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How Were Books Published in the Ancient World?

In this week’s Readers’ Mailbag I deal with a question about how books – including the early Christian Gospels – were “published” in the ancient world.  How were they “made public” and distributed in a world that didn’t have printing presses and publishers and book stores?  Here’s the question and my response.

 

QUESTION

Bart, this is a related but separate question–how would Mark’s gospel first have been distributed? I understand that most who read it would be reading copies made by believers (with some adherent errors or in some cases deliberate changes), but at some point there was an original copy. What do we know about how such books got into circulation, so the process of copying and distributing them began? And how would it have differed from, let’s say, the histories of Josephus or Tacitus?

 

RESPONSE

This is an interesting and important question, an area of substantial scholarly research that is for the most part not known among the reading public, who for the most part have never thought about the question.  But if it is mentioned to them, they tend to be interested.

For anyone who wants the full scoop, I think the best introduction can be found in Harry Gamble’s study, Books and Readers in the Early Church (Yale University Press, 1997).   Here’s the short version:

Today, of course, there are standard ways of publishing books, but also a lot of variant ways (e.g., self-published books, and e-books, and … other kinds of books are different from the kinds you would buy in Barnes & Noble).  When I write a book, I …

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    godspell  March 25, 2018

    Thanks so much for answering my question in such detail (weeks after I asked it, so just for a moment, I was reading it without remembering it was mine).

    This is more of a rhetorical question, but do scholars of ancient history ever stop and think to themselves how lazy and spoiled we all are, compared to the people who lived then? The amount of work that went into disseminating any book–staggering. And this would have been considered light work, compared to many other jobs ordinary people did back then. (Though Bartleby the Scrivener might dissent there–I can imagine scribes changing things just to alleviate their tedium!)

    Arguments over copyright (the right to copy), in fact, began much earlier than most people think (long long before the printing press), and at least one of them may have turned into an actual war. (And yes, Christians were involved, and Irish ones at that, ::sigh::)

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Cúl_Dreimhne

    There’s a scene in the BBC miniseries I, Claudius, where the title character, played by the great Derek Jacobi, is having his book published, and is having a dispute with the man who owns a shop where scribes mass produce copies. Being in the Imperial family, of course, he can easily afford this, but he’s still quarreling with the man over how long it’s taking, and how much it’s costing him. And the man is being most disrespectful, saying it’ll be done when it’s done, and if he doesn’t like it, he can go somewhere else.

    Is there any evidence wealthy persons ever purchased books then–over and above paying for copies to be made? Did the concept of paying for content, as opposed to the parchment, ink, and labor, even exist?

    I know the ancient scrolls don’t have prices listed on them. There was no ‘tiber.com’.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      Yes indeed, books were purchased simply to be read. Or are you asking if a “publisher” would pay an author in order to write a book? I’m not aware of that sort of thing.

      • Avatar
        godspell  March 27, 2018

        I was thinking more along the lines of a distinction between what early Christians did, somewhat comparable to the Eastern European practice of ‘samizdat’, where material is privately copied and distributed, quite often to avoid detection by the state–and just buying a book for your personal enjoyment.

        (I have a friend in Russia, who has several times obtained for me editions of novels by a favorite American author of mine–translated into Russian, which I can’t read, but I’m still interested because these are special editions, beautifully bound and illustrated, produced in small batches by enthusiasts, who–in the old Russian tradition–completely ignore the necessity of getting permission from anyone to do this. They make very little money doing it–a labor of love. Perhaps someday this honor shall be extended to some of your books. Or perhaps that’s already happened.)

        There were no publishers, in the modern sense, but there were books, and there were readers, and particularly in large cities, books were sometimes treated as commodities, if I understand you correctly. You could make a living copying and selling them, even of nobody commissioned you to do so. Am I misunderstanding?

        So at some point there must have been a first–somebody going to a shop to buy a copy of one or several books of what is now called the New Testament.

  2. Avatar
    Tm3  March 25, 2018

    Bart,
    Don’t you think there is more incentive for a scribe to to change a gospel because of evolving theologies than for a copyist to change a play or a book in the absence of an evolving theology? Do you think that anything written in the the third person, anonymously, in a different language, decades later as from the Gospels would be allowed as evidence in a modern court of law? Goes to reliability.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      First question: Yes, that’s what my book The Orthodox Corrpution of Scripture is all about. Second question: it may be admitted, but it would not be effective.

  3. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  March 25, 2018

    I am one who had not thought about this question prior to reading your “Misquoting Jesus.” Good question. Good answer. Thanks

  4. Avatar
    dagrote  March 25, 2018

    Another twist is that the author could publish two versions of the same text at different times in his life. There’s a suspicion that the author of Acts wrote his work and “published” it. He revisited it later, adding editorial comments to expand and/or clarify the original. Then he “published” that text too, in addition to the one already in circulation. Hence Acts may not have just one autograph, but two, and then two distinct trails of copies. It’s amazing to me that textual critics don’t all go insane trying to sort everything out.

