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Evidence For First Century Publishing Practices


By Ron Jones, D.D. © The Titus Institute, 2010


 

The historical evidence demonstrates that on first century papyrus rolls the author’s name was usually placed at the end of the roll and on a tag attached to the roll. Sometimes it was also added at the beginning of the roll.

The historical evidence also points out that the author was the central figure in publishing and distributing his work.

There is no evidence that the NT gospels did not follow the normal practice of their day. In fact, the knowledge of the early church as to the authors points to the conclusion that they did follow this practice.

Harry Gamble in his book, Books and Readers in the Early Church agrees,
“Without evidence to the contrary, it ought to be supposed that Christian writings were produced and disseminated in much the same way as other literature within the larger environment.”1

This article will focus on two issues:

1. The first century custom of identifying the author at the end of a papyrus roll and on the tag attached to the roll

2. The first century custom of the author’s central role and control of publishing his works


The Papyrus Roll and the Codex

The New Testament, including the four NT gospels, were originally written on papyrus rolls, the normal customary writing material of the first century A.D. Later in the second century and beyond the New Testament was copied onto papyrus codices. The codex looked more like a modern book.

Parchment (animal skins) was also used, but not as much as papyrus so we will focus our discussion on the papyrus roll.

T.G. Tucker, in his book, Life in the Roman World of Nero and St. Paul, explains the use of the papyrus roll for writing at that time,

“The regular shape for a book was that of a roll, or, if the work was a large one, it might consist of several such ‘rolls’ or ‘sections.’ The material was either paper--in its original sense of papyrus--or the skin known as parchment. Papyrus was naturally the cheaper and the less durable. Prepared sheets of a given length and breadth—the ‘pages’-- were written upon and then pasted to each other side by side until a long stretch was formed. The last sheet was then attached to a thin roller, commonly of wood, answering to that used in a modern wall-map. Round a roll of any pretensions there was wrapped a cover of coloured parchment, red, yellow, or purple.

The ends of the roll were rubbed smooth with pumice-stone and dyed, and a tag or label was affixed to bear the name of the author and the work. A number of such rolls, related in subject or authorship, were placed on end in a round box, with the labels upwards ready for inspection. In the library such a box would stand in a pigeon-hole or section of shelf, from which it might be carried where required.”2

1. The first century custom of identifying the author at the end of a papyrus roll and on the tag attached to the roll

In understanding how the authors of the four NT gospels would have been identified to their readers, it is important to understand how authors during that time period were identified to their readers. The four NT gospels were written for the whole world at that time and would have followed the normal customs of their day.

In the first century A.D. books were written and published with the title and name of the author placed at the end of the papyrus roll on which they were written or copied and on a tag attached to the outside of the papyrus roll called in Greek, a “sillybos” and in Latin a “titulus.” This was the normal custom of identifying the author of a book in the Roman world in the first century. Sometimes it would also be placed in the front of the papyrus roll. The author did not normally identify himself in the text itself, but like today’s title page, his name was placed along with a title in a location on the document but outside the main text.

David Sider, explains this custom in his book, The Villa Dei Papyri,
“Romans stored rolls either vertically in containers like umbrella stands or horizontally on shelves. The identification of the contents of the rolls was made easier by attaching a protruding tag (sillybos) to the outside top edge of the papyrus to identify the contents, just like the spine of a modern book. Many such tags are extant, often detached from scrolls now lost…The last sheet of the roll sometimes contained an end-title, so that, if some lazy reader neglected to rewind the book, both beginning and end of a roll could identify title and author.”3

Later, in his book, he shares the importance of having the author’s name and title of the book at the end of the scroll (center when rolled up) when the ancient scrolls were being unrolled,
“Moreover, since the very center of the roll contained the end of the text, it also contained information about author, title, book number, and perhaps stichometric data (listing the number of lines) that would help the modern editor.”4

David Trobisch concurs with this conclusion,
“A scroll would have a strip of leather attached and hanging out from the top. This was referred to as the sillybos in Greek and as index or titulus in Latin and usually gave the name of the author and the title of the book. The same information was repeated at the end of the text as a subscriptio in scrolls, whereas codices usually have supersciptiones at the beginning of the text.”5

Frederic G. Kenyon, the Late Director and Principal Librarian of the British Museum, also describes this custom of identifying the author’s name and title in his Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome,

“At the beginning of a roll a space equivalent to about the width of a column seems often to have been left blank, no doubt with the object of giving the reader something to hold the roll by when reading it, and also of protecting the text from injury through accidental tearing. This space was not utilized, as might have been expected, to receive the title of the work. Titles, when they appear at all, are appended at the end, as in early printed books. The purpose of lettering on the back of a modern book was served by projecting labels (silluboi) of papyrus or vellum, on which the title of the book was inscribed. This hung outwards as the rolls lay on the shelves of bookcases (scrinia) or stood in the buckets (capsae) in which, as appears both from pictures and from literary references, they were often stored. A few examples have survived… Further, unless a roll were supplied with a sillybos, it was necessary to unroll it to the end in order to ascertain the author and title.”6

The historical archaeological and literary evidence for the author and title being named at the end of the papyrus rolls and on an attached tag called a sillybos or titulus can be clearly seen from the papyrus rolls that have been found at a villa (now called the Villa Dei Papyri) in the city of Herculaneum that had been buried by the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79AD.

