Christianity was spread through the apostolic work of people manually copying and translating the Bible in different languages. Considering the style, stylized objects, etc and the resources they had to collect. How long does it take for one man to rewrite it and what resources one needs (paper, leather)?

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    I suggest you edit the question to refer to a particular locale and time period. This question seems too broad.
    – Rajib
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 14:48
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    Thanks guys for the clarification, rather than simple down voting!
    – Ziezi
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 14:51
  • Interesting. My current understanding is that most scribes made the own paper and ink, so they probably spent just as much time procuring these necessities as they did in actual transcription. I would bet that a good quality copy took about a year. That's why ancient books were rare and expensive.
    – user1973
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 17:00
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    What's special about the Bible? What's special about the epoch? Just rewrite yourself few pages, measure the time, and multiply on the number of pages in the Bible...
    – Alex
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 19:20
  • In an age when literacy wasn't all that common, I would also ask how much of the spread was due to copying or reading written copies of Scriptures, and how much was due to word of mouth. FWIW, even in the modern age I know a number of self-proclaimed Christians who apparently know less of the Bible than I, a more-or-less agnostic pagan, do.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 21:53

2 Answers 2


In the earliest years of the newborn Christianity, scribes wrote on single sheets of papyrus, formed into scrolls, or birch bark sheets. Towards the end of the 1st century a.d., parchment, made of animal hides (the best type known as vellum, whose root is shared with veal, or calf). While papyrus did continue to be used perhaps as late as the 9th century, by the 4th century a.d., parchment had taken over as the writing sheet of choice. While the scrolls had sufficed in the beginning, as the tomes grew in size, it was discovered that many sheets of vellum could be bound into a codex, or book. As Europe descended into what is called the Dark Ages, illiteracy took hold throughout Europe. Even the leaders were mostly unlettered. Only the monastery remained truly literate, with monks acting as the scribes. Parchment, or vellum, was chosen for the books due to its durability, as compared to the much more brittle papyrus.

  • Vellum
    To make one sheet of vellum, a parchmenter would start with the skin of a calf and soak it in running water overnight. It would then be put in lime water for about a week, then brought out and scraped for a day or two. Soaked in lime water a second time and scraped again. Finally, it would be put back in the clean running water for 2 days and then mounted on a frame a scraped again for days. As it dried while being scraped clean, the parchmenter would sand it and pumice it. This whole effort might take two to three weeks. For one single sheet of vellum.

  • Writing Utensil
    Quills were usually made from the outer feathers of a large bird, a goose or swan. The chosen feathers (only a few, 5 to 10, per bird, were usable) would be plucked. The barbs then scraped clean. The remaining shaft would be hardened by heating and cooling in a sand pit.The remaining hide would be scraped off, the tip would be cut at an angle and then carefully split. This whole process would take maybe a day for 10 or 20 quills. A scribe would continuously sharpen the quills end throughout the days writing and one might last a single day.

  • Medium
    Ink by itself on a sheet of vellum simply would not work. It would not adhere to the material. So a medium would be needed. Two commonly used mediums were Gum Arabic, which you may have heard of, and something called Egg Glair. Gums were made from the gum, or sap, of several kinds of trees. Egg Glair from egg whites. These were used to help fix the inks and pigments to the parchment.

  • Pigments
    For illuminated texts, gold leaf and pigments were needed. The colored pigments were made from things like shellfish and precious stones ground into powder. There were also (poisonous) chemicals used in the creation of other colors, such as mercury and sulfur.

Creation of the codex
In the 9th century, Benedict began encouraging his monks to read and write and collect the religious knowledge so that it would not be otherwise lost. Through the 11th century, monks, sitting in the cloisters, studied the scriptures and copied them for other libraries. Scribing was not all a monk had to do all day. There were several prayer sessions, gardens had to be tended, food prepared, and the vellum and quills made. A single scribe, it is estimated, could write as two or three books a year.
As time went on, the scribes improved their processes, until by the end of the manuscript era in the 15th century, a book could be written and illuminated in as little as a few days. One of the fastest known writers in the 15th century boasted he could produce the old testament in three days.

Most books written during these years (the 9th to the 15th cent.) were at the very least decorated, with the more important ones being illuminated with gold leaf and pigments. Gospel books (new testament), the tanukah (old testament) and psalms were almost always illuminated.

From the 9th through the 15th centuries, or the manuscript era, the materials remained basically the same as listed above. If a single scribe were to make his own vellum and quills, many months would be required just for those tasks. Of course, in practice, the parchmenter made the sheets, another would make writing utensils, another the inks, etc.

