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Emending the Risk of Calling Any Ancient Soft Writing Materials as Parchment:

A Revision of Basic Terms

Introduction

§1

The standard way of thinking about parchment has it that this material of writing required a process of preparation from a thick animal skin to a thin leaf that could receive writing, be rolled over as little volume as possible, and be kept for a considerable amount of time.[1] Common sense seems to agree that this material must have been manufactured somewhere and sometime in history by human hands and their inventive ingenuity. (Metzger (1992, pp.4 – 5), for instance, acknowledges a time –during Hellenistic period 323 BC to 31 B.C – and a city in Mysia of Asia Minor for manufacturing parchment.) Furthermore, Breasted argues that it was parchment that eventually replaced another material of writing called papyrus[2] (Breasted, pp. 239 and 249; also, Epp, pp. 35ff). On the other hand, some writers raise challenging arguments, without reliably supporting them, saying that the existence of parchment goes hundreds to thousands of years before the Hellenistic era, which took place somewhere in Egypt (Diringer, p.172).[3]

The discrepancy among scholars in assigning a place and a time to parchment made me to reexamine my understanding of parchment in more depth. The claim that parchment had existed before Hellenistic period calls into question as to what evidence they have employed that led them to such a conclusion. During a somewhat in-depth research, I found that studies of whom I call generalists, such as Diringer and Dougherty, are not clear. They often take the term parchment for granted and wherever they see the presence of an image (in ancient reliefs) that resembles a soft writing material they immediately call it parchment. In addition, I found that confusion in translation of foreign concepts has also played a major role in the discipline.

The generalists’ claim that parchment has such an archaism, their ambiguous argument about two basically different writing materials, i.e., parchment and papyrus, and their careless classification of them can end to controversially socio–cultural consequences. In making this claim, I give an example, in which if we consider parchment a very old material even long before papyrus was invented, we may create a serious socio-cultural and hermeneutical controversy.
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[1] Parchment is a durable material requiring a preparation procedure by flaying, soaking, dehairing, and stretching. It has a history sum credited to pergamon (hence the term parchment), a city in Mysia of Asia Minor. For further study about parchment see Bruce Metzger. The Making of Ancient Books (in The Text of the NT: Its Transmission … 3rd Ed.) Oxford University Press: Oxford, (1992).
[2] Papyrus is a semi-resilient material, manufactured in Egypt by removing and gluing stems of the papyrus plant. For further research see Metzger op sit. For an illustrated examination of papyrus, see Breasted, James H. “The Physical Processes of Writing in the Early Orient ….” Journal of the American Oriental Society Vol. 32 (1928): pp. 230-249. For more on history and theoretical view on papyrus see Eldon Epp. New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, (1991): p. 35ff.
[3] For a few studies see David Diringer, “The Book before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental.” Dover Publications, New York 1982. And Raymond Dougherty, “Writing upon Parchment and Papyrus among the Babylonians and the Assyrians.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 48, 1928.

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To take a case in point consider the two parchment manuscripts: Uncial 0121b and Minuscule 424c. They are copies of books of the New Testament. In the early Christian Pauline book or “the letter to the Hebrews,” precisely in chapter two verse nine, both manuscripts contain the reading: χωρις θεου [= without God]. This reading has been attested in the works of a third-century Christian theologian named Origen, and considered by some as the original reading (Danker, p. 1095)[1]. On the other hand, many papyri and some parchment manuscripts write in the same passage: χαριτι θεου [= with the grace of God]. Now, if we mechanically classify parchment before papyrus, as it has occurred in some studies (such as Dougherty,  1928), we should highly consider the reading χωρις θεου [= without God], as a possible candidate. Whether the textual variants “without God” or “with the grace of God” have come into those manuscripts at a later exegetical or canonical time (Metzger, 2000 p. 594)[2] influences a) the question of how Christ was crucified (theological approach), and b) how to classify the writing materials (parchment and papyrus) and stablish the date of Pauline collection (paleographic approach).

Now that I shed a light (even if it is dim) on the fact that when it comes to writing materials time matters, I first explore a couple of studies that I agree with them on the time and place, of which parchment was invented and used. I also go a bit beyond what they have said when I claim that there are some other researches that I do not agree with their finds, and the latter scholars have indirectly challenged the work of earlier researches by potentially making some errors in interpreting ancient reliefs, translating ancient words, and using technical terms (e.g., parchment and papyrus) interchangeably. I shall show that the latter, the generalists, have been careless in ascribing parchment to materials, which could simply be non-manufactured animal skin or hide, if not papyrus. I also exhibit the theory that they have interpolated terms into texts where it cannot text-critically and exegetically be supported.
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[1] Danker, E. W. “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature.” (3rd Ed.) University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2000, p.1095.
[2] Metzger, B. “A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament” (2nd Ed.) United Bible Society, 2000, p. 594.

