Writing Materials in the Bible

The Moabite Stone or Mesha Stele (composed circa 840).

Introduction

Although modern readers usually take it for granted, the authors, compilers and redactors of the biblical texts took much effort to ensure the survival of the Bible. An untold number of ancient texts are no longer extant for no other reason than the writing media used to write the text could not survive the passage of time or the inevitable damaged caused by human hands. Given the importance of the use of writing media to ensure the survival of a text, the question naturally arises whether the Bible ever speaks about what writing media were used in ancient Israel, and whether archaeological evidence may help make sense of this puzzle. In this paper, I shall review those few passages in the Bible that speak of the use of writing media and then compare those statements with what we find in the archaeological record.


Before I begin, I should also clarify what I shall not be addressing in this paper. I shall not be addressing different scribal or archival practices found in the societies of the ancient Near East. Others much more qualified than I have already undertaken examinations of the nature of Near Eastern libraries and scribal practices.[1] As such, I shall focus only on what remains in the archaeological record that may shed light on the Bible.

Survey of Biblical Examples of Writing Materials

There are few examples from the biblical text that discuss the sort of writing materials used in ancient Israel. Notwithstanding, the few instances that do exist are worthy of our attention.

Stone

The first writing medium we will discuss is stone. Deuteronomy 27 records that "Moses and all the elders of Israel charged all the people" of the house of Israel to write the laws commanded by Yahweh on "large stones" (Heb: אבנים גדלות) when they had crossed over the Jordan (Deut. 27:2–3).[2] These stones were to be placed "on Mount Ebal" next to an altar, in what would effectively become a cultic site (Deut. 27:4). Elsewhere the Hebrew Bible speaks metaphorically of "the sin of Judah" being written "with an iron pen . . . on the tablet of their hearts" (Jeremiah 17:1). The word in Hebrew for "tablet" is לוח, and is used as the word for the "tablets of the covenant, tablets of stone" that were given to Moses on Mount Sinai and said to be "written by the finger of God" (Exodus 31:18).

Metal

The use of metal as a writing medium is briefly mentioned in scattered passages throughout the Bible. As part of the series of instructions on how to make the regalia of the high priest, Yahweh commanded Moses: "You shall make a rosette of pure gold, and engrave on it, like the engraving of a signet, 'Holy to the Lord'" (Exodus 28:36). This "rosette of pure gold" (Heb: ציץ זהב) was evidently a small plaque of some sort that was cushioned "on the front of the turban" of the high priest (Exodus 28:37).

In one of the prophet's early oracles, Yahweh instructed Isaiah to "take a large tablet and write on it" with a cheret (Isaiah 8:1). A cheret (Heb: חרט), according to Kevin Barney, "is not a 'pen' in the sense of an instrument that would use ink but rather a stylus that engraves in a hard surface." Similarly, Barney continues, this "tablet" that Yahweh commanded Isaiah to write on was not "a papyrus or leather scroll but rather a tablet of some kind, whether of metal, stone, or wood. The word occurs only one other time in the Old Testament, at Isaiah 3:23, where it means 'tablets of polished metal' (i.e., 'mirrors'). Therefore, the Lord most likely commanded Isaiah to write on a large, polished, metal
tablet."[3]

Turning to the Apocrypha, which is found in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint) and included in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles today, 1 Maccabees 8:22 reads: "And this is a copy of the letter that they [Judas and his associates] wrote in reply, on bronze tablets, and sent to Jerusalem to remain with them there as a memorial of peace and alliance." This example shows rather unambiguously that, at least according to the biblical text, bronze was used late in Israel's history as a writing medium.

Papyrus/Leather

Papyrus and leather most likely served as the most common writing media in biblical Israel. "It is likely that the biblical texts were written on papyrus or leather scrolls," writes Paul D. Wegner.[4] The evidence for this comes not only from the archaeological record, as we'll see later, but also from the text of the Bible itself.

