Writing Materials part 3 – Palimpsest

Writing Materials part 2 – Parchment and Vellum
February 10, 2019

What kind of materials are the manuscripts of the Bible written on?

In the final part of this article series, we will become better acquainted with a rather rarely used word; palimpsest.



Figure 1. Palimpsest from the 5th or 6th century


Since papyrus and parchment were both expensive and hard to come by, writing materials were often used several times. Manuscripts written on reused materials are called palimpsests. So how was the old text removed from these sheets for reuse? In the case of papyrus, scientists are split on how they believe this was done [1]. Some believe only water was used to remove the ink, while others think this would only have worked if the ink was relatively fresh. Others, still, believe that special chemical compounds were needed. When it comes to parchment, things were far easier as one could simply scrape the old ink off of the hide. Hence the term «palimpsest» [2], which means “re-scraped”.



Palimpsests have played a significant role in biblical science, as they have led to the discovery of exceptionally old texts. One such significant manuscript is the Codex Ephraemi Syri Rescriptus [3]. Rescriptus is a Latin term and means «written over».  The original text of the manuscript [4] is from the 5th century, but it was erased and written over in the 12th century. Already in the 1600s, it was discovered that an earlier text existed underneath the current text. But it would take another 200 years before any attempts were made to recover the original text. In the end, chemicals were used, which turned out to do more harm than good. In 1840, the German linguist Konstantin Tischendorf (1815–1874) managed to successfully decipher 99% of the original text [5] using nothing more than the naked eye. Today, scientists make use of ultraviolet and infrared light to decipher the underlying text of such overwritten manuscripts.




https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/20663035.pdf (retrieved 25.10.18)

https://www.britannica.com/topic/biblical-literature/New-Testament-canon-texts-and-versions#ref598010 (retrieved 25.10.18)

http://www.bible-researcher.com/codex-c.html (retrieved 25.10.18)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OV2501BcFoI (retrieved 25.10.18)

Image sources:

Figure 1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palimpsest#/media/File:Georgian_paliphsest_V-VI_cc.jpg

[1] To read the various arguments for each side, consult: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/20663035.pdf
[2] The Word is derived, via Latin, from two Greek root words: palin, «again» + psên, «scrape»
[3] To study the manuscript in detail, consult: http://www.katapi.org.uk/BibleMSS/EphraemiAnimation.html
[4] The manuscript consists of the entire New Testament except 2 Thessalonians and 2 John, in addition to six books from the Old Testament, in Greek.
[5] Several researchers worked on the manuscript before Tischendorf, like for instance Johan Wettstein. But Tischendorf was the one to decipher both the Old and New Testament.

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