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§2

In general, two types of materials were used to keep records in antiquity. One was made of hard objects, such as stone, bone, wood, pot sherds (ostraca), and clay tablets; the other, of soft materials, like papyrus, and parchment (Metzger, pp 3 – 35). Because the serving life of these materials is not known exactly, we cannot rely on classifying a newly found text of antiquity based merely on its material. And because the discrepancy of assigning a place and a time to parchment is the main point of this paper, I shall try to identify some sources of errors that have partially caused scholars to classify parchment much earlier than it actually was manufactured.

J. Breasted has carefully investigated early “physical process and material equipment of writing in the Near East” (p. 230). His study on “the physical processes of writing in the eastern Mediterranean world” led him to draw a geographical line between two different materials that grew near two different rivers: papyrus of the Nile, and clay tablet in the Tigris-Euphrates world. While users of papyrus, in the process of writing, employed pen and ink, the Asiatic amanuenses (scribes) practiced incision on clay tablets. The two practices with two different writing equipment met each other soon thereafter, and were used in both worlds. For instance, in an Assyrian relief of the eighth century B.C. Breasted depicts the existence of these two materials (i.e., clay tablet and papyrus), based on the hardness of the clay and the need for a stylus and the position of fingers in holding and writing, and the softness of papyrus and the manner of holding a pen (reed).

R. P. Dougherty, on the other hand, differently portrays the two scribes in the figure. He agrees with Breasted that the tablet-writer is using a clay or hard material. On the other hand, Dougherty believes that the second scribe holds either a papyrus or parchment (pp. 114, and 130ff).

The softness of the material is perhaps one reason for Dougherty to be cautious and call the second material “papyrus or parchment.” If so, however, he does not say as to what evidence the soft material must be “parchment,” whereas it simply could be a hide or something of a similar nature. Breasted, on the other hand, meticulously examines reliefs from both Assyria and Egypt, and shows that the soft material is most certainly papyrus. Not only that, he also classifies parchment as a material that replaced papyrus at a later date (Breasted, pp. 239 and 249).

Apart from the softness of the material, there are other reasons that can help to argue Dougherty’s claim, namely the existence of parchment “before” the Hellenistic period. For instance, “writing upon parchment,” being a part of his main theme, drives Dougherty to translate[1] the term ku?-sar, “skin– or parchment–writer” (pp. 110 –116). There are at least four reasons concerning Dougherty’s translation:

        i.  The text in which the term appears is a Seleucid text written some time during the empire of Seleucid (312 – 63 B.C.), and Dougherty’s endeavor to connect it to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar (i.e., during 570 B.C.) begs the question;

       ii.  Dougherty uses the terms skin and parchment interchangeably;

      iii.  As Dougherty himself had noted (pp. 113ff) the term parchment-writer could be simply accountant;

      iv.  Harris has translated the term under consideration, reed worker (pp. 142 and 272).[2]

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[1] Dougherty posits his argument on Otto Schroeder’s Keilschrifttexte aus Assur verschiedenen Inhalts, WVDOG 35 (Leipzig, 1920). See Dougherty p. 110.
[2] R. Harris, Ancient Sippar: A Demographic Study of an Old-Babylonian City (1894-1595 B.C.). Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten Leiden (1975): pp. 142 & 272.

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While at first, I thought Dougherty had been cautious by calling the soft material (in the figure) “parchment or papyrus,” then I realized that his defense of his theme, namely “writing upon parchment,” was not based on actual evidence, which is why it could likely be the cause of his error.

In short, a) Dougherty’s main text is not as old as he represents it, b) although he is aware of other possible translation(s), he insists on “parchment-writer,” c) he interchangeably uses skin and parchment, d) he loosely employs “parchment or papyrus”, and e) he did not consider other translations, such as “reed worker.”

