How Papyri was Made in Antiquity Still Remains a Mystery . . .

A Papyrus Plant from Egypt. Photo Courtesy of WikiCommons

A perusal of commentaries on the book of Acts will yield typically an explanation for why Luke ended his second volume where he did, i.e., Paul on house arrest in Rome awaiting trial (Acts 28). One popular explanation is that Acts 1-28 (although Luke certainly did not have chapters and verses in his autograph) is all the material that probably would have fit on an ancient roll of papyri (Ben Witherington, Acts of the Apostles, 6). In the process, scholars provide a reference from the ancient polymath, Pliny the Elder (Natural History 13.74-82), and note that the average roll of papyri was about 40 feet (Witherington, Acts, 6). While this explanation may be correct, it takes a lot for granted (something that Witherington even acknowledges), and is problematic from our current state of knowledge on papyri. 

First and foremost, not every roll of papyri was the same size. While it is true that most rolls were composed of 20 sheets, the length of the sheets depended on the quality of the papyri. As a result, we would have to know what type of roll Luke used in order to make an accurate calculation for the length of the roll that contained Acts. Moreover, the height of rolls of papyri could vary (Adam Bülow-Jacobsen, “Writing Materials in the Ancient World,” in Oxford Handbook of Papyrology, 7). Therefore, the amount of material that one included on a scroll depended on the height of the roll of papyri. Thus Luke may have had plenty of space and for whatever reasons decided to end his second volume where he did. 
Most troubling of all however, is that we still do not really know how papyri was produced. Although Pliny does his best to describe the process of making papyri (and most papyrologists are critical of Pliny’s description), all modern attempts do not stack up to the quality of papyri from the ancient world. One papyrologist summed it up best when he noted of modern reconstructions: “The few examples I have seen of the Sicilian papyrus are very soft, white, and pliable but do not feel like papyrus at all. The Ragab papyrus feels like ancient papyrus but has the characteristic ‘grid pattern,’ that is, the individual strips are seen very clearly, which is not the case with ancient papyrus” (Bülow-Jacobsen, “Writing Materials,” 7). 
Consequently, we have to be honest with ourselves and claim ignorance not only on why Luke ended his second volume with Paul on house arrest in Rome, but also with the fact that we do not know the exact process for the construction of ancient papyri, which the early Christians and every one else in the Graeco-Roman world used.  

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *