Ancient Paper Shortages and Gospel Composition: Some Commentary on Objections
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Objection: Writing materials were not in such short supply that needless repetition was often done, as in the cases of Isaiah 37 and 2 Kings 19 and 2 Samuel 22 and Psalm 18. And there seemed to be enough writing materials for parallel accounts like those in the books of Samuel and Kings and the Chronicles and the synoptic gospels. Sometimes these parallel accounts were almost verbatim.

  • To begin, this is missing the obvious point that it is not just a single copy at issue, but multiple copies, for generations beyond the Gospels, who are in mind. The OT documents were not evangelistic and were not intended for distribution to a widely spread audience -- we're talking "Roman Empire and beyond" versus "part of Palestine" and accordingly a larger number of people both in time and space.
  • Second, unlike the NT writers, the OT writers we can speak of had the support of wealthy patrons. Ezra and Nehemiah would have been able to call on the Persian royal treasury for help, which made Chronicles (Ezra's work) an affordable luxury. Kings of Judah had the royal treasury at hand for works like Psalms; righteous kings would offer such support to prophets like Isaiah. One copy of Isaiah would be no burden under such circumstances. In contrast the NT writers, though they may have had the backing of members of the educated Roman class, still did not have deep pockets to pull from -- not to the level of the king of Persia.
  • Third, other than Chronicles -- a history written at a crucial turning point after the Jewish return from Exile, and again, likely funded by Persian largesse -- this offer only two real cases of repetition. This hardly suggests a waste of paper, but even if it did, note that in no way is such repetition a contrary indication against our primary point. Does a critic expect a compiler of Isaiah's words and deeds to leave out 2 Kings 19? What's he going to do, write in a note, "see other scroll"?

    The compiler of Isaiah's oracles and of the Kings annals had differing purposes; there is nothing to prevent such double usage with respect to available supplies. And in any case, as noted, neither Isaiah nor the Kings writer, that we know of, were constrained by the limits of funding and of needing to keep in mind the production of multiple copies across an empire, for people from all backgrounds and nations.

    The Samaritan Pentateuch, which contained all five of the "books of Moses," was 60 feet in length (William E. Barton, The Samaritan Messiah: Further Comment of the Samaritan High Priest, Chicago, Open Court Publishing Company, 1907, p. 534).

    And how many copies of that were there, now? And who paid for it?

    The Isaiah scroll, discovered at Qumran, is 24 feet in length and is made of 17 leather sheets sewn together with linen thread, so if the "compositional constraints" kept gospel writers from giving complete details in their narrations of events in the life of Jesus, one wonders how the scribes who copied the much longer book of Isaiah on a scroll were able to pull off that feat.

    How many copies of Isaiah did the Qumran community, which had only a few thousand people, have? Uh, not many. How many copies of John do you suppose were needed to supply even the 5-10% of literate people who became Christians across the entire Roman Empire? Again: This is missing the obvious point that it is not just a single copy at issue, but multiple copies, for generations beyond the Gospels, who are in mind. The OT documents were not evangelistic and were not intended for distribution to a widely spread audience -- we're talking "Roman Empire and beyond" versus "part of Palestine" and accordingly a larger number of people both in time and space. John had to think of supplying something around the Empire people of below-average and barely average means could afford to copy -- not just supply a library for a limited community. Pointing to multiple examples of longer scrolls simply does not address this point.

    As for the difficulty of writing on scrolls when "comfortable chairs and writings desks were not in the picture," writing on scrolls wouldn't have been so difficult for someone sitting at a table, would it? Tables were in the picture in those days, weren't they? If not, how could the Bible, which referred to tables several times, have mentioned something that was nonexistent?

    This will be news for many, but while tables were available, the idea to use them for writing had somehow not yet occurred; see David Neville's Mark's Gospel: Prior or Posterior?. It's not more odd, though, than that New World cultures somehow never managed to invent the wheel.

    Why wouldn't an omniscient, omnipotent deity scrounge up enough scroll materials to enable his "inspired" ones to write clear and coherent accounts of whatever they were recording?

    A better question: Why does the critic think that their demands are rational and reasonable, when all they have to do is learn about ancient compositional restraints in order to understand the issues at hand? Why is God required to perform circus tricks for the sake of those looking for reasons to be disgruntled?

    There is even an example of a story being told twice in different books, so that one who accepts the biblical inerrancy doctrine must believe that the incident happened both before Joshua died and then after he was dead. This story was told first in the middle of a chapter where Joshua was dividing the conquered lands among the tribes of Israel.

    Joshua 15:15 Then he [Caleb] went up from there to the inhabitants of Debir (formerly the name of Debir was Kirjath Sepher). 16And Caleb said, "He who attacks Kirjath Sepher and takes it, to him I will give Achsah my daughter as wife." 17 So Othniel the son of Kenaz, the brother of Caleb, took it; and he gave him Achsah his daughter as wife. 18 Now it was so, when she came to him, that she persuaded him to ask her father for a field. So she dismounted from her donkey, and Caleb said to her, "What do you wish?" 19 She answered, "Give me a blessing; since you have given me land in the South, give me also springs of water." So he gave her the upper springs and the lower springs.

    At this time, Joshua was still alive, because he was the one in charge of the distribution of the conquered lands.The death of Joshua was recorded at the very end of this book (Josh. 24:29-33), and the next book (Judges) began with a reminder that Joshua was dead.

    Judges 1:1 Now after the death of Joshua it came to pass that the children of Israel asked Yahweh, saying, "Who shall be first to go up for us against the Canaanites to fight against them?" 2 And Yahweh said, "Judah shall go up. Indeed I have delivered the land into his hand."

    So at the time of Othniel's conquest of Debir [Kirjath Sepher], Joshua was still alive, but presumably the incident also happened after he was dead.

    Judges 1:11 From there they went against the inhabitants of Debir. (The name of Debir was formerly Kirjath Sepher.) 12 Then Caleb said, "Whoever attacks Kirjath Sepher and takes it, to him I will give my daughter Achsah as wife." 13 And Othniel the son of Kenaz, Caleb's younger brother, took it; so he gave him his daughter Achsah as wife. 14 Now it happened, when she came to him, that she urged him to ask her father for a field. And she dismounted from her donkey, and Caleb said to her, "What do you wish?" 15 So she said to him, "Give me a blessing; since you have given me land in the South, give me also springs of water." And Caleb gave her the upper springs and the lower springs.

    The story in question about Caleb originally existed as a fully separate unit of oral tradition. It was incorporated into both places because of its topical relevance, and in Joshua it is dischronologized, a "flash forward" if you will, completing the topic. This was normal ancient historical reportage procedure; chronology was not the automatic way of following things; it requires no "imagination" or "determination" because it draws an answer from what has been observed to be a typical practice, that fits in as well with the primarily oral nature of communication.

    In terms of why lack of paper didn't stop this repetition, the answer is the same: Joshua and Judges are and were not of the same nature and purpose as the Gospels.

    Joshua was written for an entirely different purpose and situation than the Gospels; there was no concern for multiple copies placing a burden on others. Repetitive phrases within it, further, were function of oral repetition. With 99% of the population of this time illiterate, parallelisms like this one were necessary to inspire memorization. The trade-off between space and memory-enhancing weighs heavier towards the latter when not many copies need to be made in the first place. Where the Gospels were concerned, the balance is more equitable.

    -JPH