3. The Word of God: from scrolls to e-books

Christians are people of the Word. We follow the Lord Jesus who was revealed to us as the Word made flesh (John 1) and whose story is communicated through the word of God, the Bible. But how we access the written word is changing. No longer is it safe to assume that Christians are people of the Book. Look around you the next time you are engaged in corporate Bible study: while all participants may well be following along in their Bible many will not be using a book as they choose to access Scripture through electronic devices.

Changing times

Does this matter? At one level, not at all. Christians need to love the word of God and spend time reading it, meditating on it, studying it, so that we might all live out the Gospel as we apply it. Does the mechanism matter? After all there was a time when the printed and bound book was at the forefront of modern technology as the mass production of books pioneered by Gutenberg, Caxton, and others replaced the old technology based on copying manuscripts by hand which had been the preferred means of transmitting the written word for centuries.

Books and parchments

If we travel back in time to the first century we may catch a glimpse of another technological change when Paul wrote to Timothy in what we call 2 Timothy 4:13 1


When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

Paul of Tarsus
A papyrus sheet from an early copy of the Gospels

A papyrus sheet from an early copy of the Gospels

That was the English Standard Version and most other English translations are much the same with the key words being “books” and “parchments”. Clearly they are different items, otherwise Paul would not have distinguished between them. In Greek they are biblion and membrana. Biblion is usually given as “book” in English but while this communicates the function it is actually misleading. Yes, it is a book in that it transmits information in written form but I am certain that all of us have a picture of what a book is which is anachronistic to when Paul was writing.

Books as collections of folded pages bound together between covers had not long been invented when Paul wrote to Timothy. Elsewhere in the New Testament biblion is translated as scroll, as when Jesus read in the synagogue (for example in Luke 4: 17) or as a certificate or legal bill, as in a bill of divorce (e.g., Mark 10: 7). It seems most likely that Paul, a Jewish rabbi remember, was asking for his scrolls to be brought together with his membrana.  You do not need to be a great linguist to work out that the Greek membrana is not too different from our English “membrane” and it means parchment or vellum: an animal skin that has been treated in such a way that it makes a good writing material. 2 Scrolls were made of papyrus, an Egyptian reed, and were relatively cheap to manufacture. Vellum was animal skin and took longer to prepare and was thus more expensive.

Paul’s library?

So it could be that Paul is asking for, in our terms, all his library: the cheap “paperbacks” on papyrus and the more expensive vellum “hardbacks.” 3 However it is also possible that we are seeing inside Paul’s office. He is or was a Jewish rabbi and no doubt had his own collection of holy scrolls, the material that we know as “The Books of the Old Testament”. That covers the biblion part of 2 Timothy 4:13.

The membrana of Paul’s library could be loose leaves written on parchment but this is unlikely. Parchment was and is expensive to make and so would not be used as the ancient equivalent of notepaper. For writing rough notes, scraps and off-cuts of papyrus would be used and sometimes reused, with messages being written both horizontally and vertically, or anything else that came to hand might be used, such as broken pottery. 4 It could be that Paul was at the cutting edge of technology and had a collection of codices as well as scrolls. A codex 5 was much closer to what we think of as a book than it was to a scroll. A scroll is a long strip not unlike a modern roll of wallpaper whereas a codex is made up of smaller leaves or pages bound together along one edge or spine. At this time both scrolls and codices were written by hand but the way they were used was different.

To scroll, or not to scroll …

Scrolls work well if you want to start at the top and read down to the bottom 6 but are less convenient if you want to jump from point to point. Before the New Testament was written believers compiled lists of useful material: lists of what Jesus said, lists of His miracles, lists of Old Testament prophecies fulfilled by the Messiah, and so on and when you are working from lists a codex is much easier to use as turning pages is quicker than scrolling up and down. 7 Paul was eager to have his membrana back in his possession. Could it be because this was his collection of lists about Jesus to accompany and complete his collection of Hebrew scrolls?

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus showing part of the Gospel of Matthew

A leaf from Codex Sinaiticus showing part of the Gospel of Matthew

While some of what I have written is speculative it is certain that the church readily adopted book technology and abandoned the use of scrolls. Many of the most important documents of the early church are codices such as Codex Siniaticus, one of the earliest complete New Testaments and there are literally hundreds of other examples. 8 In part this change was theological: scrolls were closely associated with Judaism and as Christianity grew away from its Jewish roots there was perhaps a wish to disassociate themselves from their past. But the main reason for moving from scroll to codex was practical: while papyrus could be rolled relatively easily it did not take to folding and so was no use in book form. Parchment was too heavy to make convenient scrolls but was easy to use in book form. It was advantageous for Christian missionaries to be literate. Those from a Gentile background would almost certainly have learned their letters by using wooden tablet notebooks and so were more familiar with the book format than scrolls and, as we have said, the ease of use told heavily in favour of the book, which was important for Christians who wanted to read the written basis of faith quickly and easily.

