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Bible Encyclopedias

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia

Roll (Scroll)

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rōl : The usual form of book in Biblical times. It had been in use in Egypt for perhaps 2,000 years at the time when, according to the Pentateuch, the earliest Biblical books were written in this form. The Babylonian tablet seems to have been the prevailing form in Palestine up to about 1350 BC, but by 1100 BC, at least, the roll had been in established use for some time as far North as Byblos. Two Hebrew words, gillāyōn , meghillāh , one Aramaic, ṣephar , and one Greek word, biblı́on , are so translated in the King James Version. Ṣephar ( Ezra 6:1 , the Revised Version (British and American) "archives, margin "books"), with the corresponding Hebrew form ṣephēr , is the generic word for any whole work large or small, but as a book form (Isaiah 34:4 ) it may mean "roll," and, according to Blau (pp. 37, 45, etc.), it never does mean anything else. Both the other words seem to be connected with gālal , "roll," which is the technical term for opening or closing a book. The meghillath ṣephēr (Jeremiah 36:2 ) means the unwritten roll, or the roll considered in its material form as contrasted with the work. Meghillāh , which is found in Ezra 6:2 (English Versions of the Bible, "roll"), Jeremiah (often), Ezekiel (often) and Zechariah, is a somewhat late word, and came to mean a small roll (but with a complete work) as distinguished from a book, corresponding thus to the modern distinction of pamphlet and book or document and book. The word gillāyōn is translated in the Revised Version (British and American) as "tablet," and is universally regarded as meaning (Isaiah 8:1 ) some smooth surface, corresponding to the same word in Isaiah 3:23 which is rendered "hand-mirror." But "cylinder-seal" would possibly fit the sense in both cases; this being hung round the neck as an ornament in one case and inscribed with a personal name in the other.

Biblion is regarded by the Bible translators as equivalent to meghillāh in the sense of small roll. It is in fact 4 times in the Septuagint of Jeremiah 36 used as the translation for meghillāh , but very much oftener it is the translation for ṣephēr , for which in fact it is the correct technical equivalent (Birt, Buchrolle , 21). Indeed the "small book" (Thayer, Lexicon, 101) is hardly consistent with the ideas of the heavens as a scroll, of the Lamb's Book of Life, or of the vast quantity of books of John 21:25 , although in Luke 4:17 it may perhaps correspond closely with meghillāh in the sense of a complete roll and work, which is at the same time a whole part of a larger work. Its use in Revelation 6:14 is reminiscent of Isaiah 34:4 ("scroll"), and is conclusive for the roll form. It is indeed always technically a roll and never codex or tablet.

It is not likely that Isaiah and John (here and in his Gospel, John 21:25 ) refer directly to the Babylonian idea that the heavens are a series of written tablets or to the rabbinic saying that "if all the oceans were ink, all reeds pens, the heavens and earth sheets to write upon, and all men writers, still it would not suffice for writing out the teachings of my Masters" (Blau, op. cit., 34). Nevertheless, the "whole Cosmos" does suggest "the heavens and earth" as sheets to write on, and under all there does perhaps lurk a conception of the broad expanse of heaven as a roll for writing upon.


Birt, Die Buchrolle in der Kunst , Leipzig, 1907; Jewish Encyclopedia , XI, 126-34, "Scroll of the Law"; Blau, Studien z. althebr. Buchwesen , Strassburg, 1902,37-66, etc., and the literature under the article "Writing," especially Gardthausen, 134-54.

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Bibliography Information
Orr, James, M.A., D.D. General Editor. Entry for 'Roll (Scroll)'. International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 1915.

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