What Do We Know About Paul’s Professional Scribe, Tertius?

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EDWARD D. ANDREWS (AS in Criminal Justice, BS in Religion, MA in Biblical Studies, and MDiv in Theology) is CEO and President of Christian Publishing House. He has authored over 140 books. Andrews is the Chief Translator of the Updated American Standard Version (UASV).

SOME New Testament textual criticism scholars wrongly believe that the New Testament authors may have revised their work, and these works have gone through editions. Well, this is nigh impossible if scripture is inspired by God (breathed out by God) and the New Testament author moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. If God inspired and the Holy Spirit moved the men, there would be no reason for revision or editions.

When Paul dictated the book of Romans to Tertius (c. 7,000+ words), Tertius was bound to make a few scribal errors even though he was a professional scribe because he was not inspired by God nor moved along by the Holy Spirit. Thus, after the completion of the text, Paul and Tertius would likely read Romans together. If a wrong word was used, Tertius could scratch through it and write the correction above it. First, there is nothing known about Tertius, as to his level of competency. But let’s face it, people, do we believe that Paul, the man who studied under Gamaliel and had this weighty missionary work would entrust a book like Romans to an unskilled copyist? Hardly. A professional scribe has the skill needed to get through lengthy documents with very minimal mistakes. Tertius might have had a few at most. These are not unreasonable inferences based on what we know about Paul and scribal activity. So, no revisions and no editions, a best, a handful of editorial corrections done by Paul and Tertius.

We do not know anything about Tertius [Lat., meaning “Third”] outside of the little we know from the Bible. Basically, what we know from the New Testament is that Tertius was a scribe for the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans. He is the only scribe of Paul to be specifically named in the Scriptures. Tertius added his own personal greetings at the end of Romans, specifically 16:22, “I am greeting you, I, Tertius, the one having written this letter, in the Lord.”

Why was it so difficult to be a scribe in the first century A.D.? How was the scribal work done? What were the writing materials that were in use at that time? How are we to understand inspiration and inerrancy? Were both Paul and Tertius inspired, or just Paul? If Paul alone was inspired, how does the imperfection of Tertius affect inerrancy? What about Phoebe, what role did the carrier have in the process? What about the publishing, copying, and distributing process? We will answer all of these questions and more as we deduce or conclude (information) from evidence and reasoning about Tertius’ role as a scribe.


As Luke, Paul, Peter, Matthew, James, or Jude handed their authorized text off to be copied by others, i.e., published, what would it have looked like? What is the process that the New Testament writers would have followed to get their book ready to be published, that is, copied by others? Once they were prepared for publication, how would they be copied throughout the centuries, up to the time of the printing press in 1455 C.E.?[1] As we open our Bible to the Gospel of Matthew, or the letter to the Romans, or any of the 27 books of the New Testament, how can we have confidence that what we are reading is a reflection of the original in our language? If we were to bring home from a bookstore a copy of the KJV, ASV, RSV, ESV, CSB, LEB, NASB, NLT, NIV, NRSV, or any of the other one hundred and fifty plus English translations, could we have confidence that what we are reading is, in fact, the Word of God? Some translations have footnotes throughout that say, “Other ancient MSS[2] read …. What exactly does that mean, and which is the Word of God: the words in the main text of our Bible, or the others below in the footnote?

The science and art of textual criticism have answered these questions, and more. It is a science because there are rules and principles, as well as a method or process that is to be followed if the textual scholar is to get back to the original reading.[3] It is an art because the human agent needs to be balanced with his use of those rules and principles. It is like driving a car. The driver needs to follow all driving rules as he stays between the lines of his side of the road to reach his destination. So, too, the textual scholar needs to stay within the rules to reach his destination of establishing what the original words of the original texts were. However, the designers of the roads were not rigid to the point of making those two lines so narrow that there was no room for the driver to miss obstructions, which might be in his path. This extra room would help the driver to avoid objects that could result in a crash. The same holds true for the textual scholar having room within the lines of his field to prevent a wreck, causing him not to be able to reach his desired destination, i.e., the original reading.


From ancient times until 1455 C.E., anything that was penned was done so, literally, by hand. A “manuscript” is a handwritten text. It did not matter if it was a poem, letter, receipt, book, or marriage certificate; it would still have been produced and copied by hand. In addition, it would mostly have been done one copy at a time in the early decades of Christianity. In the second century C.E., it may have been copied in a scriptorium, i.e., a room in a monastery for storing, copying, illustrating, or reading manuscripts. In the scriptorium, there would have a lector who would have read aloud slowly as multiple scribes or copyists took down what he was saying.

The modern-day young person is far removed from the 1920s to the 1980s where people actually used physical paper, pens, pencils, and envelopes to write letters. The same material was used for homework in school. Everything today is digital: Microsoft Word DOCX, PDFs, laptops, tablets, and smartphones. A twenty-year-old today would likely find it challenging to write a letter with merely pen and paper. He would find it tedious and physically taxing, not to mention his lack of practice in writing would make it more difficult at being proficient in making the letters, and it would not be aesthetically pleasing. The hand, wrist, and forearm would get exhausted to the point where he would need to take a break.

In early Christianity, to manually copy a Bible text would be far more arduous than what was just described. There would be many different physical and mental tasks involved in the process of Tertius copying the book of Romans as the apostle Paul dictated to him, which would have been laborious and strenuous. The same would be even more true of the copyists that would then use that original copy of Romans to make other copies. He would not have had the luxury of having the words dictated, and he would have to look at the exemplar back and forth thousands of times as he made his copy that contained 7,000+ words. Imagine if he were copying the entire Greek New Testament of 138,162 words.


Additionally, far more was involved than simply reading the exemplar and writing a word or phrase in the copy. The material that was being written on was papyrus or parchment. Papyrus was a material prepared in ancient Egypt from the pithy stem of a water plant, used in sheets throughout the ancient Mediterranean world for writing. Parchment was a stiff, flat, thin material made from the prepared skin of an animal and used as a durable writing surface in ancient and medieval times. More on this later.

Papyrus SheetsWhen the materials used and the working environment are understood, we will fully be able to appreciate why ancient people hired secretaries (scribes). The scribe would lay out a layer of strips that he had cut from the papyrus plant. The pithy juices of the plant would be put in the strips. Another layer would have been placed at right angles over top of the first layer. Something flat and heavy would be placed on the papyrus sheet, so the two could be bonded by pressure, which would have produced what we would consider a sheet of papyrus paper. It was no easy task writing on the surface of this papyrus sheet, as the material was rough and fibrous.

The scribe could be seen sitting in the ground with his legs crossed, a board laying over his knees. He would be hunched over, holding the exemplar sheet of papyrus with the fingers of say his left hand and his thumb of the same hand resting on the papyrus sheet he was using to make his copy. Or, if a professional scribe he would pin his sheets of papyrus down. To the other corner of the board would be a small container of ink that he had personally made from a mixture of soot and gum. If this scribe was not experienced at making documents, or he was using below-average level materials, his calamus, or reed pen, could very well snag and tear the papyrus, or the writing could be unreadable. To the right of this scribe, we would see a sharp knife, which would have been used to sharpen his reed pen, and a damp sponge that would be used to erase any errors he might make. Being that he is copying a New Testament book, he would likely be doing his level best to write every letter with the greatest of care, meaning he would be writing slowly, all this bringing with it some difficulty. Imagine the constant sharpening of his pen with his knife and the continuous replenishing it with ink to keep the strokes even.

4th ed. MISREPRESENTING JESUS The Complete Guide to Bible Translation-2

As we can mentally picture, this scribe was carrying out many simultaneous tedious tasks as he went about copying a book of the New Testament. If he had some experience or if he was a professional in making documents and copying literature, he would have had to consider the page before him to calculate the proper word division. He would be using stichoi notations at the end of the copying process, that is, notes on how many lines were copied to get paid, which means that he had to keep track of his lines. The scribe would always have to be conscious of an imaginary upper and lower line that he sought to keep his text between. Unlike our notebooks today, papyrus and parchment sheets did not come with ruled lines. The scribe would use an unsharpened instrument to draw 25-30 pressure lines on his page that was to receive the text. These are just some of the basic difficulties that were involved as early scribes made copies of our New Testament books.

Earliest New Testament Manuscripts P66 Papyrus

One of the Earliest New Testament Manuscripts: P66 Papyrus

The New Testament Secretaries and Their Materials

One of the greatest tragedies in the modern-day history of Christianity [1880 – present] is that churchgoers have not been educated about the history of the New Testament text. They are so misinformed that many do not even realize that the Hebrew text lies behind our English Old Testament, and the Greek text lies behind our English New Testament. Sadly, many seminaries that train the pastors of today’s churches have also required little or no studies in the history of the Old or New Testament texts.

