Scrolls & Seams


Ancient scroll technology led to literary binding techniques evident in the Bible. Collections of texts were stitched together through canonical seams and enclosed within literary introductions and conclusions. This seam work is how we got a Bible.


Nate: Okay, so we’ve looked at copy & pasting, we’ve looked at layers, and these are couple different tactics that whoever edited and put together the Bible uses as strategies to craft this thing. Are there any others, or where should we look next?

Tim: Yeah, this episode we’re going to look at seams. And what I mean by that is we’re going to zoom way out and look at the Bible as a whole and see how various texts and portions of texts have been stitched together to make it a whole. In the metaphor of a mosaic, it’s actually crucial to understand where and how the different pieces have been arranged together, that the meaning is in the stitching. So what we’re going to look at is some of the big picture, the biggest seams running through the Bible and sort of pay attention to how those work both in Old and New Testament.

Nate: Okay, so give me an example of this, the stitching and the overall seams.

Tim: Yeah, so some of you out there may be familiar with the term canonical seams. Have you heard of that before, Nate?

Nate: Uh, I mean I’ve heard both of those words before, but not together.

Tim: [laughing] Nice. Yeah, so we’ll look at those. These are the two biggest places where stitching has happened, but before, here’s why this is worth understanding, a piece of it. We’re used to reading front-to-back, cover-to-cover, via book technology. And a part of this How the Bible Works series will be learning to retrain our brains to view the Bible as a product of a very different kind of literary technology.

Nate: We don’t think about books as technology. You know? Even hearing that word, I heard one time someone say the technology of the clock, and I don’t think of… whatever was around when you were born doesn’t seem like technology. Technology seems like anything that came after you were born. You know what I mean?

Tim: We are just so used to it. Yeah, I think I get what you’re saying. It’s like the Kindle or an ereader or various… reading something on your iPhone. That feels like a new technology. But what’s funny is when it comes to literature, writing, stories, narratives, books, all of those new technologies are actually just affirming the book technology. We still basically write everything in a top-to-bottom, left-to-right, front-to-back, chronological and beginning-to-end linear structure of writing. We’ll get into soon trying to see how actually the Bible is not linear, and it takes a really, really intentional effort for us to try to even think nonlinearly. But here we’ll see—they didn’t have books, right? These texts, when they were written, were written on scrolls, which you would roll out, and it’d be one long sheet of papyrus or paper or a skin. And you could actually see the entire text if you unfolded it all at one time. It’d be kind of like a poster. So instead of having, you would see one page and then the back of that page; then the next page and the back of that page. You would literally be able to see the entire text on one sheet. Or the reason we have 1 and 2 Samuel or 1 and 2 Kings is because they couldn’t fit it on one scroll, so they just had to put it on two scrolls. It’s one cohesive literary text that was too big for one scroll. Scrolls don’t bind together. I mean this physically. If you want to compile scrolls, they’re not flat; you don’t just go and staple Scroll 1 to Scroll B. And like we were saying, most people didn’t have access to these scrolls. The scribes in the synagogues would possess these scrolls and take precious care of them, but most people would be hearing these texts or stories or psalms and memorizing them. And then you could basically play them back in your head. So here’s the piece we’re going to cover in this episode, is in order to arrange these texts together, assuming at this point right now that the texts are roughly in their final form, to arrange one text to the other, we have it in our Bible as just Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and you turn the last page of Genesis and you open up the first page of Leviticus. They’re bound physically in one book next to each other, right? But with scroll technology you can’t do that. And this is really important, the thing that bound them into a cohesive arranged whole was within the text themselves. In other words, it was a literary binding or literary stitching that would attach texts, so that if you’re reading one scroll, or listening to someone read a scroll aloud, you would actually hear words or phrases or sentences that would make you mentally connect that text to another piece of text. So the stitching isn’t physical, it’s actually literary, and then it becomes a part of the text itself.

Nate: I’m trying to think of an analogy, but there really isn’t a good one. That’s just so foreign to anything we have or we do. Because even in storytelling… I guess I do that a little bit with Lucy whenever I’m telling her stories. She knows the story goes with the other story because there’s a similar character, or there’s similar situations that I put the different characters in from one story to the next. But there’s really nothing like this that we do.