Another cause of error, based on which authors, the generalists, classify parchment during pre-Hellenistic period, springs from negligence and carelessness in translating foreign concepts. For instance, in Herodotus’ book, written before 425 BC, Herodotus in book 5 clearly uses the term skin [δερμα]. Rather elsewhere, in the same book, a term, I translate it, scroll [βυβλων] has been differently translated: “skin” or “parchment” (Beloe, 184) [1]. I found that the confusion in translations has its root in the next Persian term (διφθερσι) that Herodotus transliterated and wrote it to describe his awareness of it. My exegetical analysis of both Greek and Persian terms shows that Herodotus in that passage has referred to the form or shape of the material [thus the translation scroll is suggested] and not “skin” or “parchment,” that is, not the material equipment of writing.

One implication of Dougherty’s and other generalists’ usage of the term parchment is that they expand a manufactured material, parchment, to pre-Hellenistic era, without clarifying where and how such a preparation process on animal skins has taken place. In addition, pseudo-translation of terms could also fuel the erroneous expansion. Although negligence and/or error in translation may seem trivial, they are in fact crucial, because the reconstruction of an ancient text relies on these acts, i.e., being meticulous in dealing with texts and showing proficiency in translating them. One of the oldest, and, in this reference, the most instructive example of dealing with ancient inscriptions and writings can be summarized in the following lines.

On the cliff of Behistun, next to a rocky road used during the Achaemenes’s dynasty (550–330 BC), a multilingual inscription appears that has been a subject of interest and interpretation for over two millenniums. One of the recent studies in transliterating the cuneiform inscription of the old Persian part was accomplished by German linguist and Iranologist, Rüdiger Schmitt. Schmitt’s meticulous study reads the last section of column four of the inscription, in the following fashion (Schmitt, pp. 45 and 73):[2]
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[1] W. Beloe, “Herodotus: Translated from the Greek.” Luke Hansard Publication Vol. III London (1806): p.184. For an English/Greek version of Herodotus visit http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh5050.htm; here the translator has used the translation “paper” in some occasions; paper was largely used around 9th cent. A.C.
[2] Schmitt, R. “The Bisitun Inscriptions of Darius the Great: Old Persian Text.” School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol I, London, 1991, pp. 45 & 73.

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“Proclaims Darius, the king: By the favor of Auramazda this (is) the form of writing, which I have made, besides, in Aryan. Both on clay tablets and on parchment it has been placed.”

On the contrary, when we compare his translation with a (century old) study (British Museum, pp. 197-98)[1], where it says,

“(Thus) saith Darius, the king: By the grace of Auramazda this inscription […..] which I have made […..] have I written.”

We confront noticeable differences in translation. Symptomatic to the problem of translation is the fact that the end of Column IV of the inscription is badly damaged and there is (to my knowledge)[2] no earlier copy of it. The complete version of the passage has customarily been understood as the true version of the inscription, and above all, it has been studied with further interpretation (such as Irano–Judaica, p. 15).[3] It may be said at the outset that the shorter translation is the most reliable version of the inscription. The more complete version, as it was noted in footnote 11, is more likely an interpolation of terms into the existing inscription.

Indeed, it is important to emphasize that no matter if I wanted to rely on Schmitt’s version, I still would confront a few troubling questions. First, in the text, according to Schmitt, Darius refers to a copy of the inscription, a) written in Aryan language, and b) kept on clay tablets, and on parchment. What is this Aryan language?[4] The Behistun inscriptions, as well as other Achaemenes’s writings lay stress upon the fact that the old Persian was Darius’ language, and during his reign alphabetical (old Persian) inscriptions were invented. Why would he (or someone in his time) invent the old Persian inscriptions, and had it inscribed, if he had already had a language, named Ariya, “in form of writing”?

Second, a collation of the two texts:  reveals the possibility of reconstruction and/or interpolation of later concepts into the original writing:

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[1] British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. “The Sculptures and Inscription of Darius the Great on the Rock of Behistun in Persia.” Longmans & Co. London, 1907, pp. 197-98.
[2] Since Prof. Schmitt’s version seemed more complete, I contacted him to see if he possessed a copy of the inscription. He did not send his copy of the Persian inscription, but he mentioned that the word carman had not been inscribed. My personal impression is that several words have been interpolated in the last part of column IV of Behistun’s inscriptions.
[3] Irano–Judaica: Vol. 4. “Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture Throughout the Ages.” Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Publications, Jerusalem, 1999, p.15.
[4] Ariya or other derivations of the term in classifying the Indo-Aryan language is a modern phenomenon. As a matter of fact, in old Persian the word was pronounced Haraiva. Ariya was the Susian (or Elamite) pronunciation of Haraiva (see British Museum, p. xlix).

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In line 4, for instance, while the B text suggests the letter t, the S text has inserted two letters: r and y. S text has reconstructed lines 6 and 7, while B text seems to have remained faithful to the original inscription.