English Bible Versions King James Bible KING JAMES BIBLE II

Textual Criticism Defined

Again, New Testament textual criticism is the study of families of manuscripts, especially the Greek New Testament, as well as versions,[4] lectionaries,[5] and patristic quotations,[6] along with internal evidence, in order to determine which reading is the original. Comparing any two copies of a document even a few pages long will reveal variant readings. “A textual variant is simply any difference from a standard text (e.g., a printed text, a particular manuscript, etc.) that involves spelling, word order, omission, addition, substitution, or a total rewrite of the text.”

Again, it needs to be repeated, when we use the term “textual criticism,” we are not referring to something negative. In this instance, “criticism” is a reference to a careful, measured or painstaking study and analysis of the internal and external evidence for producing our New Testament Greek text, generally called a “critical text.” The goal of many New Testament textual scholars today is to recover the earliest text possible, while the objective of the remaining few, such as the author of this book, is to get back to the ipsissima verba (“the very words”) of the original author.[7]

Variant readings occur only in about 5 percent of the Greek NT text, and so all the manuscripts agree about 95 percent of the time. Only about 2,100 variant readings may be considered “significant” and in no instance is any point of Christian doctrine challenged or questioned by a variant reading. Only about 1.67 percent of the entire Greek NT text still is questioned at all. We may be confident that our current eclectic, or critical, Greek NT text (an eclectic, or critical text is one based on the study of as many manuscripts as possible), is far beyond 99 percent established. In fact, there is more variation among some English translations of the Bible than there is among the manuscripts of the Greek NT. God’s Word is infallible and inerrant in its original copies (autographs), all of which have perished. Textual critics of the Greek NT will continue their work until, if possible, the original of every questioned reading is firmly established.[8]

An investigation of the enormous supply of Greek manuscripts, as well as the ancient versions in other languages, shows that they have preserved for us the very Word of God.

Throughout the period of the first five books of the Bible being penned by Moses (beginning in the late sixteenth century B.C.E.), and down to the time of the printing press (1455 C.E.)–almost 3,000 years–many forms of material have been used to receive writing. Material such as bricks, sheets of papyrus, animal skin, broken pottery, metal, wooden tablets with or without wax, and much more have been used to pen or copy God’s Word. The following are some of the tools and materials.

StylusStylus: The stylus was used to write on a waxed codex tablet. The stylus could be made of bone, metal, or ivory. It would be sharpened at one end for the purpose of writing and have a rounded knob on the other for making corrections. The stylus could also be used to write on soft metal or clay.

reed-pensReed Pen: The reed pen was used with ink to write on papyrus or parchment manuscripts. Καλαμoς (kalamos) is the Greek word for “pen.” (2 John 12; 3 John 13) There is no doubt that all the early extant papyrus manuscripts were copied with a reed pen, which can produce an impressive and pleasing script.

quill-penQuill Pen: The quill[9] pen came into use long after the reed pen. Quill would have been unsatisfactory for writing on papyrus, but parchment would have been an excellent surface for receiving writing from a quill pen. Of course, history shows that as parchment more fully displaced papyrus, the quill pen likewise replaced the reed pen. The quill was sharpened for use, much like the reed, by having the tip sharpened and slit.

P66Papyrus: Papyrus was the writing material used by the ancient Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans that was made from the pith of the stem of a water plant. It was cut into strips, with one layer laid out horizontally and the other vertically. Occasionally it was covered with a cloth and then beaten with a mallet. Scholarship has also suggested that paste may have been used between layers, and then a large stone would be placed on top until the materials were dry. Typically, a sheet of papyrus would be between 6–9 inches in width and 12–15 inches long. These sheets were then glued end to end until scribes had enough length to copy the book they were working on. The writing was done only on the horizontal side, and it was rolled so that the writing would be on the inside. If one were to attempt to write across the vertical side, it would be difficult because of the direction of the papyrus fibers. The scribe or copyist would have used a reed pen to write on the papyrus sheets (cf. 3 John 13). Papyrus was the main material used for writing until about 300 C.E. It was used with a roll or scroll (a document that is rolled up into itself), as well as the codex (book) form.

Writing on the papyrus sheet, even the correct side, was no easy task by any means because the surface was rough and fibrous. “Defects sometimes occurred in the making through retention of moisture between the layers or through the use of spongy strips which could cause the ink to run; such flaws necessitated the remaking of the sheet.”[10] The back pain from long periods of sitting cross-legged on the ground bent over a papyrus sheet on a board, dealing with running ink, the reed pen possibly snagging and tearing the papyrus sheet, having to erase illegible characters, all were a deterrent from personally writing a letter.


Early papyrus manuscripts, such as P45, P46, P47, P52, P66, P73 and P75 (to mention a few), all date before 300 C.E., from as early as 110 C.E. On the other hand, the larger manuscripts, such as Codex Sinaiticus (330-360 C.E.) and Codex Vaticanus (300-325 C.E.), were written on parchment: creamy or yellowish material made from dried and treated sheepskin, goatskin, or other animal hides.

Papyri copy - Greek manuscriptOne may wonder why more New Testament manuscripts have not survived. It must be remembered that the Christians suffered intense persecution during intervals in the first 300 years from Pentecost 33 C.E. With this persecution from the Roman Empire came many orders to destroy Christian texts. In addition, these texts were not stored in such a way as to secure their preservation; they were actively used by the Christians in the congregation and were subject to wear and tear. Furthermore, moisture is the enemy of papyrus, and it causes them to disintegrate over time. This is why, as we will discover, the papyrus manuscripts that have survived have come from the dry sands of Egypt. Moreover, it seems not to have entered the minds of the early Christians to preserve their documents because their solution to the loss of manuscripts was simply to make more copies. Fortunately, the process of making copies transitioned to the more durable animal skins, which would last much longer. Those that have survived, especially from the fourth century C.E. and earlier, are the path to restoring the original Greek New Testament.[11]

Animal Skin: About the fourth century C.E., Bible manuscripts made of papyrus began to be superseded by the use of vellum, a high-quality parchment made from calfskin, kidskin, or lambskin. Manuscripts such as the famous Codex Sinaiticus (01) and Codex Vaticanus (03, also known as B) of the fourth century C.E. are parchment, or vellum, codices. This use of parchment as the leading writing material continued for almost a thousand years until it was replaced by paper. The advantages of parchment over papyrus were many, such as (1) it was much easier to write on smooth parchment, (2) one could write on both sides, (3) parchment lasted much longer, and (4) when desired, old writing could be scraped off and the parchment reused.

A 2000 Year Old Dead Sea Scroll Matches Closely to What We Have Today

A 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Isaiah Scroll. It matches closely the Masoretic text and what is in the Bible today

Papyrus or Parchment?

The Hebrew Old Testament that would have been available to the early Christians was written on the processed hide of animals after the hair was removed, and the hide was smoothed out with a pumice stone.[12] Leather scrolls were sent to Alexandria, Egypt, in about 280 B.C.E., to make what we now know as the Greek Septuagint.[13] Most of the Dead Sea scrolls that were discovered between 1947 and 1956 are made of leather, and it is almost certain that the scroll of Isaiah that Jesus read from in the synagogue was as well. Luke 4:17 says, “And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written.”

The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (1QIsa) dates to the end of the second century B.C.E., written on 17 sheets of parchment, one of the seven Dead Sea Scrolls that were first recovered by Bedouin shepherds in 1947. The Nash Papyrus is a collection of four papyrus fragments acquired in Egypt in 1898 by W. L. Nash, dating to about 150 B.C.E. It contains parts of the Ten Commandments from Exodus chapter 20, along with some verses from Deuteronomy chapters 5 and 6. It is by far one of the oldest Hebrew manuscript fragments.


Both leather and papyrus were used before the first-century Christians. Vellum is a high-quality parchment made from calfskin, kidskin, or lambskin. After the skin was removed, it would be soaked in lime water, after which the hair would be scraped off, the skin then being scraped and dried, and rubbed afterward with chalk and pumice stone, creating an exceptionally smooth writing material. During the first three hundred years of Christianity, the secular world viewed parchment as being inferior to papyrus, it being relegated to notebooks, rough drafts, and other non-literary purposes.

