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The Scripture in Question

In 2 Timothy 4:13 it says this (NKJV):

Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come—and the books, especially the parchments.

The Greek is the following (the Byzantine Majority text variant is in brackets, which also varies from other Byzantine manuscripts that match the UBS reading; the variant is irrelevant for this question):

Τὸν φαιλόνην [or φελόνην] ὃν ἀπέλιπον ἐν Τρῳάδι παρὰ Κάρπῳ, ἐρχόμενος φέρε, καὶ τὰ βιβλία, μάλιστα τὰς μεμβράνας.

Background Info

I do not believe there is any way to know with certainty what exact texts (if any) the terms βιβλία ("books") and μεμβράνας ("parchments") may refer, but it is not the purpose of this question to determine specifics, but rather generalities.

What elicited the question was a sermon I heard recently in which the speaker attempted to make "parchments" refer to the Scriptures, such that Paul was asking for some books, but especially for Timothy to bring the word of God (the Scriptures). This struck me as immediately an erroneous (or at least presumptuous) assumption on the speaker's part, but it did cause me to question what exactly Paul was asking for.

The typical Greek term to refer to Scriptures (mainly, if not exclusively, Old Testament) is γραφαῖς (the plural of γραφή), which is clearly not used in 2 Tim 4:13. The New Testament uses the term mainly to refer to what is written (i.e. the words themselves), and not the document upon which it is written. A few possible exceptions are passages such as Lk 4:21; Act 8:32, 35; 17:11; 18:28. In these passages there is clearly a written document actually present that is being read or used, and may be referring to more than the text of Scripture abstractly—but even so, the term is placing focus upon what is written, the text itself, not the document. I say all this to simply point out that it is possible that Paul was referring to bringing documents upon which the Scriptures were written, and that he may not have used γραφαῖς because the term does not seem used for directly referring to the physical documents themselves.1

βιβλία is the plural form of βιβλίον. According to BDAG,2 this term derives its usage from the Greek term βύβλος that itself refers to "Egyptian papyrus," a common material used for writing upon. Thus the meaning of βιβλίον itself is to any written document, commonly including scrolls, and in later usage to what we think of as bound books or codices (presumably particularly any document written on papyrus, though usage of βιβλίον need not be limited to that material only).

μεμβράνας is the plural of μεμβράνα, which BDAG notes means simply "parchment" (prepared animals skin used for writing upon) but can also by synecdoche carry the idea of referring to written works upon parchment, and as BDAG further notes regarding 2 Tim 4:13, may mean "scrolls" or "codices" as some take it to refer in this context.

It appears clear that βιβλία is used to refer to written documents (whatever they were). It seems less clear that μεμβράνας in this context refers to written materials, though it may still.

What is clear is that the relational word μάλιστα ("especially") indicates something distinct about the "parchments" that makes them more precious to Paul than the "books."

In consideration for resolving the meaning of μεμβράνας, recall that Paul is writing to Timothy while in prison and undergoing trial (2 Tim 4:16), probably facing imminent death (v.6), hence partly why Paul needs these delivered, and quickly (v.9).

The Specific Question

So the question is, given what is understood of βιβλία, to what does μεμβράνας here likely specifically refer to with its more superlative relation. Some options I see (partly from BDAG's entry info about how it has been taken, partly from my own conjecture):

  1. The Holy Scriptures versus other written works, as the Scripture obviously would be precious to Paul above other written works.
  2. Bound books versus scrolls (or vice versa?), in which case the form of the work was important to Paul (bound books are easier to read than scrolls).
  3. The animal skin writings versus the papyrus writings (whether of Scripture or not); that is, Paul is making a distinction about the written documents to bring based off of the material they are on. Since parchment was more durable than papyrus, he especially wanted the more durable documents.
  4. Blank pages versus written pages. Paul wanted certain written texts (the "books"), but he especially was in need of new, blank, durable writing material to continue his own writings on (the "parchments"). (I actually lean toward this one, but am seeking to know the best answer based on evidence.)

Any other ideas I have not thought of are welcome. A good answer will not be merely opinion, but have some informed linguistic, historical, and/or Scriptural evidences to back up why one view ought to be preferred over another.


NOTES

1 If someone has more evidence of using the term more specifically to refer to the document more wholly or apart from the text on the document itself, I'm open to revising this understanding of mine.