So, with the puzzling reconstruction of Ariya, and the interpolation of clay and parchment textual perplexity increases.[1] On one conclusion, however, I remain confident that parchment has been interpolated to the S text. Hence, by way of anticipation, data from earlier discussion may permit the reader to conclude that the term “parchment” did not exist in the original inscription, and perhaps later hands tried to insert it into the text.

 §3

I agree that some sort of animal skins might have been locally used for writing. However, the lack of reliable evidence makes me reluctant to conclude that the refined and manufactured parchment was used during the pre-Hellenistic Mesopotamia or Egypt, and keeps me confident to agree with Metzger (1992, pp.4-5) – as it was mentioned in the beginning of this paper.

The short display exhibited here has one thing in common: scholars, or the generalists, have loosely and interchangeably used the technical term parchment – a refined animal skin – for a larger context, expanding from hide and animal skins, in one side, to even papyrus and paper, on the other. Two disciplines suffer from this unsafe use of terminology: paleography and literal criticism. When a manuscript is classified wrongly, not only it affects its neighboring manuscripts, but it distorts the chronological development of a subject. François Bovon advocated a similar warning, where he wrote[2] “Textual critics should reach back into the discipline of codicology and forward into the field of hermeneutics” (p. 35).

Parchment, due to its manufacturing process, is simply distinguishable from an unprepared animal skin or hide – not to mention from papyrus and paper.

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[1] We see that the B text has the reading avasta-yam. It has been attested that a religious language, called Avestan, existed alongside the old Persian. This religious language was forbidden to be written. Since Darius in this paragraph is referring to another language besides the one being inscribed, the writing that both S and B texts point out is most likely the Avestan language, and, I think, that to write his narrative in Avestan language was Darius’s socio-political move, within the religious framework of his time.
[2] François Bovon, “The Synoptic Gospels and the Non-canonical Acts of the Apostles.” HTR: 81 (1988).

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I wholeheartedly indorse terms such as hide or other unrefined animal skins[1] for any soft material that was used – however not in large scale – besides papyrus, before the Hellenistic period. Until an evidence-driven research testifies that those unrefined materials were processed in some way and used before the Hellenistic era, I confidently reject such a claim. Even though we are in the new millennium, I strongly suggest that we go back and start faithfully revising basic terms for writing equipment in antiquity.

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[1] The images of parchment preparation and the animal skin must be credited to google images.

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Works Cited

1.     Beloe, W. “Herodotus: Translated from the Greek.” Luke Hansard Publication, Vol. III London, 1806.

2.     Bovon, François, “The Synoptic Gospels and the Noncanonical Acts of the Apostles.” HTR 81, 1988.

3.     Breasted, James H. “The Physical Processes of Writing in the Early Orient ….” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 32, 1928.

4.     British Museum Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities. “The Sculptures and Inscription of Darius the Great on the Rock of Behistun in Persia.” Longmans& Co. London, 1907.

5.     Danker, E. W. “A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature.” (3rd Ed.) University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2000.

6.     Diringer, D. “The Book before Printing: Ancient, Medieval and Oriental.” Dover Publications, New York 1982.

7.     Dougherty, R.  “Writing upon Parchment and Papyrus among the Babylonians and the Assyrians.” Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 48, 1928.

8.     Epp, Eldon. “New Testament Papyrus Manuscripts and Letter Carrying in Greco-Roman Times.” Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1991.

9.     Harris, R. “Ancient Sippar: A Demographic Study of an Old-Babylonian City (1894-1595 B.C.).” Nederlands Instituut voor het Nabije Oosten, Leiden, 1975.

10.  Irano–Judaica: Vol. 4. “Studies Relating to Jewish Contacts with Persian Culture Throughout the Ages.” Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi Publications, Jerusalem, 1999.

11.  Metzger, Bruce. “A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament” (2nd Ed.) United Bible Society, 2000.

12.  Metzger, B. “The Making of Ancient Books” (in The Text of the NT: Its Transmission … 3rd Ed.) Oxford University Press: Oxford, 1992.

13.  Schroeder, Otto. “Keilschrifttexte aus Assur verschiedenen Inhalts.” J.C. Hinrichs’sche Buchhandlung: Leipzig, 1920.

14.  Schmitt, Rüdiger. “The Bisitun Inscriptions of Darius the Great: Old Persian Text.” School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol I London, 1991.

Online Source

15.  For English/Greek version of Herodotus visit http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hh/hh5050.htm

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