Books ruled the western world throughout the Middle Ages and beyond with the greatest boost to their popularity following the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century. 9 The move from handwritten manuscripts to mass produced books was a technological leap forward but also had unexpected theological consequences. Now it was possible for all written texts to be identical in a way that had been beyond the abilities of even the most careful scribe. Thus every Bible could be identical and when mistakes were made, as in the notorious “Wicked Bible” of 1631 where a “Not” was omitted from one of the Ten Commandments 10 a comparison with other editions would reveal that one was right and the other wrong. Ultimately this led, at least in part, to the Fundamentalist insistence on the complete reliability of one version over all others: the Authorised King James Version  11

The digital revolution

The prototypes of electronic readers started to be used in the 1980s. Academics were using the early form of what became the Internet to circulate articles that were read on computers before they would be published in the traditional way in a learned journal. However what was being read, an academic article, was the same whether it was viewed on a computer screen, a draft typescript, or the pages of a journal. By sharing it electronically the content was distributed more quickly (and cheaper) than waiting for the journal to be edited, printed, and posted. This gives us the first two advantages of electronic publishing over traditional printing: it is more immediate and cheaper. 12

Meanwhile interesting things were happening in children’s writing that utilised the new technology. Children’s CD-ROMs made it possible to tell stories in a new way. As well as seeing the text on screen it could also be heard and the programs were becoming interactive with buttons to press and choices in the narrative (“If you think Teddy should jump out and say ‘Boo!’ click on the blue button and if you think Teddy should stay hidden click the red button.”)


Thus the next generation of readers was approaching the text with different expectations. Mention of CD-ROMs gives a third advantage of electronic publishing over print. A CD-ROM 13 can store a huge amount of information in a very small space. The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, needs an entire bookcase for a printed edition or can be stored, complete with illustrations and web-links, on a single disc. I have several sets of reference books on CD-ROM, all of which I use occasionally and none of which I could afford as full priced hardback sets and, even if I could, I would not have space for them on my bookcase. When I run them on my computer I use them as books: I go to the Table of Contents or Index to find what I need, scroll up or down (or use a link if one is provided) and then read the article in exactly the same way as if I had the printed book open in front of me.

Astute readers and those that know me personally (and the two classifications are not mutually exclusive) will have deduced that I am a bibliophile. Also I am of an age that means I grew up in schools where computers were unknown 14 and so my default position is to use pen and paper when making notes and to do my research in a library. I do use a personal computer but only as a word processor with data storage and as a means of accessing the Internet. If you are stuck at the same level as me, a technophobe, you will still be able to study with the British Bible School. Some lines of research may be closed to you unless you have friends to help and you may end up with a larger book bill than more computer literate students but if it works for you then praise the Lord and get on with your next assignment.

What follows is personal: this is what works for me. I appreciate that some reading this will already be way beyond me in technological matters and almost certainly within a very short time everything we know about computers will be out of date, in which case the following thoughts belong in a time capsule: this is how Steven Whitehead used Information Technology for Bible study in 2016. Don’t laugh at me, I was doing the best I could.

The unchanging word?

It is obvious that once a book has been printed its text is set permanently. However while a book may stay in print it is nevertheless possible for changes to be made between print runs (or “impressions” as they are called). The King James Version (“KJV“), for example, was first printed in 1611. Within two years more than three hundred changes had been made, mainly spelling mistakes that readers either would not notise or would silently correct (just as you did if you read my notise as notice in this sentance).  Most of the changes made to KJV over the years have been corrections rather than revisions but after the most significant updates by Thomas Paris in 1762 and Benjamin Blayney in 1769 it is estimated that some 75,000 changes had been made to the 1611 KJV. 15 If you compare a 1611 KJV with any of the later printings no doubt you could find these changes. However if you use an electronic Bible these changes will be made for you and perhaps without you noticing. Steve Holmes tells the following story; 16

A friend of mine, a Presbyterian pastor in the Highlands, is in the habit of reading from his Bible app when he conducts worship; his church uses the NIV. He told me recently of his horror as he began to read in church and realised the words had changed – his app had silently updated from the 1984 NIV to the 2011 NIV. And if that seems like a small thing, recall that this was the update to the gender-inclusive language version, something that conservative Presbyterian churches in the Highlands have not always been known to tolerate.