Tim: I think the closest analogy… Maybe there are two, actually. One is film and the other is music. In the film one, once again I’ve got to give credit to Mackie, who’s been one of my really formative teachers. And I took a seminar with him on the book of Isaiah, or the scroll of Isaiah, and he actually had us watch a segment, basically a YouTube video that someone had compiled of going through the new Star Wars movies. The Force Awakens, is that what it’s called? And maybe one of the other ones, and showing how many clips of video footage had been intentionally designed to overlap visually with scenes from the original Star Wars movies. So you had scenes with the Death Star in the background in the top right corner showing up in both films. You had sort of a throwback to the Princess Leia scene, even with the Princess Leia hairdo. Then you had a scene that was sort of a throwback to Luke in the star fighter or whatever it was called. Basically we went through five minutes of film showing how the new movies had intentionally designed scenes modeled after the old movies, even though most of us don’t notice them all, just to get our minds recollecting the original Star Wars movies, and to kind of feel like we’re back in that original Star Wars world. So they had visually stitched footage together, created that footage, and then did it as a form of copying or imitation in order to creatively stitch the two together. So you can watch the movie like I did and not notice any of those things, or if you’re a real nerd, you can be like the guy who made this YouTube video and go look for every single one of them. And then every time you see one of those overlaps, it kind of gets you thinking about what ways is this similar, in what ways is this different from the original? What’s happening? Is there some part of the original that’s being restarted or rebooted or even changed and critiqued in this second piece. So in film we can do that, and then the other one I think of is in music. You can have some sounds, some pieces, some allusions to other songs. Not necessarily like mashups, but more subtle allusions where you’ll maybe have a beat or a string section or something that is sort of an echo to another song. Does that make sense?

Nate: Yeah. I hear those all the time. I can’t think of an example right now, but I feel like I hear those all the time. There’s like the full-on sampling, where you put a line from that one person’s song from the 90s into your song in 2018, that’s sampling. But I see what you’re saying, you hear that little melody, the one line of the melody in there, or that one line from the song in there, and it kind of stitches it together.

Tim: Right. So there’s a reason why neither of those examples are in books or literature, and that is I think because we’re so attuned to think about words and texts in book form that we don’t do that with books or with literature. We use other forms of connection like quotations, citation is just the default mode. Or like we see in our modern Bibles, you literally just staple them together or glue them together and bind them into one cohesive book. So what the redactors, whoever these people were, who compiled and arranged the various texts of the Hebrew Bible, what they did was they also either edited or added, or some combination of both, pieces to a beginnings and endings of those texts in order to stitch them together. Do you know that the Hebrew Bible is broken into three different sets of texts?

Nate: Yeah, if you told me the names of them, I think I know that. Weren’t they called different things?

Tim: Yeah, it’s the Torah, which is also known as the Pentateuch. It’s the first five books. Then the Nevi’im, which is just Hebrew for prophets, and then the Ketuvim, which is Hebrew for the writings.

Nate: And that spells out Tanakh, right, just the letters, right?

Tim: Yeah, Tanakh is basically just an acronym for Torah, Nevi’im, Ketuvim, for the first consonants of those words. It’s important, we can get into some of the details later. Our Old Testaments in modern protestant Bibles does not follow the exact ordering. There are parts where it’s similar. For instance, the Torah, the Pentateuch, are exactly the same. But then there are some places where it’s different, and part of what that has done is it’s made it harder for us to see these seams because the texts that were stitched together are no longer next to each other in our book. So all three of those books. Or, we shouldn’t call them books. All three of those collections of scrolls, which were considered to be part of a microlibrary, those three collections are stitched together in what scholars call canonical seams. And then what we’ll see is the very first text of the first collection—which is Genesis—and the last text of the last collection—which is not Malachi, which is how our Bibles have it, but was—

Nate: Isn’t it 2 Chronicles?

Tim: Yes. It was the scroll of Chronicles, or the second scroll, 2 Chronicles. And the end of 2 Chronicles, which we touched on in a previous episode, offers a kind of dramatic ellipsis, a “…” which is a conclusion, but it’s more of a conclusion that passes the baton forward.

Nate: Why do we order them like this then? Isn’t this just totally missing the whole point of what the Bible is, to order them differently?

Tim: You know, I actually thought that for a while, and now we’ll actually see today, I understand why the early Christians considered rearranging. I get it now, and we’ll point that out soon. So here’s the deal. So Genesis 1-11 is an introduction to the entire rest of the Hebrew Bible, and within that, I think you could make the case that Genesis 1-3 is a sort of epilogue even to that introduction. Most scholars, and I think this makes pretty clear sense, believe that whoever did this final redaction, whoever made the final mosaic, wrote Genesis 1-11. You have various reasons for that. One of them is the fact that Adam is not mentioned in the entire rest of the Hebrew Bible. So if the story of Adam and Eve, the story of the garden of Eden and creation was actually one of the first ever written texts, it’s almost guaranteed that later texts would be in conversation with it, right?

Nate: Right.