A couple of myths should be dispelled before continuing. It is often remarked that papyrus is not a durable material. Both papyrus and parchment are durable under normal circumstances. This is not negating the fact that parchment is more durable than papyrus. Another often-repeated thought is that papyrus was fragile and brittle, making it an unlikely candidate to be used for a codex, which would have to be folded in half. Another issue that should be sidelined is whether it was more expensive to produce papyrus or parchment. Presently, there is no data to aid in that evaluation. We know that papyrus was used for all of the Christian codex manuscripts up to the fourth century, at which time we find the two great parchment codices, the Sinaiticus and Vaticanus manuscripts. Parchment of good quality has been called “the finest writing material ever devised by man.” (Roberts and Skeat, The Birth of the Codex 1987, 8) Why then did parchment take so long to replace papyrus? This may be answered by R. Reed, in Ancient Skins, Parchments, and Leathers:


It is perhaps the extraordinary high durability of the product, produced by so simple a method, which has prevented most people from suspecting that many subtle points are involved…. The essence of the parchment process, which subjects the system of pelt to the simultaneous action of stretching and drying, is to bring about peculiar changes quite different from those applying when making leather. These are (1) reorganization of the dermal fibre network by stretching, and (2) permanently setting this new and highly stretched form of fibre network by drying the pelt fluid to a hard, glue-like consistency. In other words, the pelt fibres are fixed in a stretched condition so that they cannot revert to their original relaxed state.  (Reed 1973, 119-20)

Where the medieval parchment makers were greatly superior to their modern counterparts was in the control and modification of the ground substance in the pelt, before the latter was stretched and dried …. The major point, however, which modern parchment manufacturers have not appreciated, is what might be termed the integral or collective nature of the parchment process. The bases of many different effects need to be provided for simultaneously, in one and the same operation. The properties required in the final parchment must be catered for at the wet pelt stage, for due to the peculiar nature of the parchment process, once the system has been dried, and after-treatments to modify the material produced are greatly restricted.  (Reed 1973, 124)

This method, which follows those used in medieval times for making parchment of the highest quality, is preferable for it allows the grain surface of the drying pelt to be “slicked” and freed from residual fine hairs while stretching upon the frame. At the same time, any process for cleaning and smoothing the flesh side, or for controlling the thickness of the final parchment may be undertaken by working the flesh side with sharp knives which are semi-lunar in form…. To carry out such manual operations on wet stretched pelt demands great skill, speed of working, and concentrated physical effort.  (Reed 1973, 138-9)

Enough has been said to suggest that behind the apparently simple instructions contained in the early medieval recipes there is a wealth of complex process detail which we are still far from understanding. Hence it remains true that parchment-making is perhaps more of an art than a science.[14]


Scroll or Roll: The scroll dominated until the beginning of the second century C.E., at which time the papyrus codex was replacing it. Papyrus enjoyed another two centuries of use until it was replaced with animal skin (vellum), which proved to be a far better writing material.

The writing on a scroll was done in 2- to 3-inch columns, which allowed the reader to have it opened, or unrolled, only partially. Although movies and television have portrayed the scroll being opened while holding it vertically, this was not the case; scrolls were opened horizontally. For the Greek or Latin reader, it would be rolled to the left as those languages were written left to right. The Jewish reader would roll it to the right as Hebrew was written right to left.

The difficulty of using a scroll should be apparent. If one had a long book (such as Isaiah) and were to attempt to locate a particular passage, it would not be user-friendly. An ancient saying was, “A great book, a great evil.” The account in the book of Luke tells us:

Luke 4:16–21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

16 And he [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll[15] of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. And he unrolled the scroll[16] and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news[17] to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set free those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll[18] and gave it back to the attendant and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Codex: The trunk of a tree that bears leaves only at its apex was called a caudex in Latin. This name–modified to codex–would be applied to a tablet of wood that had raised edges, with a coat of wax placed within those raised edges. The dried wax would then be used to receive writing with a stylus. We might compare it to the schoolchild’s slate such as seen in some Hollywood Western movies. Around the fifth century B.C.E., some of these were being used and attached by strings that were run through the edges. It is because these bound tablets resembled a tree trunk that they were to take on the name “codex.”

Codex Vaticanus

Codex Vaticanus (“Book from the Vatican”), facsimile, Fourth century. It is one of the earliest manuscripts of the Bible, which includes the Greek translation of the bulk of the Hebrew Scriptures as well as most of the Christian Greek Scriptures.

As we can imagine, this bulky item also was not user-friendly! Sometime later, it would be the Romans who would develop a lighter, more flexible material, the parchment notebook, which would fill the need before the development of the later book-form codex. The Latin word membranae (skins) is the name given to such notebooks of parchment. In fact, at 2 Timothy 4:13 the apostle Paul requested of Timothy that he “bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books [scrolls], and above all the parchments [membranas, Greek spelling].” One might ask why Paul used a Latin word (transliterated in Greek)? Undoubtedly, it was due to the fact that there was no Greek word that would serve as an equivalent to what he was requesting. It was only later that the transliterated “codex” was brought into the Greek language as a reference to what we would know as a book.

ink_manuscripts_scibe_copyist_The ink of ancient manuscripts was usually one of two kinds. There was ink made of a mixture of soot and gum. These were sold in the form of a bar, which was dissolved in water in an inkwell, and produced a very black ink. There was also ink made out of nutgalls, which resulted in a rusty-brown color. Aside from these materials, the scribe would have had a knife to sharpen his reed pen, as well as a sponge to erase errors. With the semi-professional and professional scribe, each character was written with care. Thus, writing was a slow, tedious, and often difficult task.

‘I, Tertius, Greet You in the Lord’

Tertius is among the many greetings that we find at the end of the letter of Paul to the Romans, wherein he writes, “I am greeting you, I, Tertius, the one having written this letter, in the Lord.” (Rom. 16:22) Of Paul’s fourteen letters, this is the only occurrence where we find a clear reference to one of his secretaries.

Little is known of Tertius, who must have been a faithful Christian, based on the greeting “in the Lord.” He may have been a member of the Corinthian congregation who likely knew many Christians in Rome, which is suggested by the fact his name is Latin for “third.” Quartus for “fourth” is one of the other two who added their greetings: “Erastus the city treasurer greets you, and Quartus the brother, i.e., a member of the Corinthian congregation. (16:23b) Some scholars have suggested that Quartus could have been the younger brother of Tertius.[19] Others have suggested that Tertius was a slave or a freedman.[20] This is also suggested by his Latin name and the fact that slaves were commonly involved in the scribal activity. From this we could conjecture that Tertius likely had experience as a professional scribe, who became a fellow worker with the apostle Paul, helping compile the longest of Paul’s letters. It was common for Bible authors to use a scribe, as for example Jeremiah used Baruch in a similar way, just as Peter used Silvanus (Jer. 36:4; 1 Pet. 5:12). Of Paul’s fourteen letters, it is certain that six involved the use of a secretary: Romans (16:22), 1 Corinthians (16:21), Galatians (6:11), Colossians (4:18), 2 Thessalonians (3:17), and Philemon (19).


Penning the Book of Romans

The letter of Paul to the Romans was written while he was on his third missionary journey as a guest of Gaius in Corinth, about 55-56 C.E. (Ac 20:1-3; Rom. 16:23). We do know for a certainty that Paul used Tertius as his secretary to author the book of Romans. However, we cannot say with absolute certainty how he was used. Some have argued, “from evidence outside of the New Testament that it was common practice for authors to dictate their letters to an amanuensis or secretary.”[21] Did the secretary take that dictation down in shorthand, and then go on to compose the letter, even contributing content, with the New Testament author giving the final approval? Alternatively, was the secretary used in a more limited fashion, such as editing spelling, grammar, and syntax? Otto Roller makes the point that for an author to dictate a letter to a scribe verbatim would require the author to speak very slowly, i.e., syllable by syllable.[22] There will be more on this later. For now, whatever method was used, the work of a secretary was no easy job. What we do know is that the sixty-six books of the Bible were “inspired by God,” and “men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” – 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21.


The Book Writing Process of the New Testament: Authors and Early Christian Scribes

The Place of Writing

When we think of the apostle Paul penning his books that would make up most of the New Testament, some have had the anachronistic tendency to impose their modern way of thinking about him, such as presupposing where he would have written. As I am writing this page, I am tucked away in my home office, seeking privacy from the hustle and bustle of our modern world. This was not the case in the ancient world where Paul lived and traveled. People of that time favored a group setting, not isolation. The apostle Paul probably would have been of this mindset. Paul would not have necessarily sought a quiet place to author his letters, to escape the noise of those around him. As for myself, I struggle to get back on track if I am interrupted for more than a couple of minutes.

