What did the original Bible look like? Actually, the question itself is deceptive. It makes it sound like if we could go back far enough, we would find the original Bible, and it would be a book like we have today. Of course that is not true. Even the most conservative Christian I have ever met would recognize that the Bible was written by different people over hundreds of years. We should also remember that the process of collecting books to be included in what would come to be called the Bible was also a lengthy process. So it is not as if Paul writes 1 Corinthians and says, “Okay, here’s another book. Add it to the others.” Paul did not write “1 Corinthians.” he wrote a letter to the church at Corinth, dealing with problems they were facing and apparently in response to a letter they had written to him. Every book in the Bible was written to people living at that time with a message for them. This does not mean that it has no meaning for us; however, it is profitable to understand its message to those to whom it was first written. This will help us as we seek to apply the message to our situation today. Today we are going to focus on the form of the books of the Old Testament.
The header at the top of this blog is a photograph of one of the Dead Sea Scrolls. It is a book of psalms, although I was perhaps a bit deceptive about including it. While this is a book of psalms of the Qumran community, it is a collection of psalms that are not in the Biblical book of Psalms. But it is a good representation of what an Old Testament book might have looked like, with one exception. The picture is written in a form of Hebrew that is similar to modern Hebrew. This dates to a time after the Jews returned from Babylon when they incorporated the Aramaic alphabet to represent Hebrew words. Earlier Hebrew writing used the Phoenician alphabet. Here is an example of what is referred to as the Gezer Calendar.
Although it is written on stone and is not a part of the Bible, it does represent very well what the original Hebrew might have looked like.
If we are speaking of books in the Old Testament, we can be fairly certain of what the original (called the “autograph”) of a book would have looked like. It would undoubtedly have been on a scroll, written either on vellum (prepared animal skins, stitched together) or perhaps even papyrus, which was less expensive. At an early date, vellum would have been more likely. The maximum effective length of a scroll would have been around thirty feet long. If a scroll is much longer than that, it becomes hard to read. It is bulky and heavy. This limitation probably explains how some of the books in the Bible are divided. For instance, if we look at 1 and 2 Samuel, we see that 2 Samuel begins exactly where 1 Samuel left off with no break or even introductory material. So why did the writer not simply make 1 and 2 Samuel one book? I suspect that it has to do with size. 1 Samuel and 2 Samuel each represent what can realistically be included in one scroll. So, it is possible (I believe likely) that these were originally written to be one book; however, because of the size limitations of a scroll, they were separated and written on two scrolls. 1 and 2 Kings and 1 and 2 Chronicles may also have been divided for similar reasons. This is not always the case, however. In the New Testament, Acts is obviously a continuation of Luke and written by the same person. But if we read the introduction, we see clearly that Acts is intended to be a separate book, even though it essentially takes up the chronology where Luke left off.
There is another reason for limiting the size of a scroll. In a long scroll it is difficult to find your place. Remember that there would have been no chapters or verses. The writing would not even have included any punctuation. A scroll would normally have been written on only one side, and the reason is obvious. It is extremely difficult to locate a specific passage even when the writing is all on one side. Now imagine trying to deal with trying to find the location you want, if the scroll were written on both sides. Ezekiel 2.9 describes a scroll written on both sides, as does Revelation 5.1. While it is possible that small scrolls may have been written on both sides, I suspect the writings in Ezekiel and Revelation are literary devices, intended to draw attention to the message. It certainly was not common practice.
The Hebrew language has two distinctive characteristics that we might find unfamiliar. The first is this.
tfel ot thgir morf daer dna nettirw si werbeH
“Hebrew is written and read from right to left,” not left to right as we do in English. You just have to get used to it. This obviously meant that Hebrew scrolls would be rolled from left to right and unrolled from the right to the left.
Hbrw hs twnt-tw cnsnnts, bt n vwls
“Hebrew has twenty-two consonants, but no vowels.” The Hebrew language has no written vowels. But I suspect most of you could read the sentence above. I understand that people who read Hebrew fluently have no difficulty and that the vowel points (which were inserted much later) are actually a hindrance to them.
I hope this gives you a feel for what the original books of the Old Testament might have been like, as well as an appreciation for how much easier to read books are today. In my next post, we shall look at what the original writings of the New Testament may have been like. While there are many similarities, there are also some differences which may be interesting to consider.