Sometimes the technological marvels of our time cause us to lose touch with how things used to work. You can say what you want about the post office, but it is pretty incredible that for $0.44, I can send a letter anywhere in the United States, and it will get there within a few days. If that’s too pricey for you, text messages cost a dime, and email doesn’t even cost that. Email is so cheap that my inbox had more than 21,000 messages in it before I started cleaning it out this weekend!
Communication hasn’t always been that easy, available, or cheap. When the letters of the New Testament were written, literacy was not universal like it is in our world. If you were fortunate enough to read, that didn’t mean you were fortunate enough to know how to write. Even if you’d been trained in the craft of penning letters, the supplies were cost-prohibitive, so you were likely out of practice.
Randolph Richards wrote a book called Paul and First Century Letter-Writing. In it, he helps us think about what it was like to actually write a letter. According to his calculations, a first-century secretary could write about 85 lines of material in an hour at his peak. This doesn’t include the time required to prepare the writing surface, the writing instruments, or the ink mix. He suggests that with the limitations of daylight, interruptions, necessary preparation and take-down time, and delays from bad supplies, a writer would complete a maximum of five hours at that 85 lines per hour rate.
To put that in perspective, the longest work of Paul, Romans is 979 lines. That would require 11.5 hours just for the actual writing of one copy—likely two or three full working days. Considering the cost of papyrus, it’s possible that the cost of making one copy of Romans in Paul’s day would be $2,275 in our money! (The cheapest epistle, by Richards’ estimation, was Philemon, coming in at a mere $101!)
These numbers only account for one copy. What if a parchment roll was ruined during the process? What if Paul wanted to keep a copy, or forward an extra copy to another church? Scripture was pricey! That’s a sharp contrast to the plentiful $1 complete Bibles we have today. Consider the treasure that you carry with you every day!
We need to be reminded of the incredible value of scripture. Its true worth isn’t measured in dollars and cents, but in eternal life. Psalm 19:7 says, “The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.”