History of Writing in the First Century AD

Updated: Apr 24, 2020

Letters, contracts, novels, plays, how-to manuals and more have been around for thousands of years. What process for writing and editing did writers use in the first century AD?

As I've been busy editing and formatting my own book for publication, I found myself wondering about how the books of the Bible were crafted and produced. I'm here to share with you what I learned!

Letters, contracts, novels, plays, how-to manuals and more have been around for thousands of years. What process for writing and editing did writers use in the first century AD?

Readers Were Rare in the Ancient World

In the first century, historians believe than in the average society only about 5-20 percent of the population knew how to read. Of those, the wealthy aristocrats probably made up the bulk of readers, but literacy was needed among certain tradespeople, and men holding important positions in the military.

Not being able to read didn't seem to really bother people back then, because they had two really great ways to deal with the lack of literacy:

1. They were excellent at memorizing oral messages and text.

This is something hard for us to get our heads around (considering how easily we forget even a short grocery list!) but this was a real skill that they trained themselves to do, and do well!

2. They could usually find a scribe to do their writing for them.

Scribes could write up anything you might need. From a marriage certificate, to a letter of business or a message back home a scribe could get it done. If given a scroll, a scribe could also make you a copy. (Protecting an author's work was much more difficult back then! We can see the frustration of a modified text in 2 Thess 2:2*)

Not All Scribes Were Equal

The scribes mentioned in the gospels were of a higher caliber than the average tradesman scribe found in the marketplace, who would vary in skill. Temple scribes were required to memorize vast swaths of scripture, and to be able to write it out letter-perfect. With this memorization and study, they were the authorities of the day on interpreting scriptures in new situations, replacing the prophets of old who had long since disappeared.*

What Did People Write With?

The most common material pen and ink on papyrus.* Papyrus was crafted from reeds farmed specifically for writing material. A more costly material was parchment or vellum, made from the skins of sheep and goats. A scroll of papyrus was about 8 to 10 inches high and 30 feet long. The writing was done in narrow columns 2 to 4 inches wide with 25-45 lines per column. The length of available scrolls was the first century equivalent of a max word count!

Considering how you would need to slowly roll the scroll from one end to the other to get to the part you wanted, you can see why the codex became popular in the second century AD. A codex is made with folded sheets of papyrus stitched together to form a book.* Though not invented by Christians, it was widely used by them, and the preferred method of the New Testament writings, as it was far easier to find a specific text quickly.

The First Century Equivalent of a Post-it Note

Another way to write temporary notes was on a wax tablet. The wax was fixed to two hinged pieces of wood that folded together like a book. A stylus was used to scratch the wax, and then the wax could be smoothed over and used again and again.

What Language Would a Writer Use?

In the First Century world of Jesus, almost all writing of business would be in Greek.* It was the language of trade and commerce.

The New Testament was written in Hellenistic Greek, with a small amount in Aramaic or Hebrew words or phrases.* (The New Testament might have been written in Greek, but translated from Hebrew or Aramaic. Like many historical documents, scholars are still sorting out all linguistic details.)

Reading was Almost Always Out Loud

Considering how the majority of the civilization were not literate, letters, scrolls, and codex were written specifically to be read aloud. Greek writing in this era had no spaces or punctuation, and it often took reading the scroll aloud to understand the text. Even reading to yourself, you would probably need to read out loud. This meant that written words often had a beautiful rhythm or flow that would roll smoothly off the tongue, and aid in oral memorization.

From my tiny experience in Greek from an introductory class, I learned how certain formatting styles were employed to help make certain points or to show emphasis or emotion in the text – which we sadly lose some of when we translate to a differe