A systematically arranged collection of writings. A private library is one owned by an individual; a public library is one owned corporately and open to use by many. A special library of official records is an archive. Many of the earliest libraries were archives housed in palaces or temples.
Though the Bible does not use the word library, it makes indirect allusions to collections of books. The Bible itself is a “library,” and was called such in Latin—bibliotheca. It was probably not until about A.D. 300 that all 66 books were published in a single volume.
The Material and Form of Ancient Books The earliest writings, which were from Mesopotamia, were inscribed in cuneiform on clay tablets, which ranged in size from six by-six-inches up to seven-by-thirteen inches. Longer historical texts would be placed on clay barrels or prisms. One omen series required 71 tablets for 8,000 lines. Each tablet when translated would be the equivalent of a few pages in English rather than a complete book.
Egypt provided the ancient world with its famous papyrus, made from the stalks of a reed plant. As this was imported into Greece through the Phoenician harbor of Byblos, the Greeks called a book biblos. The word Bible is derived from its plural ta biblia, “the books,” and the Greek word for library bibliotheke meant a container for such a book. Papyri sheets were normally written only on one side. They could be attached together to form long scrolls (an Egyptian royal papyrus could be over 100 feet long). Greek papyri rolls were generally shorter. The longer books of the New Testament, such as Matthew or Acts, would take a 30-foot scroll.
The Dead Sea Scrolls from Palestine were written on leather. The famous Isaiah Scroll is 23 1/2 feet long; the newly published Temple Scroll was originally 28 1/2 feet long. Late in 200's B.C., the city of Pergamum was supposedly forced by a shortage of papyrus to invent “parchment” (also called vellum), a specially treated animal skin which was stretched thin until it became translucent.
The Jews and pagan Greeks and Romans used both papyri and parchments in scroll form. Christians, perhaps as early as the first century, began to use the codex form, that is, the folding of several sheets of papyrus or parchment in a “book” form. This had several advantages. Both sides of the pages could be used; it was more compact; and above all one could more readily find Scripture references. Almost all of the early Christian Scriptures preserved in Egypt's dry climate are papyri codices.
When Paul was in prison in Rome, he requested “the books but especially the parchments” (2 Timothy 4:13). The books were probably scrolls of the Old Testament. On the other hand, the parchments were probably parchment codices, possibly of his notes and letters.
Archives and Libraries in the Old Testament Era Abraham came from Mesopotamia, which had a well-developed tradition of palace and temple archives/libraries. Since 1974 over 20,000 tablets have been found in the archives of Ebla in northern Syria from pre-Abrahamic times. See Ebla. Many of the 25,000 tablets from Mari (1700s B.C.) and of the 4,000 tablets from Nuzi (1400s B.C.) have helped to illuminate the backgrounds of the Hebrew patriarchs. See Mari; Nuzi. Sumerian texts from among the 20,000 tablets at Nippur (before 1500 B.C.), and Akkadian texts from among the 20,000 tablets of Ashurbanipal's (about 668-629 B.C.) famous library at Nineveh have provided literary parallels to biblical stories such as the Gilgamesh Epic. See Sumer; Ashurbanipal; Archaeology. Texts written in five scripts and seven languages from the libraries of Ugarit shed important light on the literary and religious background of the Canaanites. See Ugarit, Ras Shamara.
Joseph and Moses (Acts 7:22) had access to the royal libraries of Egypt. The excavations of Amarna have uncovered a building with shelves for storing rolls and an inscription, “Place of the Records of the Palace of the King.” Ramesses II (1290-1224 B.C.) had some 20,000 rolls, which no doubt included medical works like the Ebers Papyrus, literary works like The Shipwrecked Sailor, and magical texts like The Book of the Dead.
Solomon, who was famed as a prolific author (1 Kings 4:32), must have had an extensive library. It was probably at the palace archives that such documents as the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (1 Kings 14:19) and of the Kings of Judah (1 Kings 14:29), were housed. Sacred texts were kept in the Temple (2 Kings 23:2)
We know from the Bible that Persian kings kept careful archives (Ezra 4:15;
Ezra 6:1). Ahasuerus (Xerxes) had a servant read from his chronicle one night as a cure for his insomnia (Esther 6:1).
In 1947 the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in jars in caves near Qumran. These were originally from the library of the Essene monastery. They included manuscripts of all of the Old Testament books except for Esther, works from the Old Testament Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, and sectarian compositions such as The Manual of Discipline, The War Scroll, and The Temple Scroll. The excavators also recovered a table, a bench, and ink wells from the scriptorium, where the manuscripts were copied. See Dead Sea Scrolls.
Greek and Roman Libraries The tyrants of the 500s B.C., Peisistratus of Athens and Polycrates of Samos, were the first Greeks to gather libraries. Individuals such as Euripides, Plato, and Aristotle also had their own libraries. Alexander the Great took with him copies of Homer, of the Greek tragedians, and of various poets.
The first corporate Hellenistic library was conceived by Ptolemy I at Alexandria in Egypt, and then established by Demetrius of Phalerum (Athens) under Ptolemy II (285-247 B.C.). This became the greatest library in the ancient world, amassing up to 700,000 scrolls. The main building was in the palace area with a secondary collection near the Serapeum. Many of the first librarians were outstanding scholars and literary critics, such as Zenodotus of Ephesus, Apollonius of Rhodes, Callimachus the poet, and Eratosthenes the geographer. Callimachus compiled an annotated catalogue, the Pinakes, in 120 scrolls. It is possible that the learned Apollos (Acts 18:24) may have made use of this famous library.
The second largest Hellenistic library was established at Pergamum (Revelation 1:11) by Eumenes II (197-158 B.C.) The excavators have identified a building next to the temple of Athena as the library. Rows of holes evidently held shelves for the scrolls; stone inscriptions identified the busts of authors. Antony gave Cleopatra its 200,000 scrolls in 41 B.C.
By the first century B.C., wealthy Romans, such as Cicero and Lucullus, had well-stocked libraries in their villas. Satirists mocked those like Trimalchio, who acquired books but never read them. Some 1800 badly scorched papyri have been recovered from a wealthy man's library at Herculaneum, which was buried by volcanic mud from Vesuvius' eruption in A.D. 79.
Caesar was killed in 44 B.C. before he could erect Rome's first public library. This was built some time after 39 B.C. by Asinius Pollio. Augustus built three public libraries; Tiberius built another in the temple of Augustus. Most Roman libraries, such as Trajan's famous Biblioteca Ulpia, had both Greek and Latin collections.
The Use of Libraries The use of archives and libraries would be restricted, first of all, by literacy; and, secondly, in the case of temple or palace archives, to priests and scribes. At Alalakh (1700 B.C.) we have a record of only seven scribes out of a population of 3,000.
Though powerful individuals like the emperors could borrow books, most libraries did not permit books to circulate. An inscription from Athens reads: “No book shall be taken out, since we have sworn thus. [The library will be] open from the first hour (of daylight) until the sixth.” See Paper; Writing.