The Hebrew word seʹpher (book; letter; writing) is associated with the verb sa·pharʹ (count) and the noun so·pherʹ (scribe; copyist). (Ge 5:1; 2Sa 11:15; Isa 29:12; 22:10; Jg 5:14; Ne 13:13) When used with reference to official writings, seʹpher is variously rendered “written document,” “certificate,” and “deed.” (Es 9:25; Jer 3:8; 32:11) Biʹblos is the Greek term for “book”; its diminutive form bi·bliʹon (literally, little book) is rendered “book,” “certificate,” and “scroll.” (Mr 12:26; Heb 9:19, Int; Mt 19:7; Lu 4:17) The word “Bible” comes from these Greek words.
An early “book” might be a tablet or a collection of tablets made of clay, stone, wax, wood covered with wax, metal, ivory, or perhaps even a group of potsherds (ostraca). Handwritten scrolls (rolls) were formed of attached sheets of papyrus, of parchment (skin of animals, such as sheep and goats), or of the finer material vellum, made of the skin of young calves, and, still later, of linen, and linen paper. Finally a book became a collection of consecutive handwritten or printed, folded sheets, strung, sewn, glued, stitched, or otherwise fastened together to form a bound volume.
Scrolls usually had writing on only one side (if leather, the originally hairy side). The writing material was sometimes wound on a stick. The reader would begin reading at one end, holding the scroll in his left hand and winding it around the stick with his right hand (if reading Hebrew; reverse if reading Greek). If the record was lengthy, the roll might be wound on two sticks, with the middle part of the text visible when picked up to read. Hence the word “volume,” derived from the Latin word volumen, meaning a “roll.”
A common size for the sheets that were used in making scrolls was 23 to 28 cm (9 to 11 in.) long and 15 to 23 cm (6 to 9 in.) wide. A number of these sheets were joined together side by side with paste. However, the sheets of the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, of the second century B.C.E., were sewn together with linen thread. The scroll was made of 17 parchment strips averaging 26.2 cm (10.3 in.) in height and varying in width from about 25.2 cm (nearly 10 in.) to 62.8 cm (about 25 in.), totaling 7.3 m (24 ft) in length in its present state of preservation. A common length of scroll in the time of Pliny (probably those on sale commercially) was 20 sheets. An Egyptian papyrus roll chronicling the reign of Ramses III, called the Harris Papyrus, is 40.5 m (133 ft) in length. The Gospel of Mark would have required a roll 5.8 m (19 ft) long; Luke, about 9.5 m (31 ft).
The edges of the roll were trimmed, smoothed with pumice stone, and colored, generally black. Dipping in cedar oil protected the scroll from insects. The writing was usually done on one side of the scroll unless there was more information than could be put on the inside. In that case, some writing might be on the outside, or the reverse side. The visionary scrolls containing judgments that were seen by the prophets Ezekiel and Zechariah and the apostle John had writing on both sides. This indicates that the judgments were great, extensive, and weighty.
Important documents were sealed with a lump of clay or wax having the impression of the seal of the writer or maker, and it was attached to the document by strings. The apostle John saw in vision a scroll with seven seals, handed by the one on the throne to the Lamb.
Earlier scrolls appear to have had up to four columns per sheet, while later ones generally contained one column. Jeremiah’s scroll consisted of “page-columns.” As three or four columns were read, King Jehoiakim cut that portion off the scroll and threw it into the fire. (Jer 36:23) The 17 strips of the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah contain 54 columns of text, with an average of about 30 lines per column.
The scroll form of book served the Israelites down to the period of the Christian congregation. The records in the ancient national archives of Israel and Judah as well as the inspired writings of Jehovah’s prophets, though sometimes called books, were actually in this scroll form.
Each synagogue, a development after the Babylonian exile, kept and utilized scrolls of the Sacred Scriptures, and there was public reading from them on every Sabbath. (Ac 15:21) Jesus himself read from that type of scroll, probably one like the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah.
Codex. It appears that Christians used mainly the roll, or scroll, form of book at least until about the end of the first century C.E. The apostle John wrote the Revelation about 96 C.E., and the book calls itself a scroll at chapter 22, verses 18 and 19. But the scroll form of book was very unwieldy. After the transition of the codex from notebook to book form, the superiority of the codex over the traditional scroll became apparent. For example, a scroll 31.7 m (104 ft) long might be needed to contain the four Gospels, whereas one compact codex could accommodate them all. In addition, the codex was more economical, since it was possible to write on both sides of a page. Furthermore, the lids afforded excellent protection for the contents, and various references could be located quickly without the tedious manipulation of scrolls.
It would be inconvenient, in fact, practically impossible, to make quick reference to certain statements in a large scroll. The indications are that the Christians were quick to adopt the use of the codex, or leaf-book, because they were interested in preaching the good news and they consulted and pointed out many references in the Scriptures in their Bible study and preaching.
As to the fact that the Christians, if they did not invent the leaf-book, took the lead in the use of it, Professor E. J. Goodspeed in his book Christianity Goes to Press (1940, pp. 75, 76) says: “There were men in the early church keenly alive to the part publication was playing in the Graeco-Roman world, who, in their zeal to spread the Christian message over that world, seized upon all the techniques of publication, not just the old traditional threadbare ones, but the newest and most progressive ones, and made use of them to the full in their Christian propaganda. In doing this they began the use on any large scale of the leaf-book, now in universal use. Their gospel was not an esoteric, secret mystery, but something to be proclaimed upon the housetops, and they made it their business to carry into effect the old slogan of the prophets, ‘Publish good tidings.’ The writing of the individual gospels was a great matter, of course, but the collecting of them, together with their publication as a collection, was an altogether different act, and one of almost as much importance as the writing of some of them.”
