[Bible scholar Ben Witherington is Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary and on the doctoral faculty at St. Andrews University in Scotland. A graduate of UNC, Chapel Hill, he went on to receive the M.Div. degree from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and a Ph.D. from the University of Durham in England. He is now considered one of the top evangelical scholars in the world, and is an elected member of the prestigious SNTS, a society dedicated to New Testament studies. For more details about Prof. Ben Witherington, go here].
This article is published with permission from the author. Read below…
In an important study, Raymond Starr comments on the process by which manuscripts eventually became public property (if they ever did). He stresses that an author tended to write only for his own circle of friends, and they would be the ones whom he would test out preliminary drafts of the work on, through readings in his home over dinner. The author would not hand out copies to the listeners, but he might indeed, before an in home reading, send a copy his slave had made to a close friend to read it and critique, before it became the subject of that dinner conversation. We must not think of ancient publishing as anything like modern publishing. It begins as an entirely private enterprise of the author and his scribe or secretary, and the circulation is entirely controlled by the author at the outset until he is convinced it is ready for a wider audience. No one sent out their precious documents for review by total strangers, only for critique by closest friends and confidants. Then what happened?
“Authors presented gift copies only to their friends. We do not hear of a single author who sent a gift copy to a complete stranger. The first recipients were the dedicatee of the work, and other friends intimately connected with it.” (R. Starr, “The Circulation of Literary Texts in the Roman World”, Classical Quarterly 37 1987, pp. 213-23, here p, 214). This brings us to our friend Theophilus, who is surely a real person, not merely because he has a common enough personal name, but because the form of the way Luke addresses him in Luke 1 and Acts 1 is nearly identical to such dedicatory addresses to one’s patron which we also find in Josephus and elsewhere (see my Acts commentary Intro on this). Once a patron had a copy, the author was also likely to send a copy to a few other friends. The sending of these perfected gift copies, according to Starr, was the juncture at which the text was released from the strict control of the author. What happened next was that these friends of the author would share the manuscript with their friends, who might ask for permission to make a copy, and then the manuscript was well and truly out of the author’s control. A separation of two degrees was enough to make the text something of a public property, in a very limited sense. However, a friend of the author under any normal circumstances would not allow that author’s document to be copied if he had prohibited it. In any case, none of this was a commercial transaction. Most readers depended on privately made copies.
But suppose one was part of a movement, and shared its evangelistic spirit. Suppose, in fact, that the author (in this case Luke) had written about the rise and spread of a movement for his patron, the document itself provided impetus and rationale for making copies of the document? Then, it would appear we are in a realm beyond the desires of an author for recognition in his own private circle, or perhaps a little more widely. It is the evangelistic thrust of the Gospel and the need to spread the Good News, which effects the issue of what Theophilus likely did and would do. It is possible to conjecture, and some have done so that the Western Text of Luke-Acts was simply a further edition by Luke himself, in response to requests from Theophilus for more information. The problem with this suggestion is that when you go through all the notable differences between the Alexandrian text type of Luke-Acts and the Western text, it becomes clear that the changes are not merely editorial, nor are they non-tendentious in ways that Luke himself would like have objected to. For example, the Western text of Acts practices erasures of references to prominent women teaching men and playing important roles in early Christianity (see my old JBL article from the 1980s on ‘The anti-feminist tendencies of the Western text of Acts’). No, the Western text of Acts by and large, and with it subsequent translations of Luke’s work based on it, are likely later editorial changes after the time when Luke himself would have been able to put a stop to or correct such tendentious erasures and changes.
If an author truly wanted a work to ‘go public’ all he had to do was lodge a copy in some large public library say in Rome or Alexandria or Pergamon where the big libraries of Greek and Latin documents were. This probably would not insure mass producing, but it could well insure some regular copying by interested parties. It is interesting that truly public libraries (as opposed to the private libraries of the rich and elite) were not really coming to the fore until just before the turn of the era—- in Rome it happens in 30 B.C. thanks to a founder named Asinius Pollio. We have not mentioned however the public book trade, to which we must turn now. There were indeed bookstalls, book stores, and book dealers in antiquity, though hardly on the scale of Barnes and Nobles or Amazon.