  5. Avatar
    stokerslodge  March 25, 2018

    Bart, a question about Bible translations. I have the impression that among conservative American evangelicals, the King James Bible is regarded as a superior translation compared to other versions. They seem to regard the KJV as a more trustworthy, faithful, and accurate translation of the Greek text. While other translations seem to be regarded with suspicion. Why is this the case and do they have any real basis for making such a claim?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      My sense is that most evangelicals prefer other conservative translations, especially the NIV. It is pretty much the fundamentalists who still hold on to the KJV. It’s simply “the” Bible in their tradition.

      • Avatar
        HawksJ  March 28, 2018

        It kind of makes sense, though. If you hold to strict inerrancy, the very idea that there can be different translations- literally. different words – is problematic.

        Having said that, even in Churches of Christ – as Biblically fundamental as it gets – the NIV is overwhelmingly the most popular today.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

      The KJV is an excellent translation into obsolete English of an inferior textual body (Textus Receptus). The ESV is an excellent translation into today’s English of the best available textual bodies (Nestles, for example).

  6. Avatar
    Steefen  March 25, 2018

    A linguist has said in Ancient Greek, the word “god” (theós) is both masculine and feminine. How true is that to you? Have you found the word theós referring to Mars, Serapis, or Apollo as well as Athena or Venus? If not, what two forms of the word would there have been?

    Thank you.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      There is a feminine form form thea that means “goddess,” though the masculine form can be used for the feminie divinities as well. The word itself, though, is masculine and always takes the masculine article.

  7. Avatar
    forthfading  March 25, 2018

    Dr. Ehrman,
    I know the gospels were anonymous but would the original autographs had the writer’s name somewhere, or do you think that was something that was not important?

    Best

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      When someone calls them “anonymous” it’s precisely because the authors’ names were not attached to the original writing.

  8. Avatar
    FluminenseFC82  March 25, 2018

    This is a wonderful summary Dr. Ehrman. Thank you.

    In some of my studies both in seminary and in secular works outside the realm of modern biblidolatry of infallibility, I learned of the concept and explanation of “divinely inspired” or the highly regarded position in Antiquity of Imperial scribe. Through several scholarly publications by liturgists, biblical and historical experts, archaeologists, ancient linguists, etc, and one book in my personal library, “The Bible Through the Ages” (Reader’s Digest Editors), because most all the masses/citizens of great empires or kingdoms were illiterate and writing and reading were ONLY a privilege of nobility and emperors/kings — papyrus and writing were thought to be from the gods/god… or “divinely inspired” or literally spoken onto paper-scrolls from the gods/god. Fortunately, increased mass public education — at least in the Western Hemisphere — has shown that “inspiration” is from many natural sources, not divine celestial gods or goddesses. Your thoughts?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      Interesting. But I’m not sure what you’re asking.

      • Avatar
        FluminenseFC82  March 27, 2018

        Sorry I was unclear. Let me try it again please…

        There is a hypothesis by some historians, epigraphers, and paleographers that because the vast majority of people (the masses) in empires and kingdoms were illiterate they assumed or taught or coerced to believe that holy, venerated, texts and the forming/writing of those sacred texts were directly from the gods or God, despite the fact they were simply written down by men, but very educated men.

        What are your thoughts about this hypothesis based on your expertise and knowledge?

        P.S. I hope this is more clear. I am in the middle of a move and those particular books on this topic/question are packed in storage right now. Sorry Dr. Ehrman.

        • Bart
          Bart  March 28, 2018

          Yes, that’s more clear. I’m not sure which texts you (or they) are referring to, though. The vast majority of ancient religions didn’t have sacred texts thought to have come from the gods.

          • Avatar
            SidDhartha1953  April 2, 2018

            One of the causes of Socrates’s prosecution, as I recall, was his stating out loud that the laws of Athens were a human artifact, not handed down by the gods. Divine origins are a common means of preventing critique.

  9. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  March 25, 2018

    Hello Dr. Ehrman! I hope you post this Dr.

    (30) Jesus said, “Where there are three gods, they are gods. Where there are two or one, I am with him.”

    I am not going to beat around the bush that is on fire. Jesus knew of Zeus and demi gods. The sons of Zeus did exist. The men who loved Zeus as their father. I am two semesters away from graduating. Knowledge is power and I know the truth. Dr. Ehrman, thank you for hard work. You are making a difference in this world.

    • Avatar
      HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

      That saying is from the Gospel of Thomas, but I’m not sure what point you are making about it. By the first century, Judaism was monotheistic. All other religions of the ANE were polytheistic. Jesus certainly would have known that Gentiles believed that there were many gods. But he would not have cared. He was interested in Judaism, and the God of Israel.

  10. Avatar
    ardeare  March 25, 2018

    This is an excellent example of how people can be and are misguided when they allow a handful of verses to dictate their beliefs in the books as a whole. When taken in its entirety, I think the Gospels are fairly straightforward. When one takes to selectively choosing random verses, they can create a Christological theology or an atheistic dogma that really doesn’t stand up to any serious inquiry.