The example of writing on papyrus in Jeremiah 36 serves as one of the best examples in the biblical text. In this chapter, Jeremiah is commanded to "take a scroll and write on it all the words that I have spoken" (Jeremiah 36:2). Accordingly, Jeremiah employs a scribe, Baruch, who writes "on a scroll at Jeremiah's dictation" (Jeremiah 36:4). This scroll was written "with ink," and subsequently copied when king Johiakim burned it out of frustration (Jeremiah 36:18, 20–32). The word used for "scroll" in the Hebrew text is ספר and is the most common Hebrew word for "scroll" throughout the Bible. That this scroll was made of papyrus or leather is evident in king Jehoiakim's ability to "cut [the scroll] with a penknife and throw [it] into the fire" (Jeremiah 36:23), a feat that would have been impossible with metal or stone.

Wood

Finally, although far less frequently attested, the biblical text does speak of wood being used as a writing material. A passage from the book of Ezekiel well known to Latter-day Saints speaks of Ezekiel being commanded by Yahweh to write on wood. "The word of the Lord came to me: Mortal, take a stick and write on it, ‘For Judah, and the Israelites associated with it’; then take another stick and write on it, ‘For Joseph (the stick of Ephraim) and all the house of Israel associated with it’; and join them together into one stick, so that they may become one in your hand" (Ezekiel 37:15–17). The Hebrew word underlying the English "stick" is simply the word for "wood" (Heb: עץ).

Survey of Archaeological Evidence of Writing Materials

Now that we've reviewed the biblical evidence for different writing materials, we turn to the archaeological record to see what evidence there is, if any, to corroborate the biblical record. In fact, there exists an abundance of archaeological evidence that creates a nice convergence between the biblical text and the ancient Near East.

Stone

Stone, next to clay,[5] is one of the oldest and most abundant writing materials of the ancient Near East. "Monumental inscriptions on stone, often associated with reliefs, are well attested in Anatolia, N Syria, Persia, Phoenicia, and Egypt," according to André Lemaire.[6] The use of the stele (Gr: ἡ στήλη; "upright stone") to record monumental inscriptions is so widely attested in the ancient Near East that to list every example would be tedious. So instead I will examine just a few examples that are pertinent to the Bible.
  • A plaster stele discovered at the temple of Deir 'Alla and dating to circa 700 BCE "contains the sayings of Balaam, son of Beor, identified with the non-Israelite prophet whom the Israelites met on their way to the land of Canaan before crossing the Jordan."[7]
  • The famous Tell Dan Stele, discovered at Tell Dan in 1993 and dating to the 8th century BCE, contains the earliest extra-biblical reference to the "house of David." The stele is one of the most important pieces of evidence for the historicity of the Davidic kingdom.[8]
  • The Moabite Inscription, carved on "a black basalt stone," is written in a script very similar to Hebrew and serves as the "earliest occurrence of the name of Israel's god [Yahweh] in an inscription." It dates to the mid 9th century BCE.[9]
  • Although not technically a stele, the Siloam inscription, which documents the efforts of Hezekiah's engineers to create a water tunnel to connect the pool of Siloam with the Gihon Spring, is an important text written on "the lower half of a prepared [stone] panel." The inscription dates to circa 700 BCE, as is almost certainly "a product of Hezekiah's reign."[10]

Metal

One of the Ketef Hinnom amulets/scrolls
(composed circa late-7th century BCE.)
Archaeological evidence for the use of metal as a writing medium has been found throughout the Mediterranean region. Although the use of metal as a writing medium was limited compared to papyri or steles, some important examples have survived.
  • The Ketef Hinnom scrolls are two, small silver amulets, discovered in 1980 by Gabriel Barkay, that "include blessings almost identical to the so-called priestly or Aaronid Benediction of Num 6:24–26." Although the dating of the scrolls is disputed, most scholars assign a pre-exilic date.[11]
  • Among the corpus of texts discovered at Qumran is the so-called Copper Scroll (3Q15). As William J. Hamblin summarizes, "Although the origin and purpose of the Copper Scroll is widely debated, it is a clear example of an attempt to preserve an important sacred record by writing on copper/bronze (Heb. nechushah) plates and then hiding the document."[12]

