The Canon, Text, and Manuscripts of the New Testament

By Charles Fremont Sitterly


Chapter 1

The Materials on which the Manuscripts were Written


The Greek manuscripts of the New Testament, so far as known, were written on papyrus, parchment, or paper. The autographs, both of the historical and epistolary writers, are supposed to have been written on papyrus. The great uncial copies and the most valued of the minuscules and lection aries were written on parchment, while paper was employed largely in the making of the later lectionaries and printed texts of the New Testament.

Section I. Papyrus

Papyrus ("from πάπυρος, stalk) was a reed cultivated extensively in the delta of the Nile, and from about the time of the twenty-sixth dynasty (B. C. 664-525) it became a most important article of commerce. " Its use increased with surprising rapidity in consequence of the successful expeditions of Alexander the Great, introducing Greek culture into Asia and Egypt. In all Hellenic states writing was now pursued with the greatest zeal, and everywhere on papyrus."1 It has now disappeared from its ancient home, but is found in Abyssinia and Nubia, and various parts of Sicily, especially in the vicinity of ancient Syracuse. Papyrus may also be studied in various botanical gardens and public parks in Europe and America. The plant is crowned with a graceful tuft of foliage, the stem is triangular and tapering in form, averaging three to six inches in diameter. At maturity it stands seven or eight feet high. Theophrastus, the successor of Aristotle, in charge of the Lyceum, in his history of plants (Περὶ Φυτῶν Ἱστορία, iv, 8, 3), describes the papyrus plant as growing along the Nile in water about two cubits (three feet) in depth, with a root as thick as a man's arm, and of ten cubits (fifteen feet) or more in length.

"The stalks (πάπυροι) are about four cubits (six feet) in height and are of triangular shape. . . . The roots are used for firewood and for making various articles of furniture. The stalks are put to many uses. Boats are made from them, and from the βίβλος, or pith, sails, mats, clothing, coverings, and ropes. The βιβλία, or sheets made from βίβλος, are most familiar to people of other lands. Above all, this plant is useful as a means of subsistence, since the inhabitants chew it either raw, boiled, or roasted, drawing the juice and rejecting the fiber."2 It was also used in the construction of light skiffs suitable for navigating the shallows of the Nile, and is doubtless referred to in Isaiah (xviii, 2), " vessels of bulrushes (papyrus, Rev. Ver.) upon the waters," and in Exodus (ii, 3), "she took for him an ark of bulrushes" (papyrus, Rev. Ver., margin).

Yet the younger Pliny, despite the fact that he evidently misunderstood and so misrepresented certain primary steps in the process, is the main source of our knowledge as to the manufacture of papyrus paper, χάρτης (compare 2 John 12). His chief error, as is now conceded on all hands, rests in the fact that he considered the pith of the papyrus reed to be of a foliated nature, such as might be separated and unrolled by means of a needle. "The external part of the triangular stalk contains several very light and concentric skins, like the onion."3 On the contrary, papyrus pith is of a cellular or "fibro-vascular" tissue, and was divided into strips by the use of a sharp knife. These strips (οχίδαι) were cut as thin and as broad as possible and, according to some, as long only as the joints would permit. This reed, however, being without joints there were no such limits. Those taken from the center of the stalk were the best, being widest. They were arranged vertically, side by side as closely as possible, their edges touching but not overlapping, upon a table to the required width, thus forming a layer (οχέδα). This was moistened with paste, and across it at right angles another layer was placed. The whole was then soaked with water and pressed or beaten with a hammer into a substance very similar to paper. The sheets (σελίδες) thus formed were again pressed, trimmed into uniform sizes, dried carefully in the sun, and finally polished down with a shell or piece of ivory. The breadth, thinness, toughness, whiteness, and smoothness of the sheets determined their relative value, as well as that of the finished roll. Pliny names nine different varieties of papyrus paper as known in his time.4

The roll (τόμος or κύλινδρος) was formed by skillfully pasting together a number of sheets at their lateral edges, thus forming a continuous strip whose right or face surface, according to Professor Wilken, invariably presented the lines of the fiber as running parallel with the length of the roll. " The page of the leaf on which the fibers run vertically is the reverse side. That which is written on the reverse side may either be the end of the writing, for which there was insufficient space on the principal page, or it may be a later addition. Thousands of papyri have confirmed this observation."5

It follows that in cases where a papyrus document is inscribed on both sides the writing on the face or horizontal side is the older ; so that if the date of the writing on the reverse or vertical side can be determined it may serve to settle, in a measure, the epoch of the original document, and vice versa.