2 William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000). References to BDAG are all to the lexical entries of the terms noted.

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  • This is pretty awesome, but it almost seems like you exhaust all answers in the question itself.
    – user2910
    Oct 4 '14 at 13:23
  • 1
    @MarkEdward: I attempted to exhaust the possible answers, what I am seeking is scriptural, linguistic, and historical argumentation that helps determine which of the answers is what Paul meant (or if there is another answer that evidence may lead to). So I would expect an answer to focus on one of the given possibilities, citing sources and logic to defend that view verses one of the others.
    – ScottS
    Oct 4 '14 at 13:49
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Paul’s parchments

This is a fascinating question!

I’d like to propose a possibility which, while not certain, is plausible, and it would make sense of some other historical & literary observations.

The Phenomena to be explained

  1. Paul asks for books and parchments while in prison expecting to die

  2. Paul’s letters—from as early as the manuscript evidence can be traced—always circulated as a set

  3. The titles on Paul’s epistles are too uniform to reasonably attribute to coincidence

  4. Some of Paul’s letters are missing (e.g. see here)

The solution I will argue for: Paul is asking for copies of his letters that had been kept among his personal papers. (perhaps he’s asking for other documents too but he especially wants his letters)

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Paul asks for books and parchments while in prison expecting to die

2 Timothy reads like the words of a man who is working on getting his affairs in order prior to his death (see esp. 2 Timothy 4:6-9). While he may well be looking for reading material; it seems more likely that he is focused on those he is leaving behind. And while he might be intending to write another slew of letters, there is no historical record to suggest he did.

I agree with the observation made by others that he’s probably not asking Timothy to make the long (and potentially dangerous—remember this is a man who was shipwrecked at least 4 times—see 2 Cor 11:25 & Acts 27:43-44) journey to Rome just to bring him writing material. He still has Luke available to run errands, and the literary output of the city of Rome in the first and second centuries suggests writing material was indeed available in Rome.

On the other hand, Paul has already written many letters and, in his circumstances, it is reasonable to believe he wishes to preserve his legacy and his doctrinal teaching and make it available to as many people as possible.

It was not uncommon for a letter writer to make a personal copy of a letter before sending (see here)—in the first century there was no Google [citation needed] to maintain a sent folder. Reasons this would be helpful include:

  1. They could resend if the original was lost

  2. They could reference it in reading a response

  3. They could quote it later if they liked the way they said something (I’m actually doing that right here right now)

  4. They could call out a forgery sent in their name

If Paul has a “sent folder” of letters wherever his things were stored before he was (presumably) unexpectedly arrested, I suggest he has in mind collecting those letters so that they will be available to the church more generally after his departure.

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Paul’s letters—from as early as the manuscript evidence can be traced—always circulated as a set

The manuscript evidence shows that Paul’s letters tended to circulate as a group. Important examples include P46, Codex Boernerianus, Codex Augiensis, and Codex Claromontanus (see here)

The incredible consistency of the contents of the Pauline corpus (there are 13 letters that are *always there, almost always in the same order) suggests to me that these letters were compiled very early, and the only serious attempt to later add to the set (Hebrews) was never entirely successful because the set of 13 was already known, established, and distributed (fun aside—could this be the origin of the codex? Not sure but it sounds interesting). The significant and increasing influence of the church in Rome over the next few decades would see to it that this set of documents obtained a wide distribution in the empire.

Jack Finegan pointed out that the tremendous familiarity of the Apostolic Fathers with Paul’s letters suggests they must have been circulating as a group within the first century (see here). Based on the fact that there weren’t multiple competing sets, one with say 5 of Paul’s letters, another with 3, and so on, I conclude that we should push the date forward a few decades further still. Some of these churches were relatively close to each other. Why didn’t they create mini-sets of Paul’s letters? Apparently somebody with the whole surviving set pre-empted them.

*Note on P46, the earliest surviving manuscript of a set of Paul’s letters. The outer few leaves of the manuscript have been lost (see here pp. 15-16). Some have suggested the Pastorals (1 Tim, 2 Tim, Titus) weren’t part of this set. The fact that the scribe starts writing more and more cramped and concisely as the manuscript progresses shows that he realized his mistake in not leaving himself enough space and was trying to compensate. If you take out the Pastorals he had more than enough space. So it appears he did intend to include the Pastorals.