Tim: So there’s a good chance that Genesis 1-11 was written as an introduction. And thematically that makes a lot of sense, and functionally that makes a lot of sense. And then the book of Chronicles acts as a kind of conclusion. So then in between—and I know you can get lost if you’re not familiar with all the order of books and stuff—then in between we have these two seams. Let’s look at the first seam. The last book of the first collection, the Torah, is the book of Deuteronomy, and then the first book of the next collection, the Prophets, is the book of Joshua. So there are a few different ways that Deuteronomy 34—and I guess we should remind ourselves this, that there were no chapter numbers in the Hebrew Bible or in the New Testament, we have added those in order to be able to talk about the Bible with each other since we don’t have the thing memorized. Right? We have to be able to point to a verse to index stuff, but none of those things were there.

Nate: Was there a map section?

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Tim: So what we’ll see is, there are a lot of different forms of stitching and techniques and strategies that were used to stitch things together. Some are thematic, some are with words and wordplays, some are with sentence structures. The first thing we’ll see is at the end of Deuteronomy you have this awkward section where it’s clearly not being written in the voice of Moses. Verse 10 says, “Since then no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses whom the LORD knew face to face.” Clearly that’s not Moses writing that. Then verse 12, “For no one has ever shown the mighty power or performed the mighty awesome deeds that Moses did in the sight of all Israel.” So most of the rest of the Torah is written at least as if is from the perspective of Moses. And so what seems pretty clear is these verses on the end of Deuteronomy 34 are likely later additions that are even admitting to coming from a later time, right? That verse, verse 10, “No prophet like Moses has been around even all the way up until today!” It’s telling you that whoever’s writing that line is not speaking from even the time of Moses, but from well after that. It’s not trying to hide the stitching; it’s actually trying to admit that it’s there. So Deuteronomy 34, or the book of Deuteronomy and the entire collection of the Torah closes with Moses’ death. Then what we see is that in Joshua 1, Moses’ death is repeated, and then Joshua is emphasized as the new Moses. So you basically have this transition in character that serves to transition the books where Moses leaves and Joshua begins. But the first few verses and last few verses repeat the part about Moses dying to really bind these two together. And then there’s a second piece where Joshua 1 focuses on Joshua’s responsibility to keep the book of the law, which is the book that we just finished reading in the Torah, that’s what it is. So there’s this section where the main character in this first chapter of this next text, the book of Joshua, is himself bound to the very set of texts that we just finished reading. Does that make sense?

Nate: Yeah, it kind of feels like the BBC Sherlock. You probably haven’t seen that, but it’s an amazing show. And at the beginning of an episode—they’re like three-episode seasons and they come out every two years, it’s really epic—at the beginning of the next season, let’s say Sherlock dies, or supposedly he dies or whatever, they’ll begin the next season and they’re at the funeral again or something like that, or they’re at the graveside. It connects those two seasons together without saying, “Previously on Sherlock.”

Tim: Yeah, and there are even further details here where we could see where it’s connected. Deuteronomy ends with Moses repeating, “I’m presenting this before you: choose life or choose death. Listen and obey, or don’t.” And that’s exactly what’s put to Joshua in Joshua 1. So Joshua is presented as almost the audience or the ideal audience member that had just been reading Deuteronomy. So they’re stitched together in this way. Then we get to the end of this collection of books, the end of the Prophets, and the last book of the Prophets is Malachi. A lot of scholars will point out that it seems pretty obvious that the book of Malachi actually ends in verse 2 or 3 of chapter 4 in terms of the original text written by Malachi. And then you have either verses 3-6 or 4-6 tacked on at the end to create like one side of a zipper that’s going to be able to zip closed to another section of texts. And this itself, this side of the zipper, harkens back to Joshua 1 and the first scene, so it adds, “Remember the law of my servant Moses, the decrees and laws I gave him at Horeb for all Israel.” It’s basically repeating the end of Deuteronomy, which like, “Hey, listen to all this stuff,” and the beginning of Joshua is like, “Hey Joshua, listen to all this stuff.” Now Malachi ends kind of randomly by saying, “Hey, listen to all this, the original Torah.” And then it has this line which we’ll see soon in verse 5, “See, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before that great and dreadful day of the LORD.” So then what you get is Malachi ending with a harkening back to Deuteronomy and Joshua in the first scene, and where Malachi’s going to connect is the beginning of the Writings; and the first scroll within the Writings is the Psalms. And so Psalm 1 then is the other side of the zipper to Malachi 4. And what do you see in Psalm 1? It’s this song of blessing on the one who delights in the law of the Lord and meditates on it day and night. So you have this same figure, who’s like the ideal Torah observer, placed in Psalm 1; you have that figure placed at the end of Malachi; you have that figure placed in Joshua 1 as Joshua; and you have that figure placed at the end of Deuteronomy 34. So what that does, just in these simple repetitions of motifs and phrases and the reference to the Torah is a double stitching that has now enabled us to see these collections as having beginnings and endings that connect them to the other collections. And a little detail is that Psalm 1 and Psalm 2 actually doubly function as an introduction both to the book of the songs and to the entire section of Writings, so by stitching Psalm 1 to the Prophets, it stitched the entire section of Writings to the Prophets. So we’re just noticing some of the mechanisms here, but basically this is the beginning of how you take a collection of texts and you start to make it tell a kind of cohesive story or paint a grander mosaic portrait, is this is how they’re actually being arranged. To us it’s side by side. I want to say that they’re arranged side by side, but it isn’t linear like that; they’re just being connected in terms of meaning and theme that sort of follows a chronological beginning to end, but not entirely. Are you tracking?

