It is probable that most, if not all, of the original New Testament documents were written in scroll (or roll) form. The length of the writing determined the size of the scroll, usually no more than twenty sheets pasted together, about a foot (30 cm) high and seldom exceeding thirty-five feet (10.5 m) in length. Extant papyrus scrolls of the Egyptian Book of the Dead are more than 100 feet (30 m) long, but they were meant to be buried in a tomb, not read. The Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts would have each filled a papyrus scroll of thirty-one or thirty-two feet (9.5 m) in length, thus having to be issued in two volumes instead of one. The English word “volume” comes from the Latin volumen, meaning “something rolled up” (cp. biblion in Luke 4:17, 20; John 20:30; Rev. 6:14). The text was written in many columns (each two or three inches [5-7½ cm] wide), so that the unused part of the scroll could be neatly rolled up on the left- and right-hand sides.
It is possible that some of the New Testament documents, particularly those originating in major industrialized centers like Rome, were composed in codex form. A codex was shaped much like a modern book, consisting of several leaves or pages bound together. This form came into widespread use near the end of the 1st century AD.1 It was a more convenient form than the scroll, especially for reading and for text reference, and also for writing on both sides (reducing the cost of production). The codex allowed multiple volumes (e.g. all four Gospels or all the Pauline epistles) to be collected into a single book. Very early on Christians adopted and popularized the codex format in preference to the scroll. Of the approximately 172 extant biblical manuscripts or fragments transcribed prior to AD 400 or not long thereafter, all but fourteen were produced in codex form.
Uncial or Majuscule script consists of unconnected capital letters (sometimes called “book-hand”). The word “uncial” is derived from the Latin uncia, meaning “a 12th part,” or perhaps uncialis, meaning “inch-high.” It has been suggested that the term came to be applied to writings that occupied about one-twelfth of an ordinary line of text. This term has a precise meaning in Latin writing but only a derived and less precise meaning in Greek (see B. M. Metzger and B. D. Ehrman, The Text of the NT 17; J. H. Greenlee, Introduction to NT Textual Criticism 17).
In the earlier centuries practically no accents, breathing or punctuation marks or adornments were used, with no division between words – a style known as scriptio continua. While scriptio continua admittedly had the potential of causing ambiguity in the text, this was less likely in the Greek language with, among other things, its structure of word endings. Greek words typically end in vowels (or diphthongs) or in one of only three consonants (nu, rho, sigma), and ancient texts were read aloud and copied syllable by syllable rather than letter by letter. Moreover, the original apostolic documents were personally delivered and publicly read by someone well acquainted with the message (cf. Acts 15:22-32; Eph. 6:21-22; Phil. 2:19-25; Col. 4:7-9). In English, the expression GODISNOWHERE could be read as either, “God is now here” or “God is nowhere.” However, in Greek, the expression ΟΘΕΟΣΠΑΡΕΣΤΙΝΝΥΝ can only mean, “God is now here,” with no ambiguity. New Testament manuscripts earlier than the 10th century were written in uncial letters.
Minuscule is descriptive of smaller (lower-case) letters. Cursive writing, wherein letters were connected and could be written rapidly, was used for non-literary documents (e.g. personal notes, receipts, lists, etc.). Although the terms “cursive” and “minuscule” are sometimes used interchangeably, “cursive” applies to the less formal style of non-literary documents, while “minuscule” refers to a neater form used for literary texts (such as New Testament manuscripts). In the early 9th century AD cursive was modified and formalized into the minuscule style that was suitable for literature; by the end of the 10th century it had replaced uncial for literary purposes. About nine-tenths of the extant Greek New Testament manuscripts are written in the minuscule style.
It was a common practice during the Hellenistic age for skilled writers (amanuenses) to be employed for writing just about any document, from literary works and legal records to business transcripts and personal letters. In particular Paul seems to have followed the customary practice of his contemporaries by employing the aid of secretarial expertise (Rom. 16:22) and then writing his own subscription (1 Cor. 16:21; Gal. 6:11; Col. 4:18; 2 Thess. 3:17; Philem. 19), although Paul was not the only biblical writer who utilized secretarial assistance (cf. Jer. 36:1-4; 1 Pet. 5:12; Acts 15:22-23).2
Beyond the oral transmission of divine revelation, biblical documents serve as an extension of prophetic and apostolic teaching. More than paper and ink and human instrumentality, these writings communicate God’s will for mankind. “For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).
--Kevin L. Moore
1 See C. H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, Birth of the Codex 54-61. In Epigram 1.2 of the Roman poet Martial (d. 102), dated 84-86, reference is made to writings in the codex form (see C. P. Thiede and M. D’Ancona, The Jesus Papyrus 103-105); cf. D. C. Parker, NT Manuscripts 13-21.
2 This convention is clearly demonstrated in the papyri (cf. E. G. Turner, Greek Papyri: An Introduction 82-83). See also R. N. Longenecker, “Ancient Amanuenses,” in New Dimensions in NT Study 282-87; E. R. Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul; G. J. Bahr, “Paul and Letter Writing in the Fi[rst] Century” 465-477; “The Subscriptions in the Pauline Letters” 27-41; J. Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer 8-16; M. P. Prior, Paul the Letter-Writer.
Related Posts: Production of a NT Document Part 1, Divine Revelation and Inspiration of the Scriptures
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