A carbon-based ink mixture was commonly used on papyri manuscripts, the earliest writing surface for NT manuscripts. The ink mixture used on papyri was made from charcoal or lampblack, water, and grounded gum arabic — which made the ink thicker. This mixture produced a black ink that is mentioned in 2 John 12 and 3 John 13. The Greek term used in these verses is, melas, which is translated as ink, more specifically meaning, black.
When parchment became popular in the 4th century AD, a new formulation for ink was needed since the former did not adhere well to parchment. This ink was made from crushed oak gall, a small hard nut formed by a gall wasp’s larva on the leaves and twigs of oak trees. The crushed oak gall was infused in rainwater for several days then mixed with ferrous sulfate, turning it black. On paper the ink first appears as blue-black but turns to a rusty brown as it fades over time. Many parchment and paper manuscripts have decorative initial letters and heading written in yellow, blue, green, and — most commonly — red ink.
Deluxe manuscript editions were written with ink made of melted gold or silver on purple-dyed parchment, or vellum. Jerome, who is most notably known for his work on the Latin Vulgate in the 4th –5th centuries, did not approve of these lavish editions. According to him, “Parchments are dyed purple, gold is melted into lettering, manuscripts are decked with jewels, while Christ lies at the door naked and dying” (Epistle 22.32). These deluxe editions were quite expensive to prepare and must have been commissioned by someone from the wealthy upper class.Nazi soldiers held several Albanian monks at gun point, threatening them with their lives if they did not hand over this precious manuscript.
One such deluxe manuscript, written on purple vellum with silver lettering, has a most interesting story surrounding it. A 6th century MS, Codex Beratinus, which CSNTM has had the privilege of photographing, was nearly lost during World War II. Nazi soldiers held several Albanian monks at gun point, threatening them with their lives if they did not hand over this precious manuscript. Not wishing to give the Nazis any ‘ammunition’, they lied to the soldiers, risking their lives for the manuscript. Believing that the monks were telling the truth, the Nazis left, leaving the purple parchment safely hidden away.
In addition to decorative headings and initial letters, colored ink was used for other artistic adornment. Portraits of Christ and the apostles, as well as depicted scenes and events, are found in manuscripts as early as the 6th century. Although the research has yet to be strongly undertaken, there is the possibility of using such artistic adornment in ink as evidence to better understand the family relationships among a large group of manuscripts.
New ink formulas were created as surfaces and writing utensils changed and in order to make the appearance of handwritten documents more appealing, even decorative with the use of colored inks. With the invention of the printing press in the 15th century, the type of ink needed for manuscripts (that which flowed well from quills and adhered well to parchment) began to be replaced by a new formula which was better suited for printing, especially on paper.