Numerous other examples of writing on metal or metal plates from the ancient Near East, including both Semitic and Greek inscriptions, are well known.[13]

Papyrus/Leather

As with the numerous archaeological examples of texts being written on stone and clay, the examples of texts being written on papyrus are so abundant that it would take an inordinate amount of time to describe every single known instance. Indeed, the very word for "Bible" comes from the Greek τά βιβλία ("the books"), which is also the Greek word for "papyrus."14 Papyrus in particular was used throughout the span of Egypt's history, and frequently exported to neighboring locales. "The proximity of Palestine to Egypt made papyrus easy to obtain there, all the more so during the LB period, when Canaan was an Egyptian protectorate," notes Lemaire.[15]
  • The earliest biblical manuscripts thus far discovered are among the Dead Sea Scrolls. They date to circa 150 BCE. According to Emanuel Tov, one of the leading experts in Dead Sea Scroll research, the materials used in the composition of these manuscripts include both papyrus and tanned leather and were collected as both individual sheets and bound scrolls.[16]
  • Besides the Qumran manuscripts noted above, the overwhelming number of biblical manuscripts (besides a few ostraca) that have survived from the Hellenic period onward into the Christian era are written on papyrus, leather, and early forms of paper (parchment). Given the fact that papyrus sheets are relatively easily manufactured, as well as the fact that papyrus is relatively cheap, papyrus, and later parchment, has served as an extremely common writing medium.[17]

Wood

Unfortunately, because it is a highly perishable material, there remains almost no archaeological evidence for the use of wood as a writing medium. The vast majority of any wood media have long eroded in the sands of the Near East. That being said, we do posses at least a few examples that have miraculously survived. As Lemaire explains, "Wooden tablets, often coated with stucco, were frequently used in Egypt, especially for schoolboys' exercises. Such tablets have little chance of surviving in Mesopotamia or Syria-Palestine because of the climate. Only one example is known from Palestine: a letter sent by Bar Kosiba/Kokhba and found in Nahal Hever."[18] Also attested in the archaeological record are precious few wax-coated wooden writing boards "in Assyria and N Syria in the 8th century B.C."[19] It seems likely that these Assyrian wax-coated wooden writing boards are the type of "sticks" used by the prophet in Ezekiel 37.

Conclusion

As this brief paper has shown, we have seen that the Bible mentions the use of a number of different materials for writing and preserving texts, including stone, metal, papyrus/leather, and wood. Interestingly, the Bible does not seem to mention the use of clay as a writing material, even though clay, like stone, was one of the most widely used materials for writing in the ancient Near East. Although the archaeological record is in some instances scant, such as in examples of wood and metal as a writing material, we have also seen that the Bible's mentioning of these different media generally converges
with what we know about the use of writing media in a larger Near Eastern backdrop.

This convergence by no means proves the historicity of the biblical accounts, but it does offer us a glimpse into the world of ancient Israel. It also shows us that the ancient Israelites, as well as other Near Eastern peoples, for that matter, evidently went to great pains to ensure that their culture was preserved in writing by using a number of different media to preserve their heritage.

Notes

[1]: Jeremy A. Black and W. J. Tait, "Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East," in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Volumes Three & Four, ed. Jack M. Sasson (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2000), 2197–2209.

[2]: All biblical citations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

[3]: Kevin Barney, "A More Responsible Critique," FARMS Review 15/1 (2003): 107.

[4]: Paul D. Wegner, A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible: Its History, Methods & Results (Downer Groves, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2006), 62.

[5]: Kerry M. Muhlestein, "From Clay Tablets to Canon: The Story of the Formation of Scripture," in How the New Testament Came to Be: The Thirty-fifth Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium, ed. Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr (Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2006), 44–45.

