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Most diachronic studies of the biblical text focus on the message itself and its development in the oral and written stages as it was transmitted. Several recent studies shift the focus to the scribes and other tradents who copied, corrected, and in many cases enhanced the text as they passed it along to future generations. One other, frequently overlooked, aspect of the process of transmission is also a candidate for scholarly consideration: the technology used to transmit the text. Technology includes several interrelated tools and concepts, such as the material on which the text is written and read (media), the tools used to inscribe the text (input devices), the script (encoding scheme), and procedures, rules, and conventions for inscribing the text (encoding strategies), among others. It is convenient to use the first of these categories, media, as a way to divide the history of the transmission of the biblical text into distinct periods of time, characterized by the newest medium on which the biblical text was recorded. According to this scheme, scribes have transmitted the biblical text in its written form in four eras: Scroll, Codex, Printed Page, and Web Page.

It is important to note that the label given to each of these eras denotes the newest medium, not the only one used. A great deal of overlap in technology always occurs between the different eras, particularly at the historical boundaries between adjacent periods. Sometimes particular technologies fall into general disuse; these may be called technological dead ends. Other older technologies persevere alongside newer ones, perhaps playing a smaller role or filling a particular niche for which they are better suited. An interesting phenomenon that is especially noticeable during the transition from one era to the next may be called exaptation, to borrow a term from evolutionary biology. Exaptation is the appropriation of an existing structure (technology) for a new purpose. [1] Examples of overlap, technological dead ends, and exaptation are given below.

As interesting as it is to trace the changes in writing technology itself, this article is concerned primarily with one specific question: How have technological changes affected the transmission of the biblical text? It is this overarching question that will drive the discussion of each of the four eras.

The Era of the Scroll

When Jewish authors began to write the material that would become the Hebrew Bible, the scroll had already been used in Egypt for hundreds of years. The scroll had several advantages over earlier and rival technologies. Unlike stone, which had to be inscribed with a metal stylus, writing on a scroll was much less time-consuming, and the light weight of the scroll made transport and storage easier. Clay tablets, which were easier to inscribe than stone, were another alternative to scrolls. However, clay tablets have to be baked in order to become hard enough to retain their text permanently, and they are both bulkier and more fragile than scrolls. A third alternative, ostraca (potsherds), shared with scrolls the possibility of being written on with a reed pen and ink. Ostraca were suitable for quick notes, letters, and other texts that were relatively brief, but they could play no major role in the recording of a work as lengthy as the biblical text.

Papyrus was the material most commonly used for scrolls in Egypt, and papyrus scrolls have also been found throughout the Fertile Crescent. The other material from which scrolls were commonly made was parchment (for the purposes of this article, the distinctions among leather, parchment, and vellum will be ignored). Parchment had several advantages over papyrus as a material from which to make scrolls: parchment was more durable, had a higher tensile strength, and was easier to erase. The main advantage of papyrus over parchment was that it was easier to produce, and thus probably cheaper.[2]

Since all the books found in the Old Testament and the New Testament predate the widespread adoption of the codex, it is probable that all the writings of any length (i.e., longer than a single page) were originally written on scrolls. Even small scraps of papyrus containing the biblical text usually have writing on both sides, suggesting that the fragment came from a codex rather than a scroll. Some scrolls, it is true, were written on both sides, but two-sided scrolls were a technological dead end and never really caught on. The problem was that every scroll, because of the way it was rolled, had an inside and an outside. Readers handled the outside of the scroll, rolling it as the reading progressed, so text present on the outside of the scroll was prone to smudging by the hands of the reader as well as to other damage.

The Era of the Codex

Scrolls were in general use for almost two thousand years with few innovations, so they were clearly a viable medium for transmitting the biblical text. Nevertheless, they had certain disadvantages. First, because scrolls were normally written on only one side, half of the usable writing surface was wasted. Second, though there were exceptions, scrolls tended to be limited to certain lengths because extremely long scrolls were unwieldy and difficult to use. Third, scrolls by nature are sequential access devices (like cassette tapes), so finding a particular place in the scroll required the reader to "scroll" past all the preceding text; one could not turn straight to the desired passage. The codex addressed all these issues.

