Ancient Texts 2 – Nature and Composition

Before we can explore the way texts were used in ancient, oral cultures, it’s important to understand their physical nature and the manner in which they were constructed. I’ve discovered over the years that something which is obvious or well-known for one person may not be known for another, so I’ll try to briefly cover all the main points. If you already know most of this, bear with me.

First, the two ancient media for texts (if you discount clay or stone engravings) were papyrus and parchment. Papyrus was developed in ancient Egypt from the pith of a plant that grew in the Nile region and became widely used across that region of the ancient world. Parchment was constructed from thin layers of animal skin (calf, sheep, or goat). Both tended to be somewhat fragile and subject to damage by the elements and both were expensive. The higher the quality, the more expensive they were.

Longer texts were originally maintained on scrolls. Scrolls tend to damage the material, especially at the ends where they were attached as they were rolled and unrolled. And scrolls were not necessarily easy to access. You couldn’t just flip to a particular page the way you can in a modern book. There was also a physical limit on the size of a scroll. (When we look at the development of what Christians call the Old Testament, there’s an interesting historical tidbit that flows from that fact.)

Around the first century BCE or CE, the idea of folding or stitching papyrus or parchment in a rectangular form called a codex developed. That form was widely adopted by early Christian writers and is obviously the predecessor of the modern book. A codex, however, was not as large as a modern book. The form wouldn’t physically support that size. That will be important to remember, especially when we consider the New Testament.

At least in part because of the expense, space was not wasted on ancient texts. Unlike your average Rob Bell book, most of the available material was typically covered in writing. Niceties like lower case and punctuation were also relatively late developing. So an ancient text typically was in all one case, with no punctuation, and no spaces between the words. (Ancient Hebrew didn’t even have vowels in its written form.) An overly simple example I’ve seen used to illustrate that point follows.


What does the above say? Does it say “God is now here?” Or does it say “God is nowhere?” Now that’s ridiculously simple and with any context at all, it wouldn’t be hard for any of us to figure out. But now imagine a large, complex text written like the above from edge to edge with no spacing, no breaks, no marks to indicate how it should be read and understood. Imagine this very post written in all caps with no spaces and no punctuation. Could you read it?

So how did texts work in the ancient world? It’s pretty straightforward, actually. Remember, these were oral cultures. The text was never meant to stand by itself. Instead it captured something that had been delivered orally or which was intended to be delivered orally. A person who knew how it was supposed to be read would orally present it to others who would learn the correct reading from the oral presentation. The text was not the delivery mechanism itself the way it is in a literate culture. Rather the text essentially formed the crib notes for the oral presentation. And the tradition of that oral presentation was then passed along with the text.

I don’t remember who it was, but there was one ancient Christian saint who was known in part because he could read the Holy Scriptures without his lips moving, that is without sounding it out as he read. Now, that seems unremarkable to those of us shaped within the context of a literate culture. But that was highly unusual in an oral culture. People were not shaped to think that way. And the texts themselves did not support it.

So when you pick up a Bible, there are some things you should now recognize about it. First, it was never a single book until pretty recent times. Instead, it was a collection of separate scrolls and codices. Those scrolls and codices were not divided into chapters and verses for easy reference for many years. Their early or original forms did not have any spaces between the words or any punctuation. When you read a modern Bible, even before you get into the issue of the way interpretation influences word selection in translation, it’s important to recognize that all of the punctuation, sentence structures, and paragraph breaks form an attempt to translate an oral tradition into a literate form.

As you can see, it’s a little silly to try to distinguish oral from written tradition. In the ancient world, it was all fundamentally oral tradition. The texts serve to capture part of the oral tradition in which they were embedded. Typically they formed a very important part of that tradition, else they would not have been preserved. But it’s important to place them in their proper ancient context.

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