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.
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):
- The Holy Scriptures versus other written works, as the Scripture obviously would be precious to Paul above other written works.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
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.