Papyrus—Forerunner of Paper
MATERIAL to write on was not always as plentiful and as cheap as paper is today, when one can buy a notebook in exchange for some small change. Among the many things used for writing in times past before paper became common were stone, clay, potsherds, metals, wood, bark, leaves, leather, papyrus, vellum (calfskin) and parchment (sheepskin). In particular did the poor of ancient times use potsherds, that is, broken pieces of clay pots, which could be found in any rubbish heap and which had a smooth surface on which to write. Known as ostraca, they are a boon to archaeologists.
Among all these writing materials perhaps none has been used as long as papyrus. Its use goes back two thousand years or more before Christ, and some persons continued to manufacture it up until the beginning of this twentieth century. Bible lovers in particular are interested in papyrus, as it appears that the Christian Greek Scriptures were originally written on papyrus, copyists of these Scriptures making common use of papyrus down to the seventh century A.D. The English word “paper” comes from papyrus.
Papyrus is a writing material made from the water plant by the same name, which name means “product of the river.” It had a root the size of a man’s wrist that grew along the bottom of the shallow waters of the Nile, in about three feet of water, and sent up shoots that grew six or more feet high.—Job 8:11.
The ancient Egyptians found many uses for papyrus. It served for fuel, for the making of boats, sails, rope, mats and sandals. The babe Moses was placed in an ark or chest made of it. But its chief and most profitable use was for writing material. In fact, its manufacture was at one time Egypt’s chief industry.—Ex. 2:3; Isa. 18:2.
For writing material the soft center or pith was used. By the Greeks it was called biblos, which was the name given to scrolls of papyrus, and from which we get the name “Bible.” It also became the name of the Phoenician city that was a center of the papyrus industry, Byblos.—Gal. 3:10; 2 Tim. 4:13.
The pith was sliced very thin and strips were placed alongside each other vertically, and on these another layer was laid at right angles or horizontally. The two layers were glued together and then the strips were beaten with a mallet and dried in the sun. The sheet was made smooth with pumice and polished with ivory or shells. The finished product was soft and flexible and obtainable in various sizes and grades of quality.
The height and width of these sheets varied from six to eighteen inches, and usually twenty such sheets were pasted together to make a roll, which was fastened to a thin stick. Such rolls, but one and a half inches in diameter, ran from fourteen to twenty feet in length, and for everyday use rarely exceeded thirty feet. Special state documents, however, reached great lengths, one having come down to us that is 133 feet long.
The surface primarily used for writing was the one on which the strips of papyrus ran horizontally, or lengthwise, which aided in the writing of straight lines, although at times the reverse side was used to complete a writing. The colophon, the inscription telling the details of when it was copied and by whom, was added at the end of the roll. Beginning with the second century A.D., the papyrus scroll began to be replaced by papyrus codices, booklike manuscripts, which, in turn, were gradually replaced, beginning with the fourth century, by codices made of vellum or parchment.—Ezek. 2:10; Rev. 5:1.
The writing on papyrus was by means of a reed pen, moistened to make the tip soft, and for ink a mixture of gum soot and water was used. Writing usually was done in narrow columns from two to four inches wide. When not in use papyrus scrolls were kept in a cylindrical case or chest known as a capsa.
For Christians, writing on papyrus that has come down to our day has proved of great value. For one thing, it made known the koiné or common Greek spoken and used by the Christian Greek Scripture writers. And most important of all, Biblical papyri have served to verify the authenticity of the Christian Greek Scriptures as we have them today.