The codex was a Roman invention, modeled on wooden writing tablets that consisted of two or more thin pieces of wood, often coated with wax, tied together along one edge with a cord. [3] At some point during the first century, book dealers began offering certain works in codex form. [4] Still, codices were used sparingly for the reproduction of literary material until they were adopted as the standard book-form for the sacred writings of Christianity. It is interesting to note that the codex was invented to solve a different problem—the need for an erasable notebook—and only later did people realize that it could be used as a replacement for the scroll (exaptation).

Once people became familiar with codices, their advantages were readily apparent. Because the outside of a codex was protected by a hard cover of wood or leather, both sides of the papyrus or parchment pages were protected, so scribes could write on both sides of the page. Codices could hold many more pages in a manageable fashion than scrolls, so multiple works could be contained in a single codex. Most importantly, codices are random access devices (like CDs), so the reader can turn immediately to a particular passage without having to "scroll" past the material that precedes it.

Most early biblical codices are papyrus rather than parchment, but parchment gradually became the medium of choice for New Testament manuscripts, and the papyrus codex disappear entirely from the record after the eighth century. [5] One reason for the gradual replacement of papyrus by parchment may be related to the disadvantage of writing on the verso side of papyrus pages. If so, then the use of papyrus early in the Era of the Codex is an example of overlap with the Era of the Scroll that faded away as users were able to break with the traditions associated with scroll production.

Another example of overlap between scrolls and codices is the use of columns. The length of an unrolled scroll demanded that short columns be used to facilitate reading. Individual pages of a codex did not demand the use of columns; nevertheless, many codices containing the biblical text used columns, sometimes quite narrow ones. Although manuscripts with three or four columns exist, most biblical manuscripts used one or two columns.

Extant codices from late antiquity and the medieval period exist in a number of forms, some of which were technological dead ends. One such form that was quickly abandoned was the single-quire codex. When pages are joined in a quire, the pages on the inside must be trimmed in order to maintain an even appearance. Quires of four or eight sheets require little trimming, but a large quire requires substantial portions of the inside pages to be cut away. The single-quire codex was abandoned in favor of codices made from multiple quires sewn together.

How did the codex form affect the transmission of the biblical text? One way involved the number and order of the books present in a particular codex. The earliest biblical manuscripts are varied in both content and order. Another way in which the codex affected transmission was the relative ease with which one could consult other manuscripts. If scribes in monasteries were able to look at more than one exemplar while creating a new manuscript, they could more easily correct the text on which they were working. On the other hand, they could also create a conflated text, or one that was mixed, following first one then the other exemplar when they differed.

The codex was a widely popular form for transmitting the biblical text. However, the production of large codices was expensive because of the labor involved in writing. The value attached to codices is illustrated by the existence in many places of "chained libraries," libraries in which large codices were literally chained to the bookshelf or the table, so that readers could consult the codex but not abscond with it (the chains attached to the books were the medieval equivalent of today's scanning devices at library exits that activate an alarm if someone tries to take a book through the gate that has not been checked out). The next innovation in technology would address the cost issue.

The Era of the Printed Page

Unlike the codex and the Web page, the printed page did not make use of a previously existing technology and adapt it for use in transmitting the biblical text. Johannes Gutenberg designed his printing press with the publication of the Bible as one of his goals. Printing with carved wooden blocks had been done in China, Korea, and elsewhere in the East for hundreds of years, and in more recent times it was known throughout Europe as well, but Gutenberg's innovation was to use blocks consisting of a single letter, or movable type. Gutenberg's first printed book was the Vulgate, published around 1456. Within fifty years, Bibles in Latin, Hebrew, and various European vernacular languages (translated from Latin) emerged from presses throughout Europe, though the Greek New Testament had to wait until 1516 (more on this phenomenon below).

The printed page had two great advantages over manuscript codices. First, once the type was set books could be mass-produced, which greatly reduced the cost of an individual volume. Second, every copy produced in a given print run was identical to every other copy. Errors were still introduced into the stream of transmission by typesetting (see, for example, the so-called "Wicked Bible," a 1631 edition of the King James Bible that omitted the word "not" from the seventh commandment), but once they were caught, they could be corrected in later printings. Early printed Bibles used at least two techniques that were borrowed from codices not counting the continued use of columns, a practice carried over from scrolls. Early Greek Bibles used a rather complex script, replete with ligatures and contextual forms, that was based on minuscule manuscripts. This script required the typesetter to use more than a hundred and fifty special characters in addition to the twenty-four stand-alone letters of the Greek alphabet (actually forty-eight, when capitals are included). [6] Printers gradually abandoned the complex Greek script of the earlier books and adopted a purely alphabetic system, without ligatures, that used only one contextual form, a final sigma.