The first sheet of a roll (προτόκολλον) being on the outside and most subject to wear was of the best quality, while the last (ἐσχατοκόλλιον) was generally inferior. The average length of a roll, according to Birt, was thirty-nine feet, and according to Thompson twenty sheets, although there are Egyptian papyri extant as long as one hundred and forty feet. The inner end of the roll was fastened to a roller (ὀμφαλός) tipped with a simple button or ivory horn (κέρας), while the left or outer end was sometimes glued to a similar strip, either of wood or papyrus, for its better protection and handling. The top and bottom edges were smoothed with pumice stone and frequently stained, while the reverse side of the roll itself was often rubbed with cedar oil to preserve it from worms and moths. The title of the book was attached in the form of a parchment label (σίττυβος or σίλλυβος) to the top edge of the inner sheet, and was thus easily examined without removing the roll from its leathern cover (διφδέρα or φαινόλης).. The chest or box in which rolls were kept was known as the κίστη or κιβωτός.6

Section II. Parchment

The use of parchment, in a more or less crude state, probably antedated that of papyrus, but its extensive manufacture and employment for literary purposes is usually traced to


the rivalry which sprang up between Eumenes II, King of Pergamura (197-159 B. C), and the contemporary King of Egypt, Ptolemy Epiphanes. The account as given by Pliny, who quotes his predecessor Yarro, narrates that Epiphanes desired out of jealousy to embarrass the project of Eumenes, who w r as a great book gatherer, in collecting a library at Pergamum larger, if possible, than that at Alexandria. He therefore forbade the sale of papyrus to his rival, and thereby caused the rein traduction and improvement of the skins of animals for bookmaking.7 Hence arose the term περγαμηνή, while μεμβράνα (μάλιστα τὰς μεμβράνας, 2 Tim. iv, 13), under Latin influence, came to be used as synonymous with the earlier terms δέρμα and διφθέρα.

The word σωμάτιον, often met with, properly had reference to the contents of a document, τὸ σωμάτιον being a manuscript capable of containing an entire work or corpus.

Despite the fact that Pliny ascribes the invention of parchment to Eumenes, the records show that its use had been known to the Ionians for centuries, though it had been displaced by papyrus in Greece and Asia Minor, as well as in Egypt itself. In the latter country the use of skins was known as early as the time of Cheops. There is in the British Museum a ritual roll of white leather which the librarian claims " may be dated about the year 2000 B. C." The Hebrews have always followed the custom of using parchment, and clo so in their synagogue rolls to the present day. The same custom, moreover, prevailed among the ancient Persians, as is shown by the statement of Diodorus II, 32 (ἐκ τῶν βασιλικῶν διφθὲρων, ἐν αἷς οἱ Πέρσαι τάς παλαιὰς πράξεις εἶχον συντεταγμένας).8

During the early Christian centuries, however, papyrus was again almost universally employed throughout the Mediterranean countries, its own inexpensiveness and the spirit of conservatism possibly conducing to its wide popularity. Sir E. M. Thompson says, " it was particularly the influence of the Christian Church that eventually carried vellum into the front rank of writing materials and in the end displaced papyrus. As papyrus had been the principal material for receiving the thoughts of the pagan world, vellum was to be the great medium for conveying to mankind the literature of the new religion."9 But the intrinsic superiority of parchment to papyrus must have been no small element in determining its final rank. Its obvious durability as contrasted with the fragile nature of papyrus ; the fact that both sides present equally good surfaces for writing, which was not the case with papyrus ; that erasure could be effected without difficulty, making it possible to use the same parchment repeatedly, a process scarcely possible with papyrus; together with the fact that it could be cut and bound up in the convenient codex (τεῦχος) form, after the manner of the two, three, and more leaved tablets (δίπτυχα, τρὶπτυχα, πολύπτυχα), a treatment of which again papyrus was not easily susceptible, and finally, the advantage of greater economy in the matter of space, since more words could be clearly written in a line of the same length, and vastly more lines could be committed to the same expanse of surface, all played a practical part in the final selection of the fitter material. By the end of the third century, both in the Christian and pagan world, parchment had become the favorite material for receiving formal literature. When the emperor Constantine wished to supply the churches of his new capital with copies of the Bible, Eusebius states that he ordered him, the bishop at that time of Caesarea, to prepare fifty copies on parchment (πεντήκοντα σωμάτια ἐν διφθέραις).10

Skins of goats, sheep, calves, pigs, asses, and antelopes were used in the manufacture of parchment. The term vellum, often used without discrimination, properly refers to the finer qualities, while the ordinary term parchment generally designates the coarser varieties.