Some might see a text that is automatically updated to the latest edition as another advantage of electronic readers over printed copies but others may not be convinced and of course we are not comparing like with like. The 75,000 changes in the KJV were made over a period of more than one hundred years and were generally uncontroversial, often no more than reflecting recognised changes in spelling and punctuation. The changes in the NIV are far more radical and have such theological implications that it could be argued that the 1984 “Classic” NIV and the 2011 “Contemporary” NIV are so different as to be different versions, but that is a discussion for another time.

With hindsight I would have approached home computing differently. I asked someone who had used computers at work for many years what she would buy. Her opinion was that Apple was better than Microsoft but her prediction was that Apple would go the way of Betamax videos. 17 These wise words were spoken before iPods and iPads made Apple the commercial success it is today so I invested in an Evesham personal computer 18 running Windows and once Bill Gates has got you it can be difficult to escape. I now use a Hewlett Packard machine but am still running Windows because I have not yet been brave enough to switch (and because all the schools I have taught at have all used Windows). If you use a different operating system then you may need to translate what I am about to say although thankfully it is now much easier to move between systems than it was when I was starting out. Thus you can see that I stumbled into the brave new world of information technology and have been stumbling along ever since. However I have found some tools that help me in my studies so I share them with you conscious of the fact that many reading these notes will know more than I do and that within a short time technology will have moved on and this material will need to be re-written.

A word about websites

I like the permanence of books: what was written stays written until a new edition is published. Websites, though, are different. Sometimes they wither away, becoming increasingly obsolete and irrelevant as time moves on (for example sites dedicated to once popular bands). Then there are those sites that change so quickly that it is impossible to say anything specific as by the time you have read the review the site will have changed yet again. So here is a snapshot of the useful www.biblegateway.com as of April 2016.

The original multilingual searchable Bible website, Bible Gateway was started in 1993 by Nick Hengeveld, a student at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who had a visionary passion to make the Bible digitally accessible to everyone through the very new technology that was to become known as the Internet (see www.biblegateway.com/about).

Since 2008 Bible Gateway has been part of Zondervan Publishing which is in turn owned by HarperCollins, part of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. The site is currently free to use and is funded by advertising and links to various relevant products although if you chose to subscribe you are spared the ads.

Bible Gateway’s great strength and the main reason I use it is its range of searchable Bibles that are readily available. Currently there are Bibles in dozens of languages, from Cherokee to Czech, and – of far greater interest to most of us – more than fifty English Bibles, making it incredibly easy to compare and contrast different translations. Bible Gateway is quick. In my village Broadband is a trickle and my computer while adequate is by no means state of the art or top of the range yet I can find passages in the many versions available faster than I could pull the book off the shelf and look it up – even if I happened to have the translation in question. (I have checked: I have fifteen different translations on my bookcase so Bible Gateway wins on quantity as well as speed.)

Alphabetically the translations run from the American Standard Version (1901) to Young’s Literal Translation (1898). I confess that I had to look up these dates but each translation has a brief history page for those seeking this information. Several versions are available in different editions so Bible Gateway makes it quick and easy to see where and how, for example, the different versions of the New International Version differ. Available are the NIV Reader’s Version (1996), the current NIV (2011), and the NIV-UK (also 2011). We note that the original, “classic” NIV is no longer available on Bible Gateway, probably at the behest of its American publishers. Once I have decided which version to use in my notes it is easy to print straight from the screen or to cut and paste and incorporate the material within another document. 19

There are many other tools available at Bible Gateway, some more reliable than others. You can sign up for various daily devotionals, follow reading plans, listen to audio Bibles, and access study guides. There is so much here that it is impossible to cover everything in a brief survey so I recommend visiting www.biblegateway.com to explore for yourself while offering the traditional words of advice: caveat lector (“reader beware”).

There are other ‘Gateways’ on the Web, including for both the Old and New Testaments 20 and while both have much to offer they are aimed at the academic end of the study continuum. By all means explore either or both but be aware that they are generally working at a different level to the rest of us in that many of their pages require some knowledge of the original languages. Also take care on their links as they can send you off to some strange places!