Further, huge printed volumes modeled on large codices found in churches and libraries were gradually abandoned in favor of smaller, more user-friendly volumes. One reason for the move toward smaller books was the introduction of paper rather than parchment as the material of choice for printed books. Because paper is thinner than parchment, books with paper sheets could be smaller, yet just as durable. Paper was also cheaper to produce than parchment, so the cost of printing books with paper was less than that of parchment books. Since books were more affordable, individuals, not just university libraries and other institutions, became customers, and smaller volumes were better suited for individual study than the huge volumes in churches and chained libraries.

One artifact of paper manufacture that became a technological dead end is now known as acid paper. During the nineteenth century, techniques were developed for making paper more cheaply by processing wood pulp with a variety of chemicals. This paper became almost ubiquitous in books of all sorts, including printed Bibles. What publishers did not know was that the paper they had created, which had pH levels below 5 and was thus acidic, was slowly deteriorating. After many years, acid paper turns yellow or brown and becomes very brittle. By the late 1930s the problem of acid paper was well known, and within a decade or so it had ceased to be used in most printed works.

The printing press was a tremendously important advance in the history of the transmission of the biblical text. The printing press enabled the Protestant Reformation, whose ideas were spread by pamphlets printed cheaply on presses and distributed to the masses. The Reformation stressed individual freedom before God, an idea that led directly to the publication of the Bible in many different vernacular translations, most based on the Hebrew and Greek texts rather than the Vulgate. Along with the ideas of Luther and Calvin, the scientific and mathematical discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Kepler, and many others gave rise to the Enlightenment, which in turn influenced biblical scholarship and led to the modern science of textual criticism and the production of critical texts. Scholars, both Jewish and Christian, used these critical texts in turn as the basis for new vernacular translations. By the end of 2003, according to the United Bible Societies, all or portions of the Bible had been translated into 2,355 different languages. [7]

The Era of the Web Page

The invention of the printing press led to both advances in scholarship and wider dissemination of the Bible, but a late twentieth century innovation promises to affect the transmission of the biblical text in ways that are just as revolutionary. One response of the U.S. government to the Soviet launch of Sputnik in 1957 was the creation of a network for linking research institutions together, which came to be called the Internet. The Internet came into existence in 1969 and has grown tremendously over the past thirty-five years.

As the Internet was changing from a network of research institutions into a vast network of networks that included schools, businesses, and individuals, three other important developments for the transmission of the biblical text progressed. First, biblical texts were encoded for the first time in electronic form. Character encoding schemes developed from the six-bit Binary Coded Decimal, which had no lowercase letters (Greek scholars used an asterisk before a letter to indicate that it was to be capitalized), [8] to the seven- and eight-bit schemes such as ASCII that included lowercase letters, to Unicode, a sixteen-bit scheme that has separate code points for different scripts, such as Hebrew and Greek.

Alongside character encoding, text encoding developed as a means of marking a block of text as being special in some way. The early text encoding schemes, such as RTF, mimicked print by focusing solely on the appearance of a passage of text: for example, italic script. SGML was developed to indicate the function of a text: for example, a book title. HTML, a form of SGML used on the Web, marked both function and appearance, but its tag set was very limited. XML, the second-generation language of the Web, marks function, as SGML intended, but in conjunction with style sheets it can also specify how text should appear on the screen.

In addition to the development of new encoding schemes for characters and text, software and databases were developed to store and analyze the biblical text. One early program was the Parallel Aligned Hebrew and Greek Text produced by the Computer Assisted Tools for Septuagint Studies project. [9] Many Bible study software packages followed, at first using proprietary encoding schemes but eventually adopting either SGML or XML. Major projects, such as the Oxford Hebrew Bible, the New English Translation of the Septuagint, and the Editio Critica Maior of the Greek New Testament, all use sophisticated software and databases to generate both electronic and print output.

