Monday, September 23, 2013

Re-rolling a papyrus roll and Revelation 6:14

The inimitable T.C. Skeat wrote this in 1990:

"In Scritti in Onore di Orsolina Montevecchi, Bologna 1978, pp. 373-376, I published a note entitled "Was re-rolling a papyrus roll an irksome and time-consuming task ?", in which I described experiments with rolls cut from rolls of wall-paper, on the basis of which I concluded that re-rolling a roll was much easier and quicker than had been supposed, and that the secret lay in letting the roll do the work of rolling through its natural tendency to roll up. I assumed that a roll of papyrus, having been rolled up at the time of manufacture and kept constantly rolled up except when opened for the purposes of writing and reading, would have possessed the same tendency to roll up, but of course I had no means of proving it. Now the proof has come to light in a surprising way. Among the great find of papyri at Dishna, not far from the better-known Nag Hammadi, were a number of papyrus rolls. The owner of one of these rolls tried to unroll it, but found that the papyrus began to break. He thereupon immersed the roll in warm water, after which he found that he could unroll it without damage either to the roll or the writing. He left it unrolled, and five minutes later the roll had rolled itself up. It is surely remarkable that 1500 years or so after its manufacture a papyrus roll should still retain its capacity to roll itself up and thus completely confirm the results of my experiments."

T.C. Skeat, "Roll versus Codex - A New Approach?" Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 84 (1990): 297.

When working through some textual variants in Revelation, I was reminded of such rolling up. The correct text in 6:14 reads:

καὶ ὁ οὐρανὸς ἀπεχωρίσθη ὡς βιβλίον ἑλισσόμενον
'and the heaven vanished like a scroll being rolled up'

[The variant reading ἑλισσόμενος would mean that the heaven is rolled up.]

The wall-paper illustration of Skeat is telling - the rolling up happens quickly, which is partly why the metaphor is used by John in the first place.


  1. re: "The correct text in 6:14 reads"

    Given that the MSS are almost evenly divided between the endings -νον and -νος, I am not sure that "correctness" can be declared on either side on the basis of the gender of the ending. This is particularly the case in light of the "grammar of ungrammar" nature of Revelation, in which apparent rule-breaking disagreements tend to occur frequently.

    Contextually I see no compelling reason why in the present simile the heaven itself could not split asunder and be rolled up like a scroll, any more than the same action could occur in the manner of a scroll being rolled up (and this even though I still favor the -νον ending as more likely original).

  2. Roger Pearse9/23/2013 10:14 pm

    A very interesting post - thank you. I'd not come across that Skeat paper.

  3. Pushing on the -ος/-ον point: Neither seems ungrammatical, though the syntax changes slightly with the gender. I don't see why either should change the ultimate relationship of the participial action to the main verbal action of the subject in this clause. The rolling-up (like a scroll) is the mode of the withdrawal of the sky.

    If neutral, the participle aligns with the noun το βιβλιον, and as part of the adverbial construction describes the withdrawal of the sky: "And the sky was-withdrawn/withdrew-itself the way a scroll is-rolled-up/rolls-itself-up."

    If masculine, the participle is modified by the adverbial construct ως βιβλιον, and still describes the withdrawal of the sky: "And the sky was-withdrawn/withdrew-itself, being-rolled-up/rolling-itself-up like a scroll."

    The question I'd raise from the study here is whether we want a passive sense or a true middle sense, if scrolls re-roll themselves.

  4. (By which I mean: this opens up the question of whether God is the one acting to remove the heavens, rolling them up as someone would roll up a scroll they were done with, or whether these things are getting out of the way of God's wrath on their own.)

  5. Quite interesting. But can we assume a papyrus scroll rather than one of skin?

  6. Skeat: "The secret lay in letting the roll do the work of rolling through its natural tendency to roll up."

    The material of the scroll really shouldn't matter, and a vellum scroll might even have a greater tendency to roll up of itself (as witness a vellum Ethiopian prayer scroll I happen to own, which will only open out if held down at the appropriate places).

  7. I visit ur site frequently and i love to delve in the treasure that i found here .

    The reason why i am commenting here is the striking similarity i found between this verse and the following verse of the Quran ....21.104. " The Day when We will roll up heaven as written scrolls are rolled up. We will bring the creation back into existence as easily as We originated it...."

    According to me Bible and the Quran has a same source ..God !

  8. Ali, I notice that, much more often than does the Hebrew Bible, the Qur'an refers to Allah in the first person plural.

    Inasmuch as strict monotheism is a major tenet of Islam, how is this usually interpreted?

  9. Juan Hernandez Jr.10/02/2013 8:41 pm

    A little late to this conversation, and perhaps a tangent, but it is interesting that in his comments on Rev 6:14, Andrew of Caesarea has to explain to his readers that βιβλίον εἰλισσόμενον is "the image of an old custom" since "the Hebrews used scrolls rather than codices, which are common among us"!