Nate: I think so. It’s kind of really hard to keep in your head, but basically there’s these three chunks. The Old Testament’s kind of broken down into three chunks of collections of books, and at the end and beginning of each of those sections—so there’s what, there’s essentially two different places where those three chunks would meet, right? Between the first and the second, and between the second and the third. The end of the first and the beginning of the second are stitched together and you just kind of explained some of those stitchings that we see on either side. And then the end of the second and the beginning of the third are stitched together, and we explained some of those stitchings. I know that you were saying, even the beginning of the second is kind of stitching to the third, but basically that’s roughly what’s happening there.

Tim: Yeah, it’s not that it’s stitching to the third. The fact that it’s using the same stitching technique of this shared motif helps us to see that these are seams. It’s like, I mentioned the zipper as an analogy. It’s like zippers were used on both, therefore we can tell that the whole thing is arranged collectively together, if that makes sense. It’s not like one person wanted the first collection and the second collection to be arranged, and then somebody else thought the second collection and the third collection should be connected. Clearly this was one cohesive project to collect them all together into what we call a canon. So that’s why these are called canonical seams.

Nate: Gotcha, gotcha. Yeah, I guess… why do you think this is important to understand? And what does this change, I guess?

Tim: I think I’m still asking that question in some sense. One is that the New Testament writers and the early Christians who eventually arranged and compiled what we now call the New Testament texts into a set of texts and then connected the New Testament to what we now call the Old Testament, even giving them those titles, they were all tracking with this and doing this as well. So for instance, you can actually see there are various testamental seams where the gospels are intentionally written to connect themselves to the end of the Tanakh. So Matthew and Luke do this with genealogies. Genealogies are another stitching device that function like a zipper, and the gospel writers knew that, and so by putting genealogies at the beginning of the gospels of Matthew and Luke, it’s their way of saying, “This is one side of a zipper that is meant to be attached to other texts.” What other texts? The collection of the Hebrew Bible.

Nate: So we can’t understand Jesus and what they’re trying to tell us, the gospel writers, unless we understand what’s going on with this stitching in the Old Testament?

Tim: Yeah, and even the texts that we have in the New Testament were intentionally connected literarily to the Old. Another one is again in Luke. Remember I said that Chronicles with this dramatic ellipsis, where it talks about some figure going up to the temple in Jerusalem, and it kind of leaves us wondering who that will be. Well it’s significant then that in the opening chapters of Luke, he puts in two stories of first baby Jesus being presented at the temple and then Jesus as a young child, a twelve year old, going and hanging out at the temple. That is a literary way for Luke to make the case that Jesus is the figure that the Hebrew Bible was trying to point beyond itself to. So one sense is just understanding literarily how these things are connected. There’s another really interesting one in that scholars have pointed out that the last three chapters of the book of Revelation mirror the first three chapters of the book of Genesis. So in the first three chapters of Genesis, you see the themes of creation and then marriage and then Satan, or the serpent figure. And it looks like the book of Revelation was written where the last three chapters, or the end, talk about the Satan figure in chapter 20; marriage, now between God and humanity, in chapter 21; and the new creation in chapter 22. In other words, even the tail end of the book of Revelation has been connected to mirror the very beginning. So now we have new book ends. That’s part of why I say, the people who were trying to understand what to do with what we call Bible, especially the New Testament, they were noticing these things. There is a reason why they thought some texts should be put together and bound in one book which we now call the Bible. So part of why I think this is important is, it’s not just a given that anybody who wrote a religious text making claims to Jesus, it’s not just a given that that was to be considered Scripture and then mounted onto the top of the Old Testament. There were actually literary justifications, for instance, for putting the book of Revelation in what we now call a Bible, and in the place in the Bible which we have it.

Nate: Gotcha. Cool. This has been another window into how the Bible works. You can find out more about us and this series at

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