19 January 2011

Scrolls and Rolls

by Timothy S. Wilkinson

The leaved book, or codex, as a method of recording and accessing information, seems so obvious to us today. How could it not have been one of mankind's first inventions? And how is it possible that, for thousands of years, people were doing their writing on rocks, clay tablets, ivory or metal tablets, pottery shards, bits of animal skin, and--most significantly--scrolls?

Scrolls are awkward. Some of the original scrolls were well over 100 feet long; the Egyptian Harris Papyrus from the time of Ramses II was 133 feet. Finding the passage you wanted from the middle of the scroll must have taken a long time indeed. When my brother and I made the scroll pictured below, I quickly learned how easy it is to drop one end--and how difficult it is to get it rolled back up afterward.

In the Bible period, scrolls were made on pieces of leather, parchment, linen or papyrus glued together into a long, narrow sheet, rolled around a stick or dowel. The best scrolls were made of vellum, a material made from the skin of young calves. If the scroll was particularly long, having a dowel at either end allowed the reader to be rolling up one end while unrolling the other end.

The individual sheets or pieces that were glued together were typically 9 to 11 inches long and 6 to 9 inches wide. They were pasted together or sewn with linen thread. The rough edges were smoothed with pumice stone and the scroll was dipped in cedar oil to ward of insects.

Each of these sheets had between one and four columns of text; the Dead Sea Scrolls had roughly 30 lines per column.

This meant that a scroll that could hold the Gospels would have been over 100 feet long. When early Christians made the preaching and teaching of Christ's message their primary purpose, they needed a more convenient way to carry and share that message. Professor E. J. Goodspeed wrote: "Men in the early church...in their zeal to spread the Christian message...seized upon all the techniques of publication...In doing this they began the use on any large scale of the leaf-book, now in universal use."

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