In the earlier years, of the era, where monks alone were the scribes, as I said, it would take the better part of a year to make one or two copies of one book, since a monks day was never just writing. As the years passed, and secular persons were used, who could concentrate on only writing, the time required was shortened.

As Mr. Durden pointed out, there was no such thing as the Bible as we know it, not even through to the end of the manuscript era. The testaments were (usually) separate, as was the apocalypse, the psalms, etc. It wasn't until the print era (typesetting) that everything was combined into one work. If you were a landed noble (i.e. wealthy) you might contract a codex of the gospels and get it in a year's time. (but probably not, as you most likely couldn't read anyway.)

  • Sources

Medieval Manuscript Production: Scribes, Illuminators and Their Methods of Work by Duchess Althea Charle, O.L.

The History of Visual Communication, Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey

From my local university library,
Medieval Craftsmen-Scribes and Illuminators, by Christopher de Hamel, 1993

and finally Wikipedia

  • +1. Was there any distinction geographically between regions? Or is this sort of same all over Europe?
    – Rajib
    Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 10:16
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    Not within the European area. One thing, you'll notice that I don't quote actual time to write anywhere. Those kind of figures are simply not available until the late part of the MS era. To think a scribe could write a steady number of characters per second to me is not realistic. I suppose he could, for about two minutes, then he'd have to sharpen the quill, replace the ink, blot, draw, go to prayers, start his garden chores, or any of hundreds of other tasks. If it were winter, things would be slower, etc.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented Apr 4, 2015 at 12:33

In the early Christian era (200 AD to 400 AD) there was no "bible". Individual gospels and epistles were copied and sent around separately. When more than one was bound together very different combinations existed. It was not until the time of St. Jerome that what Christians know today as the "bible", meaning a combination of Hebrew canon, the Gospels and the Epistles of the Apostles collected together began to take shape.

A scribe can write about 2 characters per second. There are approximately 320,000 characters in the four books of the Gospels, meaning it would take about 160,000 seconds to make a copy of the Gospels. There are 3600 seconds in an hour, therefore, it would take about 44 hours of solid work to make the copies. If we account for taking breaks, rests and other factors, it may be reasonable to assume a scribe could copy the Gospels in about 2 weeks.

Note that books come in all different qualities. My estimate would be applicable to a bookseller's copy or a "trade" copy, meaning a low quality copy meant to sold to any random person. Books were also made on commission and those tended to be much more expensive, being higher quality copies, and taking longer to produce.

The existing earliest Gospels we have are on scrolls of papyrus. To write on papyrus you need ink and a pen. The typical pen was called in Latin a "calumo" and was made from a type of reed. You would also need a lectern of some kind to hold the scroll being copied. In some cases a professional scribe would use an assistant to do such tasks as unrolling the model and re-inking the pens.

reed pen

A reed pen.

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    Where are these numbers from? Scribes didn't always write in English. In fact, Bible scribes rarely wrote in English, because by the time they would be inclined to do so, the printing press had been invented. Where did you get the rate of 2 characters per second? You also didn't account for the procurement of paper and ink. You didn't just hop over to Staples and get a pen and notebook. You had to make these things yourself. You, also often had to gather the materials yourself required to make these things. Scribes probably spent as much time preparing to write as they did actually writing.
    – user1973
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 17:07
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    @TylerDurden Actually, the OP explicitly asks about paper and other resources: "Considering the style, stylized objects, etc and the resources they had to collect. How long does it take for one man to rewrite it and what resources one needs (paper, leather)?"
    – user1973
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 17:46
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    Still no sources or anything. Also neglects the much larger industry that copied the Latin scrolls. I'm sorry, but this answer is just not very good. Many things are lacking.
    – user1973
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 17:50
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    @jamesqf Based on what exactly? My problems with the numbers is that they appear completely made up, which means they stand only on Tyler's authority. As far as I can tell, he's no more an expert than the next guy, so I'd expect at least some sourcing. I may provide an answer myself, time permitting, but my knowledge of this is at that level where I can identify good or bad answers, but probably not provide a good one myself without significant work.
    – user1973
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 19:05
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    @TylerDurden I find it neither incorrect nor correct. That's the problem. It's a pretty scientific kind of thing to claim. Number of characters (from which manuscript) and writing speed (whose, and according to who, and under what circumstances). You need to source that kind of thing, explain how you personally calculated it, or at least admit that you just made them up on a guess.
    – user1973
    Commented Apr 3, 2015 at 23:35

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