[6]: André Lemaire, "Writing and Writing Materials," in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1992), 6:1001.

[7]: Baruch A. Levine, "The Deir 'Alla Plaster Inscriptions," in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, ed. William W. Hallo (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 140–45. See also Philip J. King and Lawrence E. Stager, Life in Biblical Israel (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 304.

[8]: Alan Millard, "The Tell Dan Stele," in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, 161–62. See also André Lemaire, "The United Monarchy: Saul, David, and Solomon," in Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple, ed. Hershel Shanks, 3rd ed. (Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2011), 121, 134–35, 144, 152.

[9]: K. A. D Smelik, "The Inscription of King Mesha," in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, 137–38. See also Siegfried H. Horn and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "The Divided Monarchy: The Kingdoms of Judah and Israel," in Ancient Israel, 144–146.

[10]: K. Lawson Younger, Jr., "The Siloam Tunnel Inscription," in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, 145–46. See also Siegfried H. Horn and P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., "The Divided Monarchy: The Kingdoms of Judah and Israel," in Ancient Israel, 188–191.

[11]: P. Kyle McCarter, "The Ketef Hinnom Amulets," in The Context of Scripture, Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World, 221. See also King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 305–306.

[12]: William J. Hamblin, "Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean," FARMS Review 19/1 (2007): 41. See also King and Stager, Life in Biblical Israel, 305.

[13]: William J. Hamblin, "Sacred Writing on Metal Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean," 42–52. As Hamblin, ibid. 52–53, concludes, "Based on these examples of Hebrew, Phoenician, Greek, and Italic practices, we can conclude that writing and preserving sacred bronze and gold plates was a widespread phenomenon in the eastern Mediterranean world."

[14]: James I. Cook, "Books and Bookmaking in Antiquity," in The Oxford Companion to the Bible, ed. Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press, 1993), 93.

[15]: Lemaire, "Writing and Writing Materials," 1003.

[16]: Emanuel Tov, Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004), 31–56.

[17]: Wegner, A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible, 28, 62, 79–82, 150, 201, 208, 232–34, 304, 307.

[18]: Lemaire, "Writing and Writing Materials," 1002.

[19]: Ibid.
Bibliography

Barney, Kevin. "A More Responsible Critique." FARMS Review 15, no. 1 (2003): 97–146.

Black, Jeremy A. and W. J. Tait. "Archives and Libraries in the Ancient Near East. Pages 2197–2209 in Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Volumes Three & Four. Edited by Jack M. Sasson. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2000.

Dix, T. Keith. "Books and Bookmaking in Antiquity." Pages 93–95 in The Oxford Companion to the Bible. Edited by Bruce M. Metzger and Michael D. Coogan. New York, N. Y.: Oxford University Press, 1993).

Hallo, William W. Editor. The Context of Scripture, Volume 2: Monumental Inscriptions from the Biblical World. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Hamblin, William J. "Sacred Writing on Metals Plates in the Ancient Mediterranean." FARMS Review 19, no. 1 (2007): 37–54.

King, Philip J. and Lawrence E. Stager. Life in Biblical Israel. Louisville, Kentucky. Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.

Lemaire, André. "Writing and Writing Materials." Pages 999–1008 in Vol. 6 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. Edited by David Noel Freedman. New York, N. Y.: Doubleday, 1992.

Muhlestein, Kerry. “From Clay Tablets to Canon: The Story of the Formation of Scripture.” Pages 43–61 in How the New Testament Came to Be: The Thirty-fifth Annual Sidney B. Sperry Symposium. Edited by Kent P. Jackson and Frank F. Judd Jr. Provo, Utah: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2006.

Tov, Emmanuel. Scribal Practices and Approaches Reflected in the Texts Found in the Judean Desert. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2004.

Wegner, Paul D. A Student's Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bible. Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2006.

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