  11. Avatar
    Hume  March 26, 2018

    Why is this argument never made? Jesus had brothers and sisters (James in Galatians and Mark 3:20–21), so therefore Mary was not a virgin.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      The main issue involves whether she was a virgin when Jesus was born; only in some Christian traditions is it an issue of whether she was one for the rest of her life. Those who think she was argue that these were not her biological children.

  12. Avatar
    Todd  March 26, 2018

    Very good. I appreciate your description of the process. It makes sense.

  13. Avatar
    jmmarine1  March 26, 2018

    I have two different books by the same author, neither self-published, both published by known but separate publishing houses. One book states Copyright © the author, and the second book notes Copyright © the publisher. What is meant that a book is copyrighted, and what is the reason for an author to copyright their own book vs. having their publisher copyright their book?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      Yeah, I”ve never understood the full legalities of it.

    • talmoore
      talmoore  March 27, 2018

      The author of a work always has the original copyright. If a publisher has a copyright it usually means the author has sold the copyright.

  14. Avatar
    jmmarine1  March 26, 2018

    Also, I see that your book, Misquoting Jesus, is available for download for $1.99 through Amazon. Are you consulted when your publisher makes this sort of decision? Does the radical reduction in price, even for just a limited time, effect your royalties?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      No, not at all. They leave authors out of every business decision.

  15. Avatar
    anthonygale  March 26, 2018

    When ancient authors edited books, would this have produced multiple copies of the book? So when the first edition came out, there might have been entire pre editions out analagous to those electronic files you exchange with editors? If so, what would someone have done with the pre editions? Thrown them away? Kept them? Could someone else have copied them? Has anyone ever discovered a pre edition book? Would you know if you found it? I realize thats a lot of questions. Im just wondering how, if earlier editions got into circulation, how that might contribute to differences in manuscripts. In that case, the differences would go back to the author.

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      Yes, that’s right; some authors get a bit upset that the “first” edition is floating around before corrections/edits have been incorporated. Many times those with a first edition wouldn’t realize that a new edition is out there. And yes, it could affect the manuscript tradition.

      • Avatar
        anthonygale  March 28, 2018

        That adds a layer of complexity in deciding what is “original”? Might one ask instead what is the “correct” or “authoritative” text (or perhaps another word)? If an author chages his own text, is the new form unoriginal? Does the original form become incorrect? What if the author makes a change reluctantly based on pressure from editors? I suppose at the end of the day you have a text with theological views and emphases that has value. It seems very hard though to know what is original if that is even clearly defined

        • Bart
          Bart  March 28, 2018

          Yup, it seriously confuses things. And saying “correct” or “authoritative” is also problematic. According to whom? The author? How would we know?

  16. Avatar
    fishician  March 26, 2018

    Let me suggest a scenario: Paul writes to Corinth, but they’re having trouble with outspoken women, so they add a comment that women should remain silent in the church. Paul would never know this. The altered letter then gets copied and distributed, and copied some more over time. So, even though apologists point to the many copies of Biblical documents, that doesn’t prove that any of them are truly the original, correct? The best we can say if those copies are in agreement is that they reliably represent an early copy, but it’s impossible to know if they are copies of the original. Correct?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 27, 2018

      Yup, that’s one of the options! But the passage is so much like 1 Tim 2:11-15 that it appears to have been added later than that, by someone who knew the Pastoral epistles..

  17. Avatar
    anthonygale  March 28, 2018

    Do you ever feel pressured by editors, or anyone else, to make changes that you would rather not? Ones that you think would be significant for reasons other than grammar or fixing typos?

    • Bart
      Bart  March 29, 2018

      Yup. But usually after I think about it I realize they’re right!

  18. Avatar
    SidDhartha1953  March 30, 2018

    Is it possible to tell if a copyist was unable to understand what he was copying, but just reproducing characters? That would produce a different range of errors, I should think.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2018

      YOu would have to be able to demonstrate that the letters were *drawn* rather than written. There are not any clear and certain examples of that that I’ know of.

  19. Avatar
    HistoricalChristianity  March 30, 2018

    Why would the Galatians want to share a letter, even by Paul, featuring “Oh foolish Galatians!” No recipient of Paul’s letters would have considered them sacred scripture. He was a popular promoter of one particular variety of Christianity, so eventually his prominence would have made them valued. I don’t think Paul expected his early letters to ever go beyond the assembly to which they were addressed. By contrast, Ephesians (not likely by Paul) was written as a circular letter, for general distribution.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 1, 2018

      See also Col. 4:16. But the letter to Galatia must have been “shared” since Galatia was not a city with a single church but a region with a number of churches.

  20. Avatar
    duaneep  April 3, 2018

    A related question; is there research dealing with the business aspects of distributing and selling copies of works such as “the scriptures” during ancient times? It would involve an inventory of writing materials (clay tablets, papyrus, parchment, inks, stylus etc.) from suppliers, a staff of at least one to work as copyist, sales person, and manager/owner. Could it have been done with a bunch of volunteers? Maybe for the first two or three hundred years but probably not after Constantine.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2018

      THe closest thing to that for the early Christian materials themselves is the book by Harry Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church.

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