Character encoding, text encoding, and the combination of software and databases all advanced the study of the biblical text, but the transmission of the text was enhanced most of all by the advent of the World Wide Web. Piggybacking on the Internet, the Web allowed users to view text, images, movies, sound files, computer programs, and virtual reality models, among other things. In 1994, when the Web first came to the attention of the general public, few biblical texts were available online. Ten years later, the Web abounds with biblical texts, including digitized versions of standard print editions, new Web-based editions (e.g., the NET Bible), transcriptions of individual manuscripts (e.g., the Corpus of Literary Papyri at Oxford University), and manuscript images (e.g., the Biblical Manuscripts Project). Free Web-based fonts—such as the SP fonts, developed for use in the e-journal TC: A Journal of Biblical Textual Criticism, but now used on many different Web sites—allowed users to share the biblical text with one another, regardless of whether they were working on PCs, Macs, or Unix computers.

Publication of biblical texts on the Web offers many advantages over traditional print publishing. First, electronic typesetting, using fonts rather than actual moveable type, has reduced production costs. Second, whereas scholars who want to use a print version of a particular edition of the Bible either have to buy the book or travel to a university library to use a copy, scholars anywhere in the world, as well as interested amateurs, are able to access online versions of the Bible in a variety of popular and scholarly forms from their own offices any time of the day. Third, the availability of biblical texts in electronic form allows users to search and analyze the text much more easily than they could when the text was only in print. Fourth, embedded hyperlinks in online biblical texts allow users to jump to parallel passages, footnotes, definitions, or morphological analyses with the click of a mouse. Fifth, users can view different versions of the biblical text in parallel columns, thus simplifying the comparative study of biblical passages.

Publication on the Web is still new, and holdovers from the print mentality abound. For example, many online publications still try to use page numbers, even though the individual "page" is a relic from printing that is not applicable in online publication. Another example involves the use of text encoding schemes that indicate appearance rather than function. The encoding of appearance rather than function is still prevalent on the Web and will remain dominant until XML replaces HTML as the preferred text encoding scheme. Despite the recent development of the Internet and the Web, some technologies have already fallen into disuse. For example, Gopher, a text-only predecessor to the Web that predated it by a couple of years, was overshadowed almost immediately by the power and flexibility of the Web. Another online tool, Archie, was used to search FTP archives, but search engines such as Google have now superseded it.


The transmission of the Bible in written form has come a long way from the days in which it was first written on papyrus or parchment scrolls. Once limited to the educated elite of society, the biblical text is now widely available in thousands of languages in print and, increasingly, in electronic form as well. As the technology of writing has developed, those who wanted to transmit the biblical text to others have adopted the technology and adapted it to their needs. What the future holds is anyone's guess, but of one thing all can be sure: technology will continue to develop, and those who are interested in transmitting the text of the Bible will use the newest technology to continue to spread the Word.

James R. Adair directs the Religion and Technology Center, Stone Mountain, GA.

[1] Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991), 144n. Other scientists use the less appropriate term "preadaptation." Evolutionary theory provides several other useful analogies for the development of the technology of writing, including speciation (overlap), evolutionary dead ends (technological dead ends), and adaptation and specialization (older technologies filling specific niches). Gould's theory of punctuated equilibrium—still a minority position among evolutionary biologists—provides an interesting parallel to the rapid development of technology that occurs at and just after the transition from one era to another and the slower development that occurs at other times; idem, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2002), 745-1024.

[2] For a comparison of papyrus and parchment and a description of the manufacture of each, see Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 43-48.

[3] Collin H. Roberts and T. C. Skeat, The Birth of the Codex (London: Oxford University Press, 1983), 1.

[4] Gamble, 52.

[5] Kurt Aland and Barbara Aland, The Text of the New Testament, trans. Erroll. F. Rhodes, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 81.

[6] Ibid., 96.

[7] United Bible Societies, Scripture Language Report 2003 (Reading, UK: United Bible Societies, 2004) [].

[8] A list of the original Hebrew and Greek encoding schemes used by biblical scholars can be found in the first Offline column by Robert A. Kraft that appeared in Religious Studies News, preserved online at

[9] Robert A. Kraft and Emanuel Tov, Computer Assisted Tools for Septuagint Studies (CATSS), vol. 1: Ruth (SCS 20; Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986).

Citation: James R. Adair, " Technology and the Transmission of the Biblical Text," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited April 2004]. Online:


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