Most during Paul’s day would have been surprised by this way of thinking, i.e., seeking quiet and solitude to focus all of one’s energy on the task of writing. Those of Paul’s day, including himself, would not have even noticed people talking around them, nor would they have been troubled by what we perceive as interruptions, such as the discussions of others, which were neither relevant nor applicable to the subject of their letter writing.

The Scribe of the New Testament Writer

Philip W. Comfort informs us that an amanuensis is ascribe or secretary. In ancient times a written document was first produced by an author who usually dictated the material to an amanuensis. The author would then read the text and make the final editorial adjustments before the document was sent or published. Paul used the writing services of Tertius to write the epistle to the Romans (Rom. 16:22), and Peter was assisted by Silvanus in writing his first Epistle (see 1 Pet. 5:12).”[23]

Dr. Don Wilkins also tells us that amanuensis is a “Latin term for a scribe or clerk (plural ‘amanuenses’). When used in the context of textual criticism, it refers specifically to a person who served as a secretary to record first-hand the words of a New Testament book, if the author chose to use a secretary rather than write down the words himself. Tertius (Rom. 16:22) is an example. The degree to which an amanuensis may have contributed to the content of any particular book is a matter of speculation and controversy. At one end of the spectrum is the amanuensis who merely took dictation (the position preferred here); at the other is the possibility that a New Testament author may have told his amanuensis what he wished to communicate in general terms, leaving it to the amanuensis to actually compose the book.” Andrews would wholeheartedly disagree with the latter view, as it was the New Testament authors alone who were inspired to give us the words of God, and the scribe was merely the vehicle for doing so.

Ancient Greco-Roman society employed secretaries or scribes for various reasons. Of course, the government employed some scribes, working for chief administrators. Then, there were the scribes who were employed in the private sector. These latter scribes (often slaves) usually were employed by the wealthy. However, even high-ranking slaves and freed slaves employed scribes. Many times, one would find scribes who would write letters for their friends. According to E. Randolph Richards, the skills of these unofficial secretaries “could range from a minimal competency with the language or the mechanics of writing to the highest proficiency at rapidly producing an accurate, proper, and charming letter.”[24] Scribes carried out a wide range of administrative, secretarial, and literary tasks, including administrative bookkeeping, shorthand and taking dictation, letter-writing, and copying literary texts.

The most prominent ways that a scribe would have been used in the first century C.E. would have been as (1) a recorder, (2) an editor, and (3) as a secretary for an author. At the very bottom of the writing tasks, he would be used to record information, i.e., as a record keeper. The New Testament scribes, when they were needed or desired, were being used as secretaries, writing down letters by dictation. Tertius took down the book of Romans as Paul dictated to him some 7,000+ words. He would have simply written out the very words that the apostle Paul spoke. Some have argued that longhand in dictation was not feasible in ancient times because the author would have to slow down to the point of speaking syllable-by-syllable. They usually cite Cicero as evidence for this argument because of the numerous references to dictation in his writings. Cicero stated in a letter to his friend Varro that he had to slow down his dictation to the point of “syllable by syllable” for the sake of the scribe. However, the scribe he was using at that time was inexperienced, not his regular scribe. Of course, it would be very difficult to retain one’s line of thought in such a dictation process. It should be noted that Cicero had experienced scribes who could take down dictation at a normal pace of speaking, even rapid speech.[25] Therefore, since there is evidence that there were scribes in those days who were skilled enough to take down dictation at the average rate of speech, we should not assume that the apostles would not have had access to such scribes in the persons of Tertius, Silvanus, or even Timothy.

How to Interpret the Bible-1 INTERPRETING THE BIBLE how-to-study-your-bible1

In fact, Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (b. 35 C.E. d. 100 C.E.) complained that a scribe who could write at the speed of normal speech can lead to the speaker feeling rushed, to the point of not having time to ponder his thoughts.

On the other hand, there is a fault which is precisely the opposite of this, into which those fall who insist on first making a rapid draft of their subject with the utmost speed of which their pen is capable, and write in the heat and impulse of the moment. They call this their rough copy. They then revise what they have written, and arrange their hasty outpourings. But while the words and the rhythm may be corrected, the matter is still marked by the superficiality resulting from the speed with which it was thrown together. The more correct method is, therefore, to exercise care from the very beginning, and to form the work from the outset in such a manner that it merely requires being chiseled into shape, not fashioned anew. Sometimes, however, we must follow the stream of our emotions since their warmth will give us more than any diligence can secure. The condemnation which I have passed on such carelessness in writing will make it pretty clear what my views are on the luxury of dictation which is now so fashionable. For, when we write, however great our speed, the fact that the hand cannot follow the rapidity of our thoughts gives us time to think, whereas the presence of our amanuensis hurries us on, and at times we feel ashamed to hesitate or pause, or make some alteration, as though we were afraid to display such weakness before a witness. As a result, our language tends not merely to be haphazard and formless, but in our desire to produce a continuous flow we let slip positive improprieties of diction, which show neither the precision of the writer nor the impetuosity of the speaker. Again, if the amanuensis is a slow writer or lacking in intelligence, he becomes a stumbling-block, our speed is checked, and the thread of our ideas is interrupted by the delay or even perhaps by the loss of temper to which it gives rise.[26]

Therefore, again, we do have evidence that some scribes were capable, skilled to the point of writing at the normal speed of speech. While Richards says that this is by way of shorthand, saying it was more widespread than originally thought, where the secretary uses symbols in place of words, forming a rough draft that would be written out fully later,[27] this need not be the case. True, there is some evidence that shorthand existed a hundred years before Christ. However, it was still rare, with few scribes having the ability. Whether this was true of the scribes that assisted our New Testament authors is an unknown. It is highly unlikely, but not necessarily impossible.

Who in the days of the New Testament authors would use the services of scribes? Foremost would be those who did not know how to read and write. Within ancient contracts and business letters, one can find a note by the scribe (illiteracy statement), who penned it, stating he had done so because his employer could not read or write. For example, an ancient letter concludes with, “Eumelus, son of Herma, has written for him because he does not know letters.”[28] It may be that they were able to read but struggled with writing. Then again, it may simply be that they wrote slowly and were not willing to spend the time on improving their skills. An ancient letter from Thebes, Egypt, penned for a certain Asklepiades, concludes, “Written for him hath Eumelus the son of Herma …, being desired so to do for that he writeth somewhat slowly.”[29]

On the other hand, whether one knew how to read and write was not always the decisive issue in the use of a secretary. John L. McKenzie writes, “Even people who could read and write did not think of submitting their readers to unprofessional penmanship. It was probably not even a concern for legibility, but rather a concern for beauty, or at least for neatness,” (McKenzie 1975, 14) which moved the ancients to turn to the services of a secretary. Although the educated could read and write, some likely felt that writing was tedious, trying, and frustrating, especially where lengthy and elaborate texts were concerned. It seems that if one could avoid the tremendous task of penning a lengthy letter, entrusting it to a scribe, so much the better.


The apostle Paul had over 100 traveling companions, like Aristarchus, Luke, and Timothy, who served by the apostle’s side for many years. Then, there are others such as Asyncritus, Hermas, Julia, or Philologus, of whom we barely know more than their names. Many of Paul’s friends traveled for the sake of the gospel, such as Achaicus, Fortunatus, Stephanas, Artemas, and Tychicus. We know that Tychicus was used by Paul to carry at least three letters now included in the Bible canon: the epistles to the Ephesians, the Colossians, and Philemon. Tychicus was not simply some mail carrier. He was a well-trusted carrier for the apostle, Paul. The final greeting from Paul to the Colossians reads,

Colossians 4:7-8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
All my affairs Tychicus, my beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow slave in the Lord, will make known to you. I have sent him to you for this very purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts,

Richards offers the following about a letter carrier, saying he “was often a personal link between the author and the recipients in addition to the written link. . . . [One purpose] for needing a trustworthy carrier was, he often carried additional information. A letter may describe a situation briefly, frequently with the author’s assessment, but the carrier is expected to elaborate for the recipient all the details.”[30] Many of Paul’s letters deal with teachings, as well as one crisis after another; the carrier was expected to be aware of these on a much deeper level so that he could orally explain and answer any questions. Therefore, he needed to be a highly trusted messenger who was literate.

As was mentioned, Tertius was the scribe Paul used to pen his letter to the Romans. We cannot assume that all of Paul’s companions were proficient readers and writers. However, we can infer that Paul would task coworkers, who were able to carry and read letters, as well as understand the condition of the people or congregation where they were being sent or stationed. Yes, at a minimum, these would have been proficient readers. In addition, the scribes whom Paul used, such as Tertius, would very likely have been semi-professional or professional. It would have been simply senseless to entrust the secretarial work of taking down the monumental words of the book of Romans, for example, to an inexperienced scribe. What skills would Tertius need to carry out the task of penning the book of Romans?

