Sometimes a Bible verse which appears to say nothing very important actually has a lot to tell us, if we dig down a little. The apostle Paul in writing to Timothy (2 Timothy 4:13) is a case in point:
"When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments".
So he's left some of his stuff behind at the port of Troas (was he in a hurry to catch a ship?). No big deal - except when we stop to think about what might have been written in those scrolls and parchments. For many of these ideas I have to credit Nick Page's book 'Whatever happened to the Ark of the Covenant - and other Bible mysteries' - a great read.
As a professional archivist I'm fascinated by how people wrote and kept records in the past. Scrolls were made from papyrus in Paul's day, and they were used by Romans and Greeks for important literary texts. If you wrote poetry, a play, or a work of philosophy, you had it written in the form of a scroll; all important papers were copied onto scrolls. If you were Jewish, your Hebrew Scriptures (our Old Testament) were in the form of scrolls. That was the dignified way to present anything important, no matter how bulky the scrolls were and how slow and difficult it was to unroll them and find the part you wanted.
We can only speculate about what Paul's scrolls contained, but we know it must have been something important, because that's what scrolls were for. Were they his copies of parts of the Hebrew Scriptures? When Paul wrote this second letter to Timothy he was in prison in Rome, facing trial and knowing that he was near the end of his life. ("The time of my departure has come ... I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.” 2Tim 4:6-8). So did they contain evidence of his Roman citizenship, or other important papers that could be used in court?
Whatever the answer, we do know that although these must have been important documents, something else was even more important, because he asks Timothy to bring "above all" (or "especially") the parchments. And now for the interesting bit.
The word translated 'parchments' (parchment is made from animal skin - sheep, goats, cows) was actually used to mean the things parchment was being used for: small notebooks, created by folding a sheet of parchment several times to create a small book of 8, 16 or more pages. The first person to think of doing this had invented the prototype of the book: a major development in the history of writing and education! And we know that these parchment notebooks were used for less important, personal stuff: for writing accounts, making notes, drafting letters etc. Beyond that they were used mainly by traders and craftsmen. So educated Romans had very little use for them and the notebooks had very low status, compared to scrolls. And yet, to Paul, his parchment notebooks were even more important than his scrolls. Whatever they contained was more significant even than his Hebrew Scriptures or his trial evidence. What might that have been? These facts may be clues:-
• Historians of the period tell us that if an educated Roman sent a letter to a far off place, he would keep a copy of his correspondence in a parchment notebook (evidenced in Cicero's letter to his friend Paetus in 46 A.D.).
• Books had lots of practical advantages (compact, efficient use of space, easily portable, much easier to find the section you want), but educated Romans and Greeks continued to use scrolls exclusively for anything important (all their literary works, for example) until about 200 A.D.
• For nearly two centuries, only Christians used them for their important texts! Every single surviving Christian text is in the form of a book ('codex') until eventually, by the 4th century A.D., books replaced scrolls completely. Historians are completely at a loss to explain this.
Why did the early Christians use the new book format to communicate the most important message in the world, when it was so looked down on by educated people of the time? Could it be that they were carrying on a tradition begun by their first leaders the apostles? Were the very first New Testament texts written in parchment notebooks?
This brings us back to 2 Timothy 4:13. The scholarly consensus is that the earliest writings of the New Testament weren't the Gospels, but the letters written by Paul in the 50s and early 60s A.D.; even those who disagree date the Gospels no earlier. And there's strong evidence to show that Paul's letters were collected and in general circulation around the Church not long after Paul's death in around 66 A.D. (e.g. 2 Peter 3:15-16 and comments by other 1st century Christians). How did that happen so quickly, when they were written to different churches hundreds of miles apart? Is it possible that the parchment notebooks which Paul was so anxious to have back with him in Rome actually contained his personal copies of all those letters he had written to the churches? And does it tell us that even at the very end of his life, in prison and facing death, his overriding concern was to make sure that the advice and guidance contained in those letters could be collected, copied (by Luke who was with him?) and passed on, for the continued guidance of the whole of the new Church? Such a suggestion makes sense and answers a lot of questions.
All this from a seemingly simple little verse about a few missing belongings!
Image: Wikipedia, manuscript of the Epistle to the Romans (fragment).