The Duplicating of Manuscripts.
Parchment, made from the hides of different animals had been used as writing material as far back as the fourth Dynasty in Egyptin 2600 B.C. Papyrus later became the common writing material. At around 200 B.C. the export of papyrus to the Greek world was temporarily banned. At that time, a large industry for the preparing of parchment was founded in Pergamum, hence the name. Parchment was used for the making of scrolls, but because it is much more expensive than papyrus, it was mostly used for documents that needed a very long lifespan. Therefore the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament was copied mostly on parchment. Most probably it was to some of these scrolls that Paul referred when he wrote to Timothy asking him to bring along “…my scrolls, especially the parchments.“ (2Tim.4:13)
In the beginning of the Christian era, both parchment and papyrus scrolls were commonly used as writing material. A scroll usually was about ten meter (±35Ft.) in length, and could contain a document about the size of a gospel. That is why Luke wrote his gospel and the Acts as two separate documents. In the same manner the epistles of Paul were gathered in one scroll, as were the Catholic Epistles, Hebrews, and the Revelation to John.
In the beginning each gospel was used in the area for which it had been written. Mark was the gospel for Rome and Italy; Matthew was probably used in the greater area of Syria by the Greek speaking Jews; Luke and the Acts were used in Greece and Asia Minor, while the Gospel of John was used in the churches he planted.
Towards the close of the first or the beginning of the second century, the codex or book was invented. To a great extent it replaced the papyrus or parchment scrolls. Very soon the Christians preferred the codex to the scroll for int.al. the following reasons: 1) Although it was difficult to write on the reverse side of papyrus due to the vertical grain, the codex made it more viable to use both sides. This was a huge financial advantage. 2) The codex was more compact. Consequently all the gospels or even the whole Bible could be contained in one volume instead of many scrolls. 3) It was much easier to compare or consult different documents for there was no need to roll down the whole scroll to the verse in question. 4) It confirmed their autonomy apart from Judaism in a concrete way.
As time went by, the different documents of the New Testament were gathered and published as one codex or book. As a result, the different books gathered in one codex could display typical characteristics that differ from the other. For instance, the codex Koridethi from the ninth century portrays typical characteristics of the text known in Caesarea in Mark, while the other gospels are typical to the text known in Antioch.
Because papyrus had been used as the more general writing material for making copies of the New Testament documents, those papyrus manuscripts that survived are of exceptional value. For it represents the oldest witnesses of the New Testament. More than 81 papyrus witnesses of the New Testament are known to us. They date mostly from the second to the fifth centuries.
The oldest, (p52) can be dated during the time of Trajan. (98-117A.D.) Although this tiny fragment contains only John 18:31-33 and 37-38, it is unquestionable evidence that the Gospel of John had been written long before 160, as some earlier researchers believed.
Due to the brittle nature of papyrus, we do not have a complete manuscript of the New Testament on papyrus. Of most, only a few fragments have survived. Yet their value as oldest and therefore nearest to the original autograph, is incalculable. They serve as witnesses to compare later more complete manuscripts, and in that way discern their correctness.
By about the year 200 A.D. parchment and its superior form called vellum, almost completely replaced papyrus as writing material for the make of copies of the New Testament. It was much more durable and both sides of the page could be used with ease. Most of the witnesses of the New Testament are written on parchment, some containing also the Old Testament and also some of the apocrypha.
(Extract from Codex Sinaiticus, showing Uncial Letter Type)
Up to the tenth century all important manuscripts were written in a letter type, called uncials, comparable with our capital letters. About 200 uncial witnesses have been studied and evaluated in full. This forms the main corpus of manuscripts utilized to compile a basic Greek text. This text is used by most Bible societies for making modern translations.
Because parchment was so expensive, the parchment of an old document was not disposed of when replaced with a new copy. The old parchment was scraped and washed and then used for a next document. Sometimes this old parchment was also used in the binding of a new codex. Luckily we today can treat this parchment with certain chemicals und study and decipher the original script under ultraviolet light. These documents are called palimpsests. No less than 52 palimpsest witnesses of the New Testament have survived.