The ordinary coworker of Paul would likely have been able to read proficiently, but likely possessed minimum writing skills. Paul would have chosen workers whose skills would have equipped them to carry out their assignments. Again, Tertius would have been the exception to the rule; most likely, he would have been a professional scribe. He would have to have been able to glue the sheets together if it was to be a roll or stitch the pages together if a codex. He would need to know the appropriate mixture of soot and gum to make ink and to be able to use his knife to make his own reed pen. Richards writes that a professional scribe would also “draw lines on the paper. Small holes were often pricked down each side, and then a straight edge and a lead disk were used to lightly draw evenly spaced lines across the sheet.”[31] If Tertius had not been trained as a copyist of documents, he would have made many minor errors because his attention would have been on the sense of what he was penning, as opposed to the exact words, as is typical of the unconscious mind.

Did Tertius take Paul’s exact dictation, word for word? Robert H. Mounce writes,

The only legitimate question about authorship relates to the role of Tertius, who in 16:22 writes, “I Tertius, who wrote down this letter, greet you in the Lord.” We know that at that time in history an amanuensis [scribe], that is, one hired to write from dictation, could serve at several levels. In some cases he would receive dictation and write it down immediately in longhand. At other times he might use a form of shorthand (tachygraphy [ancient shorthand]) to take down a letter and then later write it out in longhand. In some cases, an amanuensis would simply get the gist of what a person wanted to say and then be left on his own to formulate the ideas into a letter.[32]

It might seem quite the task for Tertius to take down Paul’s words in longhand. However, this is not to say that it was impossible, just difficult. Paul might have had to speak in a slow to a normal rate of speech, but not syllable-by-syllable. Tertius would indeed have been writing on a papyrus sheet with a reed pen, intending to be legible; however, he would have been very skilled in his trade. Then again, there is the slight possibility of Tertius taking it down in shorthand and after that making out a full draft, which would have been reviewed by both Paul and Tertius. The last option by Mounce in the above is contrary to the attitudes that both the scribes and the New Testament authors would have had toward what was being penned. God chose to convey a message through Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Jude, James, and Paul, not Tertius and Silvanus, or others. We cannot say with any certainty whether Tertius or Silvanus took their authors’ words down in shorthand or longhand. We can say, however, that the human author was dictating the Word of God to the scribe, and in no way was it composed by the scribe.

Inspiration and Inerrancy in the Writing Process

Inspiration and Inerrancy in the Writing Process

All Scripture is Inspired by God

In this context, inspiration is the state of a human being moved by the Holy Spirit, which results in an inspired, fully inerrant written Word of God.

Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy ICBI

Article VII

We affirm that inspiration was the work in which God by His Spirit, through human writers, gave us His Word. The origin of Scripture is divine. The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us. We deny that inspiration can be reduced to human insight, or to heightened states of consciousness of any kind.

Article VIII

We affirm that God in His Work of inspiration utilized the distinctive personalities and literary styles of the writers whom He had chosen and prepared. We deny that God, in causing these writers to use the very words that He chose, overrode their personalities.

Article IX

We affirm that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write. We deny that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word.

Article X

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original. We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

Article XI

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.

THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST by Stalker-1 The TRIAL and Death of Jesus_02 THE LIFE OF Paul by Stalker-1

Inerrancy of Scripture

Inerrancy of Scripture is the result of the state of a human being moved by Holy Spirit from God, which results in an inspired, fully inerrant written Word of God.

Article XII

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

Article XIII

We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Article XV 

We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy is grounded in the teaching of the Bible about inspiration. We deny that Jesus’ teaching about Scripture may be dismissed by appeals to accommodation or to any natural limitation of His humanity.

Article XVI

We affirm that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history. We deny that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by Scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.

Authoritative Word of God

The authoritative aspect of Scripture is that God by way of inspiration gives the words the authors chose to use power and authority, so that the outcome (i.e., originals) is the very Word of God, as though God were speaking to us himself.

Article I

We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God. We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source.

2 Timothy 3:16-17 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be fully competent, equipped for every good work.

What does this mean? The phrase “inspired by God” (Gr., theopneustos) literally means, “Breathed out by God.” A related Greek word, pneuma, means “wind,” “breath,” life, “Spirit.” Since pneuma can also mean “breath,” the process of “breathing out” can rightly be said to be the work of the Holy Spirit inspiring the Scriptures. The result is that the originals were accurate, fully inerrant, and authoritative. Thus the Holy Spirit moved human writers so that the result can truthfully be called the Word of God, not the word of man.

2 Peter 1:21 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

21 for no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men carried along by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.

The Greek word here translated “men moved by (NASB),” phero, is used in another form at Acts 27:15, 17, which describes a ship that was driven along by the wind. So, the Holy Spirit, by analogy, ‘navigated the course’ of the Bible writers. While the Spirit did not give them each word by dictation,[33] it certainly kept the writers from inserting any information that did not convey the will and purpose of God.

The heart of what the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) stood for is apparent in “A Short Statement,” produced at the Chicago conference in 1978:



  1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witnessto Himself.
  2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
  3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witnessand opens our minds to understand its meaning.
  4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witnessto God’s saving grace in individual lives.
  5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.

Questions to Consider

We have been using the book of Romans as our example, so we will continue with it. We know that Paul was the author who gave us the inspired content of Romans, Tertius was the secretary who recorded Romans, and Phoebe was likely the one who carried the letter to Rome or else accompanied the one who did. Thus, we have at least three persons: the author, the secretary (amanuensis; scribe), and the carrier.

israel against all odds ISRAEL AGAINST ALL ODDS - Vol. II

What is inspiration?

Inspiration is a “theological concept encompassing phenomena in which human action, skill, or utterance is immediately and extraordinarily supplied by the Spirit of God. Although various terms are employed in the Bible, the basic meaning is best served by Gk. theopneustos “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16), meaning “breathed forth by God” rather than “breathed into by God” (Warfield).” (Myers 1987, 524) Verbal plenary inspiration holds that “every word of Scripture was God-breathed.” Human writers played a significant role. Their individual backgrounds, personal traits, and literary styles were authentically theirs, but had been providentially prepared by God for use as his instrument in producing Scripture. “The Scriptures had not been dictated, but the result was as if they had been (A. A. Hodge, B. B. Warfield).”[34]

Benjamin B. Warfield: “Inspiration is, therefore, usually defined as a supernatural influence exerted on the sacred writers by the Spirit of God, by virtue of which their writings are given Divine trustworthiness.”[35]

Edward J. Young: “Inspiration is a superintendence of God the Holy Spirit over the writers of the Scriptures, as a result of which these Scriptures possess Divine authority and trustworthiness and, possessing such Divine authority and trustworthiness, are free from error.”[36]

Charles C. Ryrie: “Inspiration is … God’s superintendence of the human authors so that, using their own individual personalities, they composed and recorded without error His revelation to man in the words of the original autographs.”[37]

Paul P. Enns: “There are several important elements that belong in a proper definition of inspiration: (1) the divine element–God the Holy Spirit superintended the writers, ensuring the accuracy of the writing; (2) the human element—human authors wrote according to their individual styles and personalities; (3) the result of the divine-human authorship is the recording of God’s truth without error; (4) inspiration extends to the selection of words by the writers; (5) inspiration relates to the original manuscripts.”[38]

The Epistle to the Hebrews PAUL AND LUKE ON TRIAL

Were both Paul and Tertius inspired, or just Paul?

Only Paul and other Old and New Testament authors were inspired. First, as was stated above, Verbal plenary inspiration holds that “every word of Scripture was God-breathed.” However, God did not, generally speaking, dictate the books of the Bible word by word to the Bible authors as if they were dictating machines.

2 Thessalonians 3:17 New American Standard Bible (NASB)

17 I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand, and this is a distinguishing mark in every letter; this is the way I write.

An appended note to every letter with his signature “distinguishing mark” is like a boss signing a letter that he dictated to a secretary. It is unthinkable that Paul would sign or make a distinguishing mark on anything without reading through it and; thereafter, making any necessary corrections, or having Tertius makes the corrections. This supposes that Paul looked over all of his letters, which would also suppose that the scribe could not have been inspired because if he were, then there would have been no mistakes in the document, which means it would not have been needed to be looked over let alone corrected. So again, there would have been no need for Paul to check the work of an inspired secretary. If Tertius had been inspired, the moment he set the pen down, Paul would have had no need to look the text over. There is no need to read into silence and suggest that the secretary was inspired. While the Tertius was likely a professional scribe and certainly engaged in his work being that they were coworkers and traveling companions.