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The titles on Paul’s epistles are too uniform to reasonably attribute to coincidence

The 13 epistles which begin with the word "Paul" are remarkable in that their titles are incredibly uniform.

If James sends a letter, what do you call it? The epistle of James.

If Peter sends 2 letters, what do you call them? 1 & 2 Peter.

Same basic idea for John. And Jude.

So where are 1st and 2nd Paul??

The letters attributed to Paul are the only letters in the New Testament (and among the very few in all early Christian documents) that are identified by the audience rather than the author.

If you traveled to Thessalonica in the late 50s and asked the local Christian congregation for 1st and 2nd Thessalonians they’d probably be puzzled for a moment, and then take you to visit the graves of the city founders at the local cemetery. If you asked them for the 1st & 2nd letters of Paul they’d know what you were talking about. If the churches called these letters by the name of the author (it would be rather silly if they did not), how do we explain the incredible consistency of the titles referring to the recipients?

My view is that somebody (we don’t know who but Luke & Timothy are likely suspects) compiled Paul’s papers after his death and distributed them around Rome as a set. This set consisted of 13 letters (not Hebrews), and they were labeled by the church/person to whom they were addressed. (David Trobisch & E. Randolph Richards have written extensively on these matters; see a particularly helpful piece by Trobisch here). If this didn’t happen, then we should expect multiple smaller, distinct sets of Paul’s letters floating around rather than one uniform set, as discussed above.

The other major early Christian example of letters titled by audience rather than author would be the writings of Ignatius (circa 107)—and the reason his letters are titled this way is explained in Polycarp’s epistle to the Philippians chapter 13—the were collected as a set right around the time of Ignatius’ death and then distributed as a set.

My argument then suggests the solution to our questions about Paul’s letters is the same as the solution to the letters of Ignatius. These two sets of letters are titled based upon the recipient, not the author, because from very early on they were distributed as a set.

--

Some of Paul’s letters are missing

The principal competing hypothesis to the view that Paul’s letters were compiled from a “sent folder” is that someone traveled around the empire seeking out Paul’s letters and making copies of them. Not only is this a far less parsimonious solution (and such a trip would be long, dangerous, and expensive), but it suffers from a fatal flaw: where are the missing letters to the Corinthians?

If the traveling letter-gatherer stopped in Corinth (could you really make a serious attempt at collecting Paul’s letters without stopping in Corinth?) why did they only get two of the letters? See this post on this site discussing how many letters Paul wrote to the Corinthians. To make the traveling letter-gatherer hypothesis work we would probably have to assume that the Corinthian church lost 1 or 2 of Paul’s precious letters. While not impossible, I find this difficult to believe.

How does the “sent folder” hypothesis handle the missing letters? There’s no reason to claim that every letter sent by Paul had a copy made and filed among his papers; only that this was a customary practice. The letters that made it into the sent folder survived by securing a place in the original Roman set of 13 Pauline letters, the other letters were lost.

--

Conclusion

This is not a deductive proof, it’s an effort to make an inference to the best explanation. In considering points 2-4 listed above I was persuaded some time ago that a set of Paul’s letters must have been created around the time of his death. Then rereading 2 Tim 4:13 brought it into new light—the verse in the OP might be speaking to the initiation of this very process!

I do not claim that this hypothesis is original to me; although I have recast and recombined these ideas into my own words, I am indebted to David Trobisch and E. Randolph Richards for the original observations.

I propose that the parchments to which Paul refers are his own personal copies of letters he had sent, for which he saw a ready audience in Rome. 2 Tim 4:13 may well be the reason we have a set of Paul’s letters today.

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  • 1
    I find this line of thought very compelling. Your argument makes a lot of sense as to what Paul might have "especially" wanted to have brought. At least better than any of my original ideas, and with descent logic and historical support to make it plausible. I very much believe that Paul most likely made copies of his letters. Unless someone else comes up with a more compelling argument, I'm accepting this answer.
    – ScottS
    Apr 7 at 15:50
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Sentiment often views the 'books' and 'parchments' as scriptures

One other view has been presented by T C Skeat in “ ‘Especially the Parchments’: A Note on 2 Timothy 4:13,” JTS n.s. 30 (1979): 174.

