There is an interesting story concerning the historic development of parchment as a writing material. The improvement of leather for writing purposes is credited to King Eumenes of a city in Asia called Pergamum (the city mentioned in Rev. 2.12–16), from which parchment receives its name. According to the story, King Eumenes wanted to build a library greater than the famous one in Alexandria, Egypt. Of course, this did not please Egypt’s ruler who then placed an embargo on papyrus sections which were used to make papyri, the most common writing material at the time. Since Egypt was the only available source for papyrus, King Eumenes was forced to develop a high quality alternative out of animal skins – parchment. Although the details of this story may not be accurate, the city from which parchment receives its name, Pergamum, became famous for the manufacturing and exportation of this material.
Parchment was made from the skins of cattle, sheep, goats, and antelopes. Skins with minimal flaws were cleaned by being soaked in a lime solution for 3–10 days, then scraped on both sides with a knife, and thoroughly rinsed with water. In order to turn these skins into parchment, they had to be carefully stretched, dried, and scraped with a crescent-shaped knife until they reached the desired thinness. Parchment is distinct from leather in that it is not tanned, making it more susceptible to the environment.
Two of the oldest known parchment manuscripts of the Bible, Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus, were written during the fourth century A.D. These invaluable parchments, which originally contained both the Old and New Testaments, were written in uppercase Greek (known as majuscules). In fact, Sinaiticus is the earliest known complete New Testament and the only complete one in majuscule form.
It was a great expense to produce parchment manuscripts. Not only was the process for creating parchment long and tedious, one sheep could only produce enough parchment for four pages. It would take around 300 sheep or goats to make enough parchment for just one complete codex such as those mentioned above. Then there was also the matter of the scribal wages which was considerably more than that of the average worker. A NT manuscript cost a small fortune; even a portion was not something the average person could afford. Most manuscripts were commissioned by either a church or an upper class citizen.
One of the unique aspects of parchment is the ability to reuse it. Often due to the costly preparation method, parchment leaves would be washed and scraped until the text could no longer be seen (or only faintly seen), then reused. These leaves are called palimpsests and require the use of UV light to read and photograph the original text, also called the undertext. One of the most important NT parchment manuscripts, named Codex Ephraemi rescriptus, was written in the fifth century then erased in the twelfth century and rewritten with copies of thirty-eight sermons by Ephraim the Syrian (hence, the name Ephraemi). By exposing these leaves in various light spectra we are able to discover and study hidden text beneath newer text. It takes a well-trained eye to notice the faint hints that a leaf may be a palimpsest. CSNTM has discovered several manuscripts in this manner.
Parchment became an obvious improvement over papyri for making books due to its durability. The vast majority of manuscripts that CSNTM has photographed are parchment, with paper coming in second, and papyrus making up the least of these. Parchment’s popularity for a millennium provided us with numerous priceless manuscripts of long-lasting quality.