However, in some cases, information was transmitted by verbal dictation, word for word. For example, when God delivered the large body of laws and statutes of his covenant with Israel, Jehovah instructed Moses: “Write for yourself these words.” (Ex 34:27) In another example, the prophets were often given specific messages to deliver. (1 Kings 22:14; Jer. 1:7; 2:1; 11:1-5; Eze. 3:4; 11:5) More importantly, the Bible authors did dictate what they received under inspiration to their secretaries, i.e., amanuenses/scribes.

Jeremiah 36:4 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)

Then Jeremiah called Baruch the son of Neriah, and Baruch wrote on a scroll at the dictation of Jeremiah all the words of Jehovah that he had spoken to him. (Bold mine)

If Paul alone was inspired, how does the imperfection of Tertius affect inerrancy?

First, we should state that just because Paul used Tertius, Peter used Silvanus, or Jeremiah used Baruch, to pen the Word of God, they did not thereby detract from or weaken the authority of God’s Word or the inerrancy of Scripture. The dictation that Paul gave Tertius was the result of divine inspiration as he, Paul, was moved along by the Holy Spirit. Tertius merely recorded Paul’s dictation, word by word. Whether Tertius was a professional scribe[39] or had the skills of a semi-professional scribe, he must have made at least a few slips of the pen. Afterward, however, Paul would have reviewed the document with Tertius, correcting any errors before publishing the official, authoritative text.


What about Phoebe, what role did the carrier have in the process?

Those used by New Testament authors to deliver the Word of God to people or congregations would have been some of Paul’s most trusted, competent coworkers. Certainly, in the case of congregations contacting Paul with questions and concerns, to which Paul responded with an inspired letter, the carrier would be made aware of those questions and concerns. Paul would have spoken to the carrier at length about these matters, going over what he meant by what he wrote. This would have provided the carrier sufficient knowledge; in case the person or congregation had any question that the carrier could address. This process is not indicated within the Scriptures; but are we to believe God and Paul for that matter would send a simple carrier who was left in the dark as to what he was carrying, and that no congregational leader would have follow-up questions, which God would have foreseen? Hardly.

The Publishing, Copying and Distributing Process

In the above, we spoke of the initial aspect of the publishing process, i.e., the moment Paul decided to pen a letter to a congregation like the Romans, the Ephesians, the Colossians, or to a person such as Philemon. We discussed the process that Paul went through with his secretary (e.g., Tertius), to the carrier (e.g., Phoebe, Tychicus) and the recipients. Now we turn to the circulation aspect, i.e., getting the book out to more and more readers. Harry Y. Gamble says the following in The Publication and Early Dissemination of Early Christian Books:

The letters of Paul to his communities, the earliest extant Christian texts, were dictated to scribal associates (presumably Christian), carried to their destinations by a traveling Christian, and read aloud to the congregations.[40] But Paul also envisioned the circulation of some of his letters beyond a single Christian group (cf. Gal. 1: 2, ‘to the churches of Galatia’, Rom. 1:7 ‘to all God’s beloved in Rome’—dispersed among numerous discrete house churches, Rom. 16: 5, 10, 11, 14, 15), and the author of Colossians, if not Paul, gives instruction for the exchange of Paul’s letters between different communities (Col. 4: 16), which must indeed have taken place also soon after Paul’s time.[41] The gospel literature of early Christianity offers only meager hints of intentions or means of its publication and circulation. The prologue to Luke/Acts (Luke 1: 1–4) provides a dedication to ‘Theophilus’, who (whether or not a fictive figure) by that convention is implicitly made responsible for the dissemination of the work by encouraging and permitting copies to be made. The last chapter of the Gospel of John, an epilogue added by others after the original conclusion of the Gospel (20: 30–1), aims at least in part (21: 24–5) to insure appreciation of the book and to promote its use beyond its community of origin. To take another case, the Apocalypse, addressed to seven churches in western Asia Minor, was almost surely sent in separate copy to each. Even so, the author anticipated its wider copying and dissemination beyond those original recipients, and so warned subsequent copyists to preserve the integrity of the book, neither adding nor subtracting, for fear of religious penalty (Rev. 22:18–19). The private Christian copying and circulation that is presumed in these early writings continued to be the means for the publication and dissemination of Christian literature in the second and third centuries. It can be seen, for example, in the explicit notice in The Shepherd of Hermas (Vis. 2.4.3) that the book was to be published or released in two final copies, one for local use in Rome, the other for the transcription of further copies to be sent to Christian communities in ‘cities abroad’. It can also be seen when Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, had the letters of Ignatius copied and sent to the Christian community in Philippi, and had copies of letters from them and other churches in Asia Minor sent to Syrian Antioch (Phil. 13). It is evident too in the scribal colophons of the Martyrdom of Polycarp (22.2–4) and must be assumed also in connection with the letters of Dionysius, bishop of Corinth (fl. 170 C.E.; Eusebius, H.E. 4.23.1–12).

From another angle, the physical remains of early Christian books show that they were produced and disseminated privately within and between Christian communities. Early Christian texts, especially those of a scriptural sort, were almost always written in codices or leaf books—an informal, economical, and handy format—rather than on rolls, which were the traditional and standard vehicle of all other books. This was a sharp departure from convention, and particularly characteristic of Christians. Also distinctive to Christian books was the pervasive use of nomina sacra, divine names written in abbreviated forms, which was clearly an in-house practice of Christian scribes. Further, the preponderance in early Christian papyrus manuscripts of an informal quasi-documentary script rather than a professional bookhand also suggests that Christian writings were privately transcribed with a view to intramural circulation and use.[42]

If Christian books were disseminated in roughly the same way as other books, that is, by private seriatim copying, we might surmise that they spread slowly and gradually in ever-widening circles, first in proximity to their places of origin, then regionally, and then transregionally, and for some books this was doubtless the case. But it deserves notice that some early Christian texts appear to have enjoyed surprisingly rapid and wide circulation. Already by the early decades of the second century Papias of Hierapolis in western Asia Minor was acquainted at least with the Gospels of Mark and Matthew (Eusebius, H.E. 3.39.15–16); Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, and Polycarp of Smyrna were all acquainted with collections of Paul’s letters; and papyrus copies of various early Christian texts were current in Egypt.[43] The Shepherd of Hermas, written in Rome near the mid-second century, was current and popular in Egypt not long after.[44] Equally interesting, Irenaeus’ Adversus haereses, written about 180 in Gaul, is shown by papyrus fragments to have found its way to Egypt by the end of the second century, and indeed also to Carthage, where it was used by Tertullian.[45]

The brisk and broad dissemination of Christian books presumes not only a lively interest in texts among Christian communities but also efficient means for their reproduction and distribution. Such interest and means may be unexpected, given that the rate of literacy within Christianity was low, on average no greater than in the empire at large, namely in the range of 10–15 percent.[46] Yet there were some literate members in almost all Christian communities, and as long as texts could be read aloud by some, they were accessible and useful to the illiterate majority. Christian congregations were not reading communities in the same sense as elite literary or scholarly circles, but books were nevertheless important to them virtually from the beginning, for even before Christians began to compose their own texts, books of Jewish scripture played an indispensable role in their worship, teaching, and missionary preaching. Indeed, Judaism and Christianity were the only religious communities in Greco-Roman antiquity in which texts had any considerable importance, and in this, as in some other respects, Christian groups bore a greater resemblance to philosophical circles than to other religious traditions.[47]

If smaller, provincial Christian congregations were not well-equipped or well-situated for the tasks of copying and disseminating texts, larger Christian centers must have had some scriptorial capacity: already in the second century: Polycarp’s handling of Ignatius’ letters and letters from other churches shows its presence in Smyrna; the instruction about the publication of Hermas’ The Shepherd suggests it for Rome; and it can hardly be doubted for Alexandria, since even in a provincial city like Oxyrhynchus many manuscripts of Christian texts were available.[48] The early third-century Alexandrian scriptorium devised for the production and distribution of the works of Origen (Eusebius, H.E. 6.23.2), though unique in its sponsorship by a private patron and its service to an individual writer, surely had precursors, more modest and yet efficient, in other Christian communities. It also had important successors, not the least of which was the library and scriptorium that flourished in Caesarea in the second half of the third century under the auspices of Pamphilus.[49] Absent such reliable intra-Christian means for the production of books, the range of texts known and used by Christian communities across the Mediterranean basin by the end of the second century would be without explanation.[50]

From Spoken Words to Sacred TextsWhen we think of publishing a book today, there are some similarities to the ancient process, but of course, it was not the same for Christian communities in the ancient world of the Roman Empire. Paul dispatched Tychicus as a carrier with a letter to the Ephesians, to the Colossians, and Philemon, as well as a potential fourth letter to the Laodiceans. Tychicus was a competent, trusted, skilled coworker, who delivered these letters hundreds of miles from an imprisoned Paul, with enough information to bring God’s Word to the first-century Christian congregations. However, in the letter to the Colossians, Paul said, “When this letter has been read among you, have it also read in the church of the Laodiceans; and see that you also read the letter from Laodicea.” (Col. 4:16) In other words, it was to be a circuit letter. Paul had also stated to the Thessalonians in a letter to them, “I put you under oath before the Lord to have this letter read to all the brothers.” (1 Thess. 5:27) Paul encouraged the distribution of his letters.