I am aware that there are many other tools available but I do not want to overload you by giving you too much too soon. If you have a favourite website or software program please share it with us. I hope to have a page dedicated to this on the BBS website where these matters can be discussed so please have a look for it and join the conversation. In the meantime, keep reading the word. Whether you chose to access the word of God electronically or through paper there are plusses and minuses. Only you can decide what you can afford. There are advantages and disadvantages whichever route you follow. In the ideal world all students would have access to all forms of the Bible and can make an informed choice having gained suitable experience. If you are able to use electronic Bibles as well as paper ones all well and good; if you can only work with one and not the other then you can still meet God through His word and then seek to apply what you learn in your Christian pilgrimage.



Bruce, F. F., History of the Bible in English (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press,1970).
First published in 1961 as The English Bible. Although now badly out of date Bruce is always worth reading and his earlier chapters are particularly helpful.

Carson, D. A., The King James Version Debate – A Plea for Realism (Grand Rapids MI: Baker,

Decker, Rodney J., “An Evaluation of the 2011 Edition of the New International Version”, pages
415-456 in Themelios Volume 36, Issue 3 (November 2011).

Encyclopædia Britannica Ultimate Reference Suite CD-ROM,  (Chicago IL: Encyclopædia
Britannica, 2015).

Gardiner, Eileen and Ronald G. Musto, “The Electronic Book”, pages 164-171 in Suarez and
Woudhuysen, The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford: University Press, 2010).

Goodacre, Mark (founder), www.ntgateway.com (checked April 2016).

Hengeveld, Nick (founder), www.biblegateway.com (checked April 2016).

Holmes, Steve, “From scrolls to scrolling: How technology has shaped our Bible reading”, pages
5-7 in The Bible in Transmission (Bible Society, Spring 2016).

Kallendorf,  Craig, “The Ancient Book”, pages 25-34 in Suarez and Woudhuysen, The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford: University Press, 2010).

Kubo, Sakae and Walter F. Specht, So Many Versions? (Grand Rapids MI: Zondervan, 1983).

Millard, Alan, Reading and Writing in the Time of Jesus (New York: University Press, 2000).

Nicholson, Roy (founder), http://otgateway.com (checked April 2016).

Suarez, Michael F. and H. R. Woudhuysen (editors), The Oxford Companion to the Book (Oxford: University Press, 2010).

Whitehead, Steven, “Biblegateway.com” in BiBloS Issue 1 (see www.britishbibleschool.com/biblos/biblegateway-com).

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  1. Chapter and verse divisions were added to the original text centuries later.
  2. Even to this day all Acts of Parliament in Westminster are written on vellum.
  3. Which is anachronistic as they did not have books let alone hardbacks and paperbacks but if it gets across the price difference then the point has been made.
  4. Examples of which can be seen in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and elsewhere.
  5. The plural of codex = codices.
  6. The same principle applies when we scroll down an electronic document.
  7. And here the comparison between scrolling on a computer and handling a real scroll breaks down. To scroll up or down on a computer screen means pressing a key or using a mouse; unrolling a lengthy scroll is not so easy – it can be heavy, fragile, and without chapter and verse divisions the reader needs to know the text well to find what he is looking for.
  8. All Christian works so far discovered from 2nd century Egypt are in codex form whereas 98 percent of non-Christian works are not. See Kallendorf, page 31.
  9. Moveable type had already been used in China before Gutenberg’s time but Chinese printing was still done by hand unlike Western mechanical printing which made the mass production of books possible.
  10. It was the Seventh Commandment and the king at the time, Charles II, believed that someone was making a point and accordingly fined the printer £300 which was a no small amount back then.
  11. The author firmly believes in the divine inspiration of Scripture but is less than convinced that God has restricted His communication to one seventeenth century translation but this is not the time or place to go into the issue. See Carson, 1979.
  12. However younger readers should be told that in the 1980s personal computers were still unknown and the machines in the university computing centre were large, slow, and extremely expensive.
  13. CD-ROM = “Compact Disc Read-Only Memory”)
  14. I remember being taken on a trip from secondary school to the local teachers’ training college to see the new computer being unloaded from a lorry – it needed a forklift truck – and then being taken back to see it after it had been installed. We were not allowed in the same room as dust was a big problem but we were allowed to peer at it through a window.
  15.  Kubo, So Many Versions? 1983 page 274.
  16. Holmes, The Bible in Transmission 2016, page 7
  17. When home video recorders were the next big thing there were several competing systems. Many experts thought that Betamax was the best available but VHS was better marketed and lasted longer, at least commercially. Where are they now?
  18. Remember them? I thought not but at the time it was the best I could afford with the excellent support which I needed.
  19. Although there are, of course, copyright issues to consider if you are going to use this material beyond the context of personal study, so read the small print!
  20. See  http://otgateway.com and http://www.ntgateway.com