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September 05, 2022

What Is Papyrus?

“Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh? Can reeds thrive without water?” Papyrus appears a number of times in the Bible, as in this passage from the book of Job. In Exodus, the mother of baby Moses places him in a “papyrus basket” to save his life, and Job compares his days to swift-passing “boats of papyrus.” But papyrus’s most important role in the history of the Bible is as material on which the biblical text was written. Papyrus was the paper of the ancient world, made from long thin strips of the papyrus reed. These strips of reed were overlaid in crisscrossing layers. When pressed together, the gum from the plant’s cellular structure acted as a bonding agent. Multiple sheets of papyrus were joined into scrolls that could be over 100 feet long. Papyrus was also used to make a codex, or sheets bound together like a modern book. As you view papyrus exhibits, notice the direction of the fibers. The side of the papyrus consisting of the horizontal strips was favored by scribes as it provided a natural equivalent of lined paper. The backside was less conducive to writing as it required writing across the vertical fibers. By observing the direction of the fibers you should be able to determine at a glance the front and back of each fragment. Eventually papyrus was largely replaced by parchment. But for many years it was the way the Bible was passed down through generations.

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