Remember the process from the above; the book would be shared with friends of similar interests, and then the circles grew wider and wider to friends of friends and others. First, Paul’s primary level of friends would be his more than one hundred traveling companions and fellow workers, some being the carriers who delivered the books. Second, the friends in the Christian congregation would have the letter read to them, who would then share it with other fellow congregations. In the secular circle of friends, interested readers who wished to have a copy would have their slaves (i.e., scribes) make a copy or copies of a book. The same would have been true within the Christian congregation. When the Laodiceans read the letter that had been sent by Paul to the Colossians, they would have had one of their wealthy members use his literate and trained scribe to make a copy for their congregation and maybe even a few copies for other members. Now the same would hold true when the Colossians received the letter that had been written to the Laodiceans. Eventually, Paul’s letters would be gathered together so that they circulated as a group, such as P46.

The scriptorium was a room for copying manuscripts, where a lector would read aloud from his exemplar with a room full of copyists taking down his dictation. Recent scholarship has suggested that we remove the concept of the scriptorium in the time of Jesus and the apostles of the first century C.E., on the grounds that this was not a practice until the fourth century C.E. Harry Y. Gamble addresses this effectively when he writes,

It is difficult to determine just when Christian scriptoria came into existence. The problem is partly of definition, partly of evidence. If we think of the scriptorium as simply a writing center where texts were copied by more than a single scribe, then any of the larger Christian communities, such as Antioch or Rome, may have already had scriptoria in the early second century, and in view of Polycarp’s activity something of the kind can be imagined for Smyrna. If we think instead of a scriptorium as being more structured, operating, for example, in a specially designed and designated location; employing particular methods of transcription; producing certain types of manuscripts; or multiplying copies on a significant scale, then it becomes more difficult to imagine that such institutions developed at an early date.[51]

Gamble goes on to inform us that Origen’s scriptorium of about 230 C.E. was an exception. The scriptorium of Cyprian just a few short years later was a more official version of what we think of when picturing scriptoria. Then, there is the scriptorium that was attached to the Christian library in Caesarea, which we know was commissioned to produce fifty New Testament manuscripts in short order. It may even have been added in the third century when Pamphilus (latter half of the 3rd century–309 C.E.) built the library. A more official type of scriptorium could likely be found in this period at other Christian epicenters, such as Rome, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Comfort tells us that “church history and certain manuscript discoveries from other parts in Egypt suggest that Alexandria had a Christian scriptorium or writing center.”[52] Gamble adds, “It was only during the fourth and fifth centuries that the scriptoria on monastic communities came into their own, also in association with monastic libraries.”[53]

While it is extremely difficult, if not impossible to identify a specific Alexandrian scriptorium for our early manuscripts of the second century, or even if they were produced in a scriptorium at all, we do know that professional scribes produced them. There are many possibilities: (1) the professional scribe could have produced them in a Christian scriptorium. On the other hand, (2) the professional scribe could have been a Christian who worked for a scriptorium, who then used his skills to produce copies. Then again, (3) it could have been that the scribe formerly worked in a scriptorium, but now was the private scribe of a wealthy Christian who used his skills to make copies. What we do know is that there were about a million Christians spread throughout the Roman Empire at the beginning of the second century. Therefore, the copying of manuscripts could very well have been within the Christian community, i.e., from Christian congregation to the Christian congregation, as well as wealthy Christians acquiring personal copies for themselves.

The Reading Culture of Early ChristianityWe have a number of early manuscripts that evidence that they were very likely produced in a scriptorium, even if it was simply a room attached to a Christian library, which had a handful of copyists. For example, P46 (150 C.E.) was certainly done by a professional scribe because it contained stichoi marks, which are notes at the end of sections, stating how many lines were copied. This was a means of calculating how much a scribe should be paid. It is likely that an employee of the scriptorium numbered the pages, indicating the stichoi marks. Moreover, this same scribe made corrections as he went. Another example would be P66, according to Comfort:

  It is also fairly certain that P66 was the product of a scriptorium or writing center. The first copyist of this manuscript had his work thoroughly checked by a diorthotes [corrector], according to a different exemplar—just the way it would happen in a scriptorium. Of course, it can be argued that an individual who purchased the manuscript made all the corrections, which was a common practice in ancient times. But the extent of corrections in P66 and the fact that the paginator (a different scribe) made many of the corrections speaks against this (see description of P66 in chap. 2). It was more the exception than the rule in ancient times that a manuscript would be fully checked by a diorthotes. P66 has other markings of being professionally produced. The extant manuscript still shows the pinpricks in the corners of each leaf of the papyri; these served as a guide for left hand justification and right hand. The manuscript also exhibits a consistent set of marginal and interlinear correction signs. Another sign of professionally produced manuscript is the use of the diple (>) in the margin, which was used to signal a correction in the text and/or the need for a correction in the text. There are very few of these in the extant New Testament manuscripts.[54]

FIRST TIMOTHY 2.12The production and distribution of New Testament manuscripts were carried out at the congregation and individual Christian levels in the early days of Christianity.

Moreover, this process did not negate the use of professional scribes. Just as Paul would not have used an inexperienced scribe to produce the book of Romans, congregations and wealthy Christians would have likely used professional scribes to make copies. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and some congregations may not have had access to a professional scribe, so they would have to have chosen to use the best person available to them. Nevertheless, if a congregation had access to a semi-professional or professional scribe, it would have been a lack of good sense or practicality not to take advantage of such a person. Think of anything we want to have done in our Christian congregation today: would we not seek out a professional, if we had access to one as a member, be it plumbing, wiring, teaching, or computer technology? We naturally look to the most skilled person that we can find even if we have a clogged up a commode. Would we do any less if we were in the first century and had just received a letter from the apostle Paul, who was imprisoned hundreds of miles away in Rome?



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[1] B.C.E. means “before the Common Era,” which is more accurate than B.C. (“before Christ”). C.E. denotes “Common Era,” often called A.D., for anno Domini, meaning “in the year of our Lord.”

[2] Manuscripts, MS would be singular manuscript, while MSS will refer to more than one.

[3] When we use the term “original” reading or “original” text in this publication, it is a reference to the exemplar manuscript by the New Testament author (e.g., Paul) and his secretary, if he used one (e.g. Tertius), from which other copies was made for publication and distribution to the Christian communities.

Autograph: The autograph (self-written) was the text actually written by a New Testament author, or the author and scribe as the author dictated to him. If the scribe was taking it down in dictation (Rom: 16:22; 1 Pet: 5:12), he might have done so in shorthand. Whether by shorthand or longhand, we can assume that both the scribe and the author would check the scribe’s work. The author would have authority over all corrections since the Holy Spirit did not move the scribe. If the inspired author wrote everything down himself as the Spirit moved him, the finished product would be the autograph. This text is also often referred to as the original. Hence, the terms autograph and original are often used interchangeably. Sometimes textual critics prefer to make a distinction, using “original” as a reference to the text that is correctly attributed to a biblical author.  This is a looser distinction, one that does not focus on the process of how a book or letter was written.

[4] A version is a translation of the New Testament into another language, such as Latin, Syriac, Coptic, Armenian, Georgian, and so on.

[5] A Lectionary is a book containing readings from the Bible for Christian church services during the course of the year.

[6] Patristic quotations are New Testament quotations from early Christian writers, such as the Apostolic Fathers, including Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna, Hermas, and Papias. There were also the Apologists: Justin Martyr, Theophilus of Antioch, Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, to name a few. After them came the Church Fathers, e.g. St. Augustine or St. Ambrose whose works have helped to shape the Christian Church.