Based on an address by Professor Sanders (published in the University of Michigan Quarterly Review, 1938, p. 109), Professor Goodspeed sets forth in his book (p. 71) a table comparing the findings of classical and of Christian works of the second, third, and fourth centuries C.E., as to the number of fragments of roll-books and of codex, or leaf-books, found in each group:
Century Roll Codex Roll Codex
II 1? 4
III 291 20 9? 38
IV 26 49 6? 64
Of early Christians as publishers of books, Professor Goodspeed goes on to say (p. 78): “They were not only abreast of their times in such matters, they were in advance of them, and the publishers of the subsequent centuries have followed them.” He further states (p. 99): “It was the publication of the Bible that had stimulated the development of the leaf-book for literary purposes in the second century, and it was the publication of the Bible that stimulated the invention of printing.”
Professor Goodspeed ventures (p. 81): “The curious remark in II Tim. 4:13 ‘Bring . . . the books, especially the parchments,’ (the Greek words are biblia, membranas) makes one wonder whether the biblia does not mean the scrolls of Jewish scripture, and the membranai the newer leaf-books of Christian origin
Palimpsests. Because of the cost or scarcity of writing material, it was sometimes reused. Manuscripts were at times partially erased by scraping, sponging, or using various preparations to remove as much as possible of the original. With papyrus, sponging was done if the ink was fairly fresh; otherwise the old writing was crossed out, or the back of the material was used for the writing surface. On some palimpsests, because of atmospheric action, and other conditions, the original writing might appear clearly enough to be deciphered. A number of Bible manuscripts are among these, a notable one of which is the Codex Ephraemi, containing, under what was probably 12th-century writing, a part of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures in writing thought to be of the 5th century C.E.
Other Books Referred To in the Bible. A number of uninspired books are referred to in the Bible. Some were source material for inspired writers. Some appear to be journals compiled from state records. Among them are the following:
Book of the Wars of Jehovah. Quoted by Moses at Numbers 21:14, 15, this book was undoubtedly a reliable record, or history, of the wars of God’s people. It may have begun with Abraham’s successful warfare against the four allied kings who captured Lot and his family.
Book of Jashar. This book is cited at Joshua 10:12, 13, which passage deals with the appeal of Joshua for the sun and the moon to stand still during his fight with the Amorites, and at 2 Samuel 1:18-27, setting forth a poem, called “The Bow,” a dirge over Saul and Jonathan. It is thought, therefore, that the book was a collection of poems, songs, and other writings. They were undoubtedly of considerable historical interest and were widely circulated among the Hebrews.
Other historical writings. Several other uninspired historical writings are referred to in the books of Kings and Chronicles, one being “the book of the affairs of the days of the kings of Israel.” (1Ki 14:19; 2Ki 15:31) “The book of the affairs of the times of the kings of Judah” is its counterpart for the kings of the southern kingdom, starting with Solomon’s son Rehoboam. It is referred to 15 times. (1Ki 14:29; 2Ki 24:5) Another record of Solomon’s rule is mentioned at 1 Kings 11:41 as “the book of the affairs of Solomon.”
In compiling and writing Chronicles after the exile, Ezra refers at least 14 times to other sources, including “the Book of the Kings of Israel,” “the account of the affairs of the days of King David,” and “the Book of the Kings of Judah and of Israel.” (1Ch 9:1; 27:24; 2Ch 16:11; 20:34; 24:27; 27:7; 33:18) Ezra also made reference to books by previous inspired writers. (1Ch 29:29; 2Ch 26:22; 32:32) Ezra notes that other prophets of Jehovah made written records that are not preserved in the inspired Holy Scriptures. (2Ch 9:29; 12:15; 13:22) A “book of the affairs of the times” is mentioned by Nehemiah. (Ne 12:23) Persian governmental records are noted in the Bible. In these were included reports of services rendered to the king, such as Mordecai’s disclosure of an assassination plot.
The wise writer of Ecclesiastes warns against the endless procession of books that are a product of worldly reasoning and conflict with godly wisdom, books that do not instill the fear of the true God and the keeping of his commandments. (Ec 12:12, 13) An example of such was found in Ephesus, where spiritism and demonism were rampant. After the preaching of the good news about Christ, the believers brought their books of magic and burned them publicly, the calculation of their price being 50,000 pieces of silver (if denarii, $37,200).
In Exodus 17:14 is Jehovah’s command to write his judgment against Amalek in “the book,” indicating that the writings of Moses, the first writings known to be inspired, were already under way in 1513 B.C.E.
Some other references to the Bible or parts of it are: “The book of the covenant,” apparently containing the legislation set out at Exodus 20:22 to 23:33 (Ex 24:7); and “the roll of the book,” the Hebrew Scriptures.
Figurative Use. Several times “book” is used figuratively, as in the expressions “your [God’s] book” (Ex 32:32), “book of remembrance” (Mal 3:16), and “book of life” (Php 4:3; Re 3:5; 20:15). It appears that these are all basically the same, that is, they are all God’s “book” of remembrance with a view to rewarding with eternal life (in heaven or on earth) the ones whose names are written in it. God’s “book” evidently receives names conditionally, since the Scriptures indicate that a person’s name can be ‘wiped out’ of it. (Ex 32:32, 33; Re 3:5) So only if a person continues faithful is his name retained in the book.