How were stories recorded and preserved in ancient times?


Ancient stories such as Homer's epics and material that would eventually form the basis for much of the Old Testament, were often passed down orally by skilled tradents who could memorise and repeat great tracts of material. They used special techniques to assist in this, including the use of poetry as much of the older material in the Bible is in poetic form. Names were frequently meaningful to the storyline, and some of the more well known of these are:

  • Adam (the first man) - means 'man'
  • Abram (putatively the exalted ancestor) - 'the father is exalted'
  • Abraham - 'the father of many'
  • Sarai - 'princess' (archaic Hebrew)
  • Sarah - 'princess' (later Hebrew)
  • Isaac (Abraham laughed when told that he would have a son) - 'he laughs'
  • Jacob - Hebrew Ya'aqobh: "one that takes by the heel" (see Genesis 25:26)
  • Israel (who wrestled with God) - various possible meanings: 'wrestled with God', 'ruler over God', 'God rules', God will rule' or 'god who will rule'
  • Joseph (text: "May the Lord add me another son") - yosef: 'add'.

Numbers were often chosen to be easily remembered. Well known is the use of the number 40 for various events and periods in the Old Testament. Less apparent is that most of the periods associated with the major Judges are multiples of the number 20.

Even before the middle of the first millennium BCE, these stories were starting to be written down. Scholars of the Greek classics have sought to establish what parts of Homer's epics were handed down orally from the archaic period and what was added or altered in classic times. Similarly, biblical scholars have studied the authorship and origins of the Pentateuch and other ancient books of the Old Testament.

Of course, stories such as the epic of Gilgamesh were sometimes carved in stone or written on papyrus long before the first millennium BCE, but these materials were more often used for memorial stela and for commercial records.