[7] Dr. Don Wilkins writes. “This goal, which will be mentioned in passing throughout the book, is a philosophical difference with some implications for TC practice. Both groups of critics will arrive at what they consider the earliest form of the text, but the authors take this to be the autograph as a matter of faith. One of the implications for practice is that conjectures are not considered viable options for variant readings. Another is that every word of the autograph can be found in some extant Greek NT manuscript.”

[8] Charles W. Draper, “Textual Criticism, New Testament,” ed. Chad Brand et al., Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1574.

[9] The quill pen was the principal writing instrument in the Western world from the 6th to the 19th centuries C.E.

[10] Nabia Abbot, STUDIES IN ANCIENT ORIENTAL CIVILIZATIONS (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1938), 11.

[11] Cf. J. H. Greenlee, Introduction to New Testament Textual Criticism (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1995), 11.

[12] A very light porous rock formed from solidified lava, used in solid form as an abrasive and in powdered form as a polish.

[13] A Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible started in about 280 and completed about 150 B.C.E. to meet the needs of Greek-speaking Jews outside Palestine.

[14] R. Reed, Ancient skins, parchments and leathers (Studies in Archaeological Science) Cambridge, MA: Seminar Press, 1973, 172.

[15] Or a roll

[16] Or a roll

[17] Or the gospel

[18] Or a roll

[19] Chad Brand et al., eds., “Tertius,” Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003), 1573.

[20] When the Roman Empire was in power, one who was released from slavery was called a “freedman” (Gr apeleutheros), while a “freeman” (Gr eleutheros) was free from birth, having full citizenship rights, as was the case with the apostle Paul – Ac 22:28 (Balz and Schneider 1978, Vol. 1, P 121).

[21] See Gordon J. Bahr, “Paul and Letter Writing in the First Century,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 28 (1966): 465-77.

See also, John McRay, Paul: His Life and Teaching (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academics, 2003), 270.

[22] Otto Roller, Das Formular der Paulinischen Briefe: Ein Beitrag zur Lehre vom antiken Briefe (Stuttgart: W. Kohlhammer, 1933), p. 333.

[23] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 379.

[24] E. Randolph Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (Heidelberg, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1991, 11

[25] E. Randolph Richards, PAUL AND FIRST-CENTURY LETTER WRITING: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 29-30; Murphy-O’Connor, Paul the Letter-Writer, 9–11; Shorthand references Plutarch, Cato Minor, 23.3–5; Caesar, 7.4–5; Seneca, Epistles, 14.208.

[26] Retrieved Tuesday, February 12, 2019 (Institutio Oratoria, 10.3.17–21) – http://bit.ly/2Zazw2X

[27] E. Randolph Richards, PAUL AND FIRST-CENTURY LETTER WRITING: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 72.

[28] See examples in Francis Exler, The Form of the Ancient Greek Letter: A Study In Greek Epistolography (Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America, 1922), pp. 126-7

[29] Adolf Deissmann, LIGHT FROM THE ANCIENT EAST: The New Testament Illustrated by Recently Discovered Texts of the Graeco-Roman World (New York and London. 1910). 166-7.

[30] E. Randolph Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (Heidelberg, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 1991, 7.

[31] E. Randolph Richards, PAUL AND FIRST-CENTURY LETTER WRITING: Secretaries, Composition and Collection (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2004), 29.

[32] Robert H. Mounce, Romans, vol. 27, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1995), 22.

[33] Dr. Don Wilkins writes, “Exactly how the Spirit guided the writers is a mystery, and the words “thus says the Lord” in prophecy most likely do introduce a dictated message. However, those familiar with Greek can easily see stylistic differences between the NT writers which seem to reflect different personalities and rule out verbatim dictation from a single source.”

[34] Allen C. Myers, The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987), 525.

[35] B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1948), p. 131.

[36] Edward J. Young, Thy Word Is Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1957), p. 27.

[37] Charles C. Ryrie, A Survey of Bible Doctrine (Chicago: Moody, 1972), p. 38.

[38] Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology (Chicago: Moody Press, 1989), p. 161.

[39] In the strictest sense, a professional scribe is one who was specifically trained in that vocation and was paid for his services.

[40] On the dictation of Paul’s letters to a scribe, see E. R. Richards, The Secretary in the Letters of Paul (WUNT 42; Tubingen: Mohr, 1991), 169–98; for couriers see Rom. 16: 1, 1 Cor. 16: 10, Eph. 6: 21, Col. 4: 7, cf. 2 Cor. 8: 16–17. Reference to their carriers is common in other early Christian letters (e.g., 1 Pet. 5: 12, 1 Clem. 65: 1, Ignatius, Phil. 11.2, Smyr. 12.1, Polycarp, Phil. 14.1). For the general practice see E. Epp, ‘New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times’, in B. A. Pearson (ed.), The Future of Early Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991), 35–56. Reading a letter aloud to the community, which seems to be presupposed by all the letters, is stipulated only in 1 Thess. 5: 27.

[41] This is shown for an early time by the generalization of the original particular addresses of some of Paul’s letters (Rom. 1: 7, 15; 1 Cor. 1: 2; cf. Eph. 1: 1).

[42] On these features see H. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995), 66–81, and L. Hurtado, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006).

[43] For Clement, Ignatius, and Polycarp, see A. F. Gregory and C. M. Tuckett, eds., The Reception of the New Testament in the Apostolic Fathers (Oxford: OUP, 2005), 142–53, 162–72, 201–18, 226–7. For early Christian papyri in Egypt see Hurtado, Earliest Christian Artifacts, appendix 1 (209–29). The most notable case is P52 (a fragment of the Gospel of John, customarily dated to the early 2nd cent.).

[44] Some papyrus fragments of Hermas are 2nd cent. (P.Oxy. 4706 and 3528, P.Mich. 130, P.Iand. 1.4).

[45] For the A.H. in Egypt: P.Oxy. 405; for Tertullian’s use of A.H. in Carthage, see T. D. Barnes, Tertullian (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 127–8, 220–1.

[46] The fundamental study of literacy in antiquity is still W. V. Harris, Ancient Literacy (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989); see now also the essays in J. H. Humphrey, ed., Literacy in the Roman World (Journal of Roman Archaeology, suppl. ser. 3; Ann Arbor: University of Michigan, 1991), and in W. A. Johnson and H. N. Parker, eds., Ancient Literacies (Oxford: OUP, 2009).

[47] M. Beard, ‘Writing and Religion: Ancient Religion and the Function of the Written Word in Roman Religion’, in Humphrey, Literacy in the Roman World, 353–8, argues that texts played a relatively large role in Greco-Roman religions, yet characterizes that role as ‘symbolic rather than utilitarian’, which was clearly not the case in early Christianity. The kind of careful reading, interpretation, and exposition of texts that we see in early Christianity and in early Judaism (whether in worship or school settings) provides, mutatis mutandis, an interesting analogy to the activity of elite literary circles.

[48] On the question of early Christian scriptoria (the term may be variously construed), see Gamble, Books and Readers, 121–6. Hurtado, Earliest Christian Artifacts, 185–9, rightly calls attention to corrections by contemporary hands in early Christian papyri as pointing to at least limited activity of a scriptorial kind.

[49] The role of Pamphilus and the Caesarean library/scriptorium in the private production and dissemination of early Christian literature, esp. of scriptural materials, was highlighted by Eusebius in his Life of Pamphilus, as quoted by Jerome in his Apology against Rufinus (1.9).

[50] Charles E. Hill; Michael J. Kruger, THE EARLY TEXT OF THE NEW TESTAMENT (Oxford, United Kingdom: Oxford University Press, 2012), 32-35.

Beyond the uses of Christian texts in congregational settings, there were already in the 2nd cent. some Christian circles that pursued specialized and technical engagements with texts, usually in the service of theological arguments and exegetical agendas. The ‘school-settings’ of teachers such as Valentinus and Justin, and a little later of Theodotus, Clement, and Origen, were Christian approximations to the kinds of literary activity associated with ‘elite’ reading communities in the early empire.

[51] Henry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT, New Haven University Press, 1995), 121.

[52] Philip Comfort, Encountering the Manuscripts: An Introduction to New Testament Paleography & Textual Criticism (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 2005), 22.

[53] Henry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts (New Haven, CT, New Haven University Press, 1995), 121-2.

[54] Philip W. Comfort, New Testament Text and Translation Commentary: Commentary on the Variant Readings of the Ancient New Testament Manuscripts and How They Relate to the Major English Translations (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 2008), 26.


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