Updated: Apr 24
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!
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 different language. (My Greek teach was sure to make sure we understood that translating from one language to another is not a paint-by-numbers approach, which is why we need to be careful and respectful when doing word searches in our personal Bible studies.)
How to Write a First-century Letter
Greek letters found in the first century follow a pattern*, much the way kids in school today are taught to write letters with the same, “Dear so and so, how are you? I am fine.” You can see that writers like Paul followed these style outlines.
1. A person would dictate the letter to a scribe, and the scribe would read it back to them to make sure it was conveying the proper message.
2. Considering the careful arrangements of the letters of the New Testament, it is very likely that more than one draft was made, and that an outline might have been made first. Perhaps they used a wax tablet or scraps of parchment to gather their thoughts.
3. A scribe might have helped the writers of the NT frame their words in the best way, the same way an editor helps a writer arrange their text today.
4. Letters would open up with prescript of who is writing, who the letter is for, and a salutation. What generally follows then is a wish for the recipient's well-being and an expression of the writer's good health. Some thanks might be given to a god at this time, or a prayer about something. (Philippians 1:1-5)
5. Then the letter body follows. There are many different styles of letter body, and there can be more than one per letter. Here are just a few found, all found in the New Testament:
- to disclose information “I want you to know that” (Philippians 1:12)
- to appeal to someone to do something (more friendly than a command) “I appeal” (Romans 12:1)
- or to use indirect pressure for the recipient to live up to the writer's confidence in them, “I am confident . . .” (Phil 1:6)
- a new topic was often shown by the phrase, “now about/concerning” (1 Corinthians 7:1)
- or a final topic would be introduced with “finally/for the rest”. (Philippians 4:8)
6. Then the letter would close with some final remarks, messages to be passed along, wishes for the recipients well being etc.
7. Lastly, considering that most letters were written by a scribe, the letter would be finished in the scrawl of the letter sender, or the scribe would note that they had written the letter on behalf of another. (2 Thess 3:17)
I often wonder what Paul would feel knowing that his letters are still in circulation today! Did he ever imagine that his carefully crafted letters to the early churches would be eagerly examined two thousand years later?
While some are threatened by the idea that the Bible is covered with the stylistic fingerprints of living, breathing men, I have no doubts that the Bible is inspired scripture, and relevant for teaching today. Knowing a little about the history of simply helps me to better appreciate the Bible!
*References taken from Dictionary of New Testament Background pages: 426, 430, 431,642, 643, 646, 1086, 1283, 1284