Outside the context of the actual book trade, documents only circulated friend to friend, not stranger to stranger. A Roman for example thought it inappropriate to ask someone he didn’t know for a copy of some book the other person had, or had written. The social conventions in antiquity were very different from ours, and if you don’t understand them, you will misread the tale of how we came to have the New Testament documents. Friends often loans books to other friends, books the other did not have, and often the purpose of loaning is so the bereft friend could make his own copy of the book. There was some demand for rare and ancient scrolls by those who had antiquarian or legal interests, like Cicero. It is clear in regard to ancient authors who lost control of their documents, that they seem most angry about two things: 1) copying of something that was just a draft, a trial run manuscript, not a polished text that would ‘read’ (orally) well; 2) pseudonymity. We see Galen for example going on a tirade because somebody, entirely without permission, was creating documents in his name, which were not by him. He then had to publish a list of authentic documents by him to make it clear what was what. I sometimes think that many NT scholars have so little knowledge of how ancient documents were copied, who did the copying and what happened when it got out of the control of the author, that they imagine it not merely an easy thing but an acceptable thing to create pseudepigrapha. It was neither easy, nor if the author or his friends or students or descendants were alive, was it an acceptable practice either. There was a considerable concern for authenticity of documents in antiquity, though falsely attributed ones did show up from time to time. Most importantly there is the fact that the ancient world was an honor and shame culture. As the stories about Galen and others show, an author was disgraced by a pseudepigrapha and he had to work fast and hard to repudiate it and recover his reputation. Forgery was an considerable concern in an honor and shame culture, and yet it happened because there were unscrupulous persons, some of whom tried to turn a denarius or advance themselves by such a practice. Books actually could be banned, for instance by an Emperor, and when that happened to an author, he was indeed disgraced. Ovid’s works which he wrote after being sent into exile were not welcomed into the Imperial libraries. (In advance of reading Bart Ehrman’s April release, entitled Forged I would suggest you read Terry Wilder’s Pseudonimity, the New Testament, and Deception, University Press of America 2004).
Let us talk about the book trade as we draw to a close here. Though I much enjoy perusing old book shops with used books, you will be surprised to know that at least in Rome book shops, run by freedmen of low social status, only sold current literature, not older documents, and they tended to specialize— this shop selling Martial, that shop selling Seneca and so on. These were luxury shops for the elite who could read. Don’t think modern day bookstores. The bookshop however was also the manuscript producing place. Each bookshop owner made his own copies of an original. There was no mass distribution system, and indeed books tended to be confined to very narrow geographical regions, mainly in and around the big cities, although, Romans would often send books to friends stationed in the provinces who couldn’t get them otherwise. “If a bookshop owner in a provincial city sold a copy of a book, it meant that he had made that copy, not that he had bought a large number of copies from a Roman-based distributor” (p. 220- Starr). And indeed most copies would be made on demand, that is the buyer would have to come, make a request, plunk down his denarii and then would get a copy later. Mostly, such bookstalls only had the exemplar copies, not a ready supply of copies of that copy. The number of copies in actual circulation depended entirely on the number of copies demanded by readers. The supply did not usually exist in advance of the demand, though there are exceptions to this rule with very popular writers, but in any case, we must not imagine thousands of hand-written copies of even the most popular and widely circulated texts. Ours may be a world of infinite texts, but the Greco-Roman world was not, and was not by any means a text-based culture. We need to bear in mind that most literary texts did not circulate through bookstalls. The friendship network was primary, and in the absence of a real middle class in the Greco-Roman world, only a few could afford to buy and own books. They were expensive to produce, and were in every sense a luxury item in antiquity, and it was a sign of wealth to have them. Unless we bear this in mind, we will not understand how amazing it really is that we have 27 different NT documents from the early Christian movement. It definitely tells us something about the leadership of that movement— namely that they were literate, motivated, created documents, and had them circulated through what I call the holy internet— the social networks of early Christianity. Most of these folks probably never saw a Christian book in a bookstall, and never bought one there either, even if they had money. Everyone preferred obtaining documents through friends and private channels. It does however appear likely that bookstores were a growing concern in the first century A.D. and were used more and more in that era, which may in part explain the rise of the codex in that same era, as opposed to the papyrus roll. There is reason to think that bookstores helped literate but non-elite persons to enter into more elite circles. But the other way for this to happen for an ancient writer was patronage. Books were a sign of social status, and well written documents would speak volumes about a new religious movement. It would advertise that it was something even the elite would be interested in.
This brings us back once more to our friend Theophilus. I take it as very likely that he in the first place is responsible for the church having Luke and Acts in their canonical collection. He is the one who, under Luke’s auspices and with permission had copies made, probably first in Rome, which is where the story in Acts finishes with the author (‘we’) there present in Acts 28 (‘and so we came to Rome…’). From the eternal city it was then, that the news of this new movement likely spread out, first to Theophilus’s friends, and then to others. And perhaps, as in the case of Josephus with his patronage in Rome, Luke’s masterwork was used as a tool to lure more elite persons into following Jesus. This of course would not replace oral proclamation only supplement it in a small way in an oral culture. But the Word of God, as Luke puts it in Acts, in part grew, due to the production of copies of his work. And we should be thankful to God for Theophilus or we likely would have no history of earliest Christianity, we would not have some one third or so of the NT.