Writing materials in the ancient world (3 John 1)

Bilderesultat for ancient writing materials

John’s statement that he was writing “with pen and ink” (3 John 1:13) sounds  modern, but in fact ancient people used writing materials that were far removed from what we think of as pen and paper. Ancient texts were written on the following materials:

  • Stone. This could be ordinary limestone or sandstone, or, for a small inscription, a semi-precious stone such as amethyst, turquoise or opal. The writing tool could be a chisel or metal stylus, but sometimes people wrote on stone with ink. In some instances the stone was covered with a coat of plaster, as in Deuteronomy 27:2-3. Stone, including marble, was widely used for monumental inscriptions describing the feasts of kings, but simple graffiti was also cut into stone.
  • Metal. This material was primarily used for commemorative and decorative objects, such as for inscriptions on a silver bowl. Two silver amulets inscribed with the text of Numbers 6:24-27 were discovered near Jerusalem, while a copper scroll was located at Qumran.
  • Wooden tablets. These could be coated with wax or stucco for the writing surface. Wax was especially useful since one could inscribe it with a pointed stylus and then rub out the writing and reuse the tablet.
  • Clay tablets. Clay was the medium for cuneiform. While still moist, it would be inscribed with a sharpened stick to create the distinctive, wedge-shaped cuneiform script. If baked, tablets became virtually indestructible, and thus may have survived through the centuries.
  • Ostraca. An ostraca is a common potsherd (a broken piece of pottery). It could be inscribed with a metal stylus or written on with ink. Ostraca were handy for short notes and letters. In Athens voters used them to write down the name of a citizen they wanted to send into exile or to “ostracize” (hence the name).
  • Leather. Leather pages are often referred to as vellum or parchment. In Israel leather was the medium of choice for writing the books of the Scriptures. The Isaiah scroll from Qumran, for example, is composed of leather, with the writing done in black ink.
  • Papyrus. This was the closest thing to paper from the ancient world. The Egyptian papyrus plant was cut into strips and pressed into sheets that were then glued together. This made for a strong, smooth writing surface, and papyrus naturally became very popular in the ancient world. The ink on a papyrus could be erased and the papyrus reused; an erased and reused papyrus document is called a palimpsest.
  • Scrolls and codices. For almost all of Biblical history, papyrus or leather was formed into long strips and rolled up on scrolls. However, around the first century A.D. people began to stitch together one side of a group  of papyrus or leather leaves to create the equivalent of the moden book, called a codex. The early Christians adopted the idea of the codex, and thus most early Christian Bibles are in the form of codices rather than scrolls.
  • Ink. John especially mentioned “ink”. In the ancient world ink was usually black, made from carbon mixed with a natural gum. Red ink, however, was also widely used

The literacy rate was especially high in the Greco-Roman world, and writing materials, although difficult to work with by modern standards, were widely available. Letter writing was common, and the relative ease of communication facilitated the missionary and pastoral work of the apostles.


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