The more ancient manuscripts are the finest, being thinner and whiter, as well as more smooth and glossy, than those of later times, which were usually coarser grained and frequently much discolored. Codex Sinaiticus is of the finest skins of antelopes, the leaves being so large that a single animal would furnish only two.11 Codex Vaticanus is also done on a very superior quality of vellum.

In the preparation of the skins for writing, the points of chief importance were that all traces both of hair and flesh be removed and that they be evenly stretched, dried, and filled. In the East the custom prevailed of sizing, with unslacked lime, while slacked lime, chalk, and in some cases brimstone were employed in the West. Holes, unless quite small, were skillfully patched. The distinction between the inner and outer side of the skin rarely disappeared, even under the most careful treatment, the hair side being perceptibly the darker, and showing, in places, the points at the roots of the hair. It also took and retained the ink better than the flesh side, which, on the other hand, was lighter in color and more uniformly smooth.

Section III. Paper

Writing paper was introduced into the West by the Arabs early in the eighth century. It had long been known in China and the middle East, but not until the capture of Samarkand in Turkestan (704 A. D.) does it appear to have been known in Syria or Egypt. The name by which papyrus had been known, χάρτης, came to be applied to paper, and being made of vegetable fiber it was also called ξυλοχάρτιον and ξυλότευκτον. From the considerable quantities which were manufactured at Damascus it became widely known in later times as χάρτης Δαμασκήνη. Its name, χάρτης βομβύκινος, arose from the supposition that it was made of cotton fiber, but according to recent researches by which many early samples have been analyzed it is found that hemp or flax was more frequently used than cotton, if indeed unmixed cotton were ever employed. Another widely received error is that which distinguishes oriental paper, as being cotton, from western oilmen paper. A more accurate distinction is based on the watermarks which are found in European paper, whereas they are unknown in the East. The manufacture of paper in Europe began under the Moors in Spain, where it was called "pergameno de panno," parchment of cloth, as distinguished from "pergameno de cuero," or parchment of skin.12 It is interesting to note that the first European country to manufacture paper should also be the birthplace of the first printed Greek Testament, and that Xativa Valencia, Toledo, the city where it was first manufactured, was the seat of the bishopric of Cardinal Ximenes.

The Arabs also introduced it into Sicily, and from thence it soon crossed to the Italian peninsula and is known to have been an article of export from Genoa as early as 1235, and as manufactured at Padua, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Milan. and other Italian cities in the following century.

The striking similarity of early European paper to parchment has led to many mistakes on the part of palaeographers, perhaps the most curious of which concerns the celebrated fragments of the Gospel of Mark now preserved in Venice. The Benedictine monks, in whose monastery they are kept, declared they were written on bark ; Montfaucon, that they were written on papyrus; Maffei, that they were written on cotton paper, while the microscope reveals that they were, in reality, written upon parchment.13

Paper did not come into general use throughout Europe until the second half of the fourteenth century, but by the time that printing with movable types had become established paper had almost entirely displaced the use of parchment. Perhaps the best known example of the use of paper in a biblical manuscript is that of the Codex Leicestrensis, " composed of a mixture of inferior vellum and worse paper regularly arranged in the proportion of two parchment to three paper leaves, recurring alternately throughout the whole volume."14



1) Ebers, Georg, "The Writing Material of Antiquity," Cosmopolitan, November, 1893.

2) Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities, article " Papyrus,"

3) "La Flore Pharonique," V. Loret. See Cosmopolitan, November, 1893.

4) Pliny, Historia Natura, xiii, 71-83. Compare note 2, above.

5) Ebers, Georg. See Cosmopolitan, November, 1893.

6) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 39.

7) Pliny, Historia Nation, xiii, 120-170.

8) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 35.

9) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 37.

10) Eusebius, Life of Constantine, iv, 36. Compare Thompson, ibid.

11) Scrivener, F. H. A.., Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, vol. i, p. 23.

12) Thompson, E. M., Handbook of Greek and Latin Palæography, p. 44.

13) Encyclopedia Britannica, article "Paper."

14) Scrivener, F. H. A., Introduction to the Criticism of the New Testament, vol. i, p. 24.