Skeat views the adverb “especially” (malista) as equating the “scrolls” and the “parchments” instead of differentiating between them. In his view Paul would have been saying, “Bring the books—I mean the parchment notebooks.” [Lea, T. D., & Griffin, H. P. (1992). 1, 2 Timothy, Titus (Vol. 34, p. 254). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.]

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  • 1
    Thank you for pointing out a different speculation, though I do not agree with Skeat's allowing μάλιστα to mean "namely" rather than "especially." I've encountered this elsewhere in reference to 1 Tim 4:10, and I agree with Thomas Schriener that such a view is incorrect. For Schriener's argument against it, see “‘Problematic Texts’ for Definite Atonement in the Pastoral and General Epistles,” in From Heaven He Came and Sought Her: Definite Atonement in Historical, Biblical, Theological, and Pastoral Perspective, David and Jonathan Gibson, eds. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2013):380–382.
    – ScottS
    Mar 18 '15 at 19:22
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As you note, we can't definitively answer the question as to content. What I can point out is that blank parchment could be purchased in any city of the empire. It would not have necessitated bringing it all the way from Troas to Rome via special messenger. If all Paul wanted was blank parchment he could have simply asked Timothy to buy some on his way to the prison.

Since parchment documents (either scrolls or codexes) were much more durable than papyrus ones, it's understandable that they would have correspondingly more valuable content, such as the Septuagint version of the scriptures, or possibly even a Hebrew version since Paul was conversant in Hebrew. It's probable that Paul did not have a complete copy of the scriptures bound into one codex, and certainly not a scroll which is much too bulky to contain an entire Old Testament. That would have been an extremely expensive purchase in ancient times. He might have had some books of the Hebrew Bible on papyrus and others on parchment (perhaps the Pentateuch). Or perhaps the Hebrew scriptures were on parchment and he had commentaries from Hebrew rabbis on papyrus. He could also have had some correspondence from apostles and the churches he had started, probably on papyrus.

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  • 1
    I appreciate some of your observations, however, please edit your answer: (1) To support your assertion with documented sources for (a) parchment's availability and (b) its being inexpensive enough to warrant not bringing it pre-owned from a distance (this would dampen my #4 speculation). (2) To clarify your position, which appears is my #3 speculation, with some #1 also; specifically needed is some scholarly reasons why βιβλία should be conceived as referring to the material of papyrus here, rather than its common usage referring to any written document (regardless of material).
    – ScottS
    Mar 18 '15 at 19:08
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You could watch or listen to this class by Dr. Mark Kruger. https://subsplash.com/reformtheosem/learn-about-rts/mi/+eyjspdt It is class #19 of the series "the Origin and Authority of the NT". It is a great class from Reformed Theological Seminary, and it is free. I have listened to the previous 18 classes and am currently on this one. In this class, Kruger discusses the difference between codices and scrolls in how they were historically used by the church. New Testament writings were always in codices. There are basically zero preserved NT writings as scrolls. Non canonical books are found both as codices and as scrolls. Kruger says that biblos was used to refer to the Bible, and he thinks that was the Old Testament. He says that there was no Greek word for parchment, so Paul transliterated the word from Latin. He says the word is used mainly to refer to codices, not scrolls. So it would be New Testament codices. Which ones? He said some people think the 3 gospels, others Luke, others Paul's epistles. These are guesses. Kruger thinks the most likely would be Paul's epistles. (That makes sense to me, as I most want to look at my previous work on a subject.) Kruger also says the same thing as King David above, that blank parchment could be purchased in any major city, so it would not make sense for Paul to ask Timothy to bring these from somewhere else.

-1

Paul in his preaching (as in his defences before Jews in Acts) and in his writings, often makes use of, or refers to, Old Testament prohecies, whether showing Jesus to be the predicted Messiah, or references to the Gentiles/nations in God's purposes.Isaiah 42:6; 49:6; Acts 13:16-49; Romans 16:25-26. Perhaps the parchments refer to these. Though he is an inspired apostle, he can do research, and also back up his claims with the actual Scriptures. Compare Luke 1:1-4. Interestingly, in the context of 2 Timothy 4:13, Luke is with Paul at this time. Downunderwriter David

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    Aug 13 '15 at 0:51

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