Papyrus in Ancient Egypt and the Bible -- By: Joseph L. Thimes

Journal: Bible and Spade (Second Run)
Volume: BSPADE 17:4 (Fall 2004)
Article: Papyrus in Ancient Egypt and the Bible
Author: Joseph L. Thimes


Papyrus in Ancient Egypt and the Bible

Joseph L. Thimes

In the era of Ramses II (about 1250 BC), the sacred plants of Egypt were lotus and papyrus. In addition, the sea reed, Juncus maritimus, was used as the “reed “ pen of the scribes at that time (Thimes 2000a). Later on, after the Greek writing techniques became prevalent (about 650 BC), the scribes began using reed pens made from the much larger reed, Phragmites aegyptiaca. This article will explain how papyrus influenced the lives of people in ancient Egypt and how it was used in the Bible.

Typical ancient Egyptian representation of papyrus (left) and lotus (right) plants. Both papyrus and lotus were considered sacred by the ancient Egyptians and are commonly depicted in their art. The papyrus plant represented lower (northern) Egypt while the lotus plant represented upper (southern) Egypt.

Today’s Taxonomy

In today’s taxonomy, Cyperus papyrus hadidii is the scientific name for the ancient Egyptian papyrus. In this scientific name, hadidii represents the subspecies that was the ancient Egyptian papyrus plant. In ancient times, papyrus often grew to heights of about 15 ft, had a “mop-shaped” umbel head, and developed a stout, triangular stem about 3½ to 5 in in thickness. This stalk was composed of a green outer rind and inner, white, spongy pith. In the ancient world, papyrus was concentrated in Egypt, Syria, and the Euphrates River regions. Papyrus is rarely found in the wild in Egypt today.

Papyrus in Ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, papyrus was the symbolic plant of northern (or lower) Egypt, the Nile Delta region. The term papyrus is related to the ancient Egyptian expression, pa-per-aa, which can be translated as “that which belongs to the Pharaoh.” Our word paper is derived from that Egyptian expression.

From the earliest times, papyrus played a predominant role in ancient Egypt. About 4000 BC, papyrus boats were in regular use on the Nile. On a famous slate palette of King Narmer (about 3100 BC), several stylized papyrus stalks were prominently displayed. King Djoser of Dynasty III (about 2650 BC), the builder of the first step pyramid, placed papyrus columns on the north wall of his funerary complex. For scribal equipment, the earliest representations I found were on two wooden panels showing Hesire (chief of physicians, dentist, and royal scribe under King Djoser) with his scribal equipment. A chair of Hetepheres I, the wife of Sneferu (about 2600 BC), exhibited papyrus umbels and stalks on its sides. Statues of scribes writing on papyrus scrolls were produced by Dynasty IV (about 2500 BC). An early scene of papyrus bo...

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