but even apart from this consideration a margin would have been made on esthetic grounds to right and left, as well as above and below. Short letters were rolled firmly together, a thread fastened round them to which the seal could be conveniently attached, and the address written on the outside.12 But with writings of greater length, or those intended for frequent perusal (βίβλοι or βιβλία),, a cylindrical stick was fastened to the edge of the last leaf, with its ends sticking out above and below, and the upper end, at any rate, usually adorned with a knob. Several leaves together were then rolled round this stick in such a manner that the written part was always inside, that of the last leaf lying directly against the stick, while the outer cover was formed by the first leaf, though only its unwritten side was exposed to the dust.

The whole was cylindrical in shape, and, to prevent it from unrolling, straps were fastened to the outside leaf, knotted together, and if necessary, also sealed. The reader would then proceed first to untie the straps, and then to unroll one leaf after the other, from right to left, holding the roller in his right hand; another stick would usually be attached to the first leaf, round which the roll would gradually wind itself after being read—this time with the writing outside; and thus the reader would hold a roll in each hand, one containing the part of the book already done with, the other that still unfinished, and between the two, straight before his eyes, the leaf with which he was busy at the moment. Naturally, some rolls were very small and some gigantic, and it is probably the idea of a huge roll of this kind that underlies ver. xviii. 5 of the Apocalypse. A convenient medium size seems, however, to have become usual long. before the time of Christ, through the influence of Alexandrian scholars and booksellers. Papyrus is not a particularly durable material, and yet not only have countless little notes, but even a few genuine rolls, been preserved down to our own time under the ashes of Herculaneum and in the sand of Egypt. In the New Testament the book-roll (εἰλητόν=volumen) is not directly mentioned, but ver. vii. 14 of the Apocalypse shows that books were thought of as rolls, and the κεφαλὶς βιβλίου quoted by the author of Hebrews13 from Psalm xl.14 can only be translated by ʽthe roll of the bookʼ; it means properly ʽthe little head of the book,ʼ a designation for the knob by which the roll was drawn out of its cover and held while being read, and then became, by a natural synecdoché, the name for the roll itself.

Papyrus was not the only writing-material known in the time of the Apostles. The Jews had Thora-rolls of leather (διφθέρα), and held obstinately to the custom of using them long after rolls had been given up by every other nation. But in the Greek world, too, parchment began to rival papyrus as early as the second century before Christ. Parchment is a substance obtained by tanning and otherwise skillfully preparing the hides of animals—those of asses or antelopes yielding the best quality—and many conclude from its name, περγαμηνή, that it was invented by the inhabitants of Pergamus, though, indeed, a much older and more commonly used word for it was μεμβράνα, borrowed from the Latin. But parchment was more costly than papyrus, and the New Testament writers would scarcely have used it for their works. If indeed, as we are told in 2. Timothy iv. 18, Paul possessed certain μεμβράναι among the books left behind at Troas, these parchments would certainly not have been original copies of the New Testament writings, still less his own notebooks or memoranda, but were most probably copies of the sacred books of the Old Testament, which the Jew would certainly have procured in a more costly form.

3. It is scarcely probable that the Uncial15 handwriting which we find in ancient inscriptions and in the earliest parchment codices of the fourth century, was employed in the autographa of the New Testament. Even though their authors may not have been practised shorthand writers (ταχνγράφοι, notarii), they would yet have had no cause to employ an écriture de luxe for their modest records. Moreover, the ordinary handwriting of those days was cursive, a form in which the letters were joined together and abbreviations were plentifully used, so that both time and paper were saved. This style of handwriting was certainly not the most convenient for the reader, for it might easily give rise to misunderstandings, if, say, an abbreviation were wrongly interpreted; but so long as the Uncial form, innocent as it was of any distinction between small and capital letters, of punctuation, or of any signs whatever, clung to the seruptio continua, i.e. the handwriting without any intervals between the words, fluent reading was there too an art that required some learning. Nor would even Luke have had calligraphers at his disposal who would undertake to clear and simplify all his involved constructions, or even those professional correctors who prided themselves on polishing the manuscripts committed to them of all their mistakes.

Most of the New Testament Books were probably written down by their authors themselves; it was only Paul who preferred to dictate his epistles, and he always made use of some Christian from among his immediate followers as his scribe,16 usually adding a word of greeting with his own hand at the end.17 Galatians is the only exception to this rule—for no one at the moment of taking the pen from his secretary would say, as Paul does at the end of this epistle,18 ʽSee with how large letters I have written unto you with mine own hand.ʼ But the words are important as showing why Paul preferred to leave the business of writing to others. It was an effort to him; his characters had something crabbed and uncouth about them. As a rule, of course, the Apostleʼs letters carried addresses, but certainly not the present superscriptions (e.g. πρὸς Θεσσαλονικεῖς πρώτη), which even Tertullian had enough insight to perceive were nothing but the additions of later collectors; the Apostle himself would probably not have troubled himself any more about the formulation of the address than about the proper fastening of the letter-roll.

It is not likely that the length of the New Testament writings was dependent on the writing-materials available. In the case of letters it would indeed seem not unnatural that the writer should regulate himself according to the size of the papyrus-roll used; and yet among the Epistles of Paul only Philippians and Colossians are alike in bulk, and nowhere is there any trace of an unintentional breaking-off. It is certainly not an accidental coincidence that the Book of Acts is exactly as long as the Gospel of Luke, the πρῶτος λόγος of Acts i. 1; but it was undoubtedly the intention of the author to make the two halves of his work symmetrical; he was not driven to do so by the exigencies of space, as afforded by machine-made rolls, and even if the roll were at any time insufficient, it would have been quite easy to attach a few more papyrus leaves to or between the rest. The authorʼs dependence on his writing-material would be far more comprehensible at a time when parchment was in the ascendant than when he used nothing but papyrus, which was always cheap and easy to obtain.



1) Died in 1741.

2) αὐτόγραφα or ἰδιόχειρα.

3) De Praescriptione Haereticorwm, ch. xxxvi.

4) See Hilary: ʽCommunis apostolo elementorum atque apicum forma est,ʼ

5) Luke i. 63.

6) ὁ χάρὲης, 2. John 12.

7) 3. John 13.

8) τὸ ξυρὸν τοῦ γραμματέως,, Jer. xxxvi. 23.

9) 2. Cor. iii. 3.

10) Jer. ibid.

11) Ezek. ii. 10, and possibly Rev. v. 1.

12) E.g., Ἀπολλωνίῳ or τῷ πατρὶ Πτολεμαίῳ.

13) Verse x. 7.

14) Verse 7, and see also Ezekiel ii. 9.

15) From uncia =an inch, referring to the original size of the letter.

16) Rom. xvi. 22.

17) 1 Cor. xvi. 21; 2 Thess. iii. 17 fol.

18) vi. 11.