Papyrus tears, discolors, and weakens easily. “A sheet can eventually decay into a skeleton of fibres and a handful of dust,” say Egyptologists Richard Parkinson and Stephen Quirke. “When in storage, a roll can grow mould or rot with the damp and can be eaten by rodents or insects, particularly by white ants, when it is buried.” Some papyri, after their discovery, were exposed to excessive light or humidity, accelerating their deterioration.
Parchment is more durable than papyrus, but it too degrades if mishandled or exposed to extreme temperatures, humidity, or light.* Parchment is also a target of insects. Consequently, for ancient records, states the book Everyday Writing in the Graeco-Roman East, “survival is the exception rather than the rule.” If the Bible had thus decayed, its message would have died with it.
HOW THE BIBLE SURVIVED: Jewish law compelled every king to “write for himself in a book a copy of this Law,” the first five books of the Bible. (Deuteronomy 17:18) Moreover, professional copyists produced so many manuscripts that by the first century C.E., the Scriptures could be found in synagogues throughout Israel and even in distant Macedonia! (Luke 4:16, 17; Acts 17:11) How did some very old manuscripts survive until today?
“Jews were known to put scrolls containing Scripture in pitchers or jars in order to preserve them,” says New Testament scholar Philip W. Comfort. Christians evidently continued that tradition. Consequently, some early Bible manuscripts have been discovered in clay jars, as well as in dark closets and caves and in exceptionally dry regions.
THE RESULT: Thousands of portions of Bible manuscripts—some over 2,000 years old—survive to this day. No other ancient text has so many manuscripts from so long ago.
Papyrus is a writing material made from an aquatic plant of the same name. Parchment is made from animal skins.
For example, the official signed copy of the U.S. Declaration of Independence was written on parchment. Now, less than 250 years later, it has faded to the point of being barely legible.