David Sider, Professor of Classics at New York University, writes in his book, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri, about the discovery of papyri at Herculaneum,

“The villa supposedly owned by Piso stood just outside the town of Herculaneum, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The eruption of Vesuvius in A.D.79 buried the villa, along with the town, beneath some 20 m (65ft.) of volcanic material. In the mid-eighteenth century the fortuitous discovery of a marble floor during well-digging led to a decade of exploration of the adjacent building…Perhaps as many as eleven hundred papyrus rolls were excavated in the 1750’s; because many were destroyed at the time of their discovery, it is not possible to determine the original number. What is certain is that most Greek texts were found in a single small room, the “library,” but a number of rolls were encountered scattered in various parts of the building. Most of the rolls are philosophical texts in Greek, overwhelmingly texts by the Epicurean poet and author Philodemos (ca.110-ca.40/35 B.C.)…

The Villa’s book rolls, like much everything else in Herculaneum, were preserved far longer than would have been the case had Vesuvius never erupted. They are, in fact, the only library from the ancient world to survive, if not entire, then at least in large measure.”7

Both Latin and Greek texts have been found there from the 1st century A.D. and earlier and these texts evidence the custom of identifying the author both at the end of the roll and on an attached tag called a sillybos. These have been found intact and have also been illustrated on paintings uncovered in Pompeii, another town covered by the eruption of Vesuvius.

Archaeological and literary evidence for these authorial identifiers from Herculaneum, Pompeii, and other locations around the Roman world are detailed below.

Note: All papyri from Herculaneum are designated by P (for papyrus) Herc (for Herculaneum) and a number. All papyri described are from David Sider’s excellent book, The Villa Dei Papyri.

Archaeological evidence for the identification of the author on papyrus rolls in end-titles and sillyboi.


1. Papyrus Rolls of Philodemos, the Epicurean

Most of the texts discovered at the villa were Greek and thus most of the papyri with end-titles were Greek. Sider explains,

“The Greek library comprises Hellenistic philosophical treatises, and nothing but. Most are Epicurean, although there are also some Stoic texts, present almost certainly to provide handy sources of philosophical errors for an Epicurean author. For many of the rolls, authorship is fixed by end-titles or overlaps with otherwise known texts; for others, authorship can be reasonably guessed. The presence of duplicate copies of many works suggests that this was a philosopher's working library; and since the library was formed in the lifetime of Philodemos, whose works are represented most fully, the philosophy texts almost certainly were part of his personal library.”8

The majority of Greek books in Villa Dei Papyri’s library belong to Philodemos, the Epicurean. Sider explains how many rolls were found with end-titles naming Philodemos as its author,

“Philodemos is explicitly identified as the author of forty-four rolls.”9

2. The Papyrus Fragment of Epicurus’ treatise “On Nature”

Another papyrus found with the end-titles was Epicurus’ treatise “On Nature.”

Sider describes it,

“Books 2 and 28 are expressly identified; others say merely ‘Epikouros On Nature.’ The oldest texts in the Villa's library belong to Epikouros's On Nature (Peri physeos), and some may have been transcribed during Epikouros's own life﷓time (341-270 B.C.). According to Guglielmo Cavallo, who has made the most detailed study of the handwriting and other pertinent physical details of the book rolls (all part of the craft of palaeography), the oldest texts in the Villa's library belong to Epikouros's On Nature (Peri physeos), and some may have been transcribed during Epikouros's own life﷓time (341-270 B.C.).10

3. The Papyrus Fragment Demetrios On Poetry, Book 2

Sider describes the end-title of this fragment,
“One is labeled "Demetrios On Poetry, Book 2," which strongly suggests that the library also contained Book 1 of the same work.”11


Sillyboi and Tituli

Not only was the author of a work identified at the end of a papyrus roll, but also on a tag attached to the outside of the roll called a sillybos (Greek) or titulus (Latin).

Below are two archaeological finds, one of a preserved sillybos, the other a painting of scrolls with them attached.


1. A preserved sillybos – “Sophron’s Mimes with Women”

Sider gives a picture and a description of a vellum (animal skin) tag from the first century A.D.

“Sillybos, first century A.D.: CWFRONOC MIMOI GUNAIKEIOI, ’Sophron's Mimes with Women (characters).’ Note the empty space to the right, where the tag would have been pasted to the text. In the fifth century B.C., Sophron wrote dramatic dialogues called mimes, which some, but not Philodemos, considered poetry. Papyrus, 2.8 x 12.5 cm (1 1/8 x 4 7/8). London, The British Library, POxy. 301.12


2. A Wall-painting of capsa and sillyboi from Pompeii

Sider gives a picture and a description of a wallpainting from Pompeii showing sillyboi attached to papyrus rolls.

“Engraving of a wall-painting from Pompeii. In the center is a capsa, a kind of bucket designed for holding papyrus rolls (note the sillyboi), with a lid and straps for easy carrying. Leaning against it is a whitened tablet with indecipherable Latin letters, half written in one direction, half at right angles. At left is a diptych—two (closed) wax tablets. From Delle antichita di Ercolano, vol. 2 (Naples, 1759), Pl. 11, p.7 Los Angeles, Research Library, Getty Research Institute.13


 

Summary:

The evidence above clearly shows that in the first century when the gospels were written the normal custom was for the author of a book to be identified in two places, at the end of the roll and on a tag or label attached to the papyrus roll. As in most ancient works, only fragments of the gospels remain where these identifiers have been lost and thus the works appear anonymous when they were not.


2. The first century custom of the author’s central role and control of publishing his works

The publishing process in the ancient Roman world was not like the commercial publishing process today where an author submits his work to a publisher who then publishes and distributes it in the marketplace. It was more like the self-publishing author of today. The self-publisher at the present time has his book printed up at his own expense, shares his book with friends and families, and works to distribute copies of his books to bookstores and individuals through a variety of means.

All publishing in the ancient Roman world was individual publishing controlled by the author. Once the author was ready to distribute his finished work, he made gift copies (by scribes) for his friends at his own expense.

R.J. Starr explains the process,
“In most cases, the sending of the author's gift copies of a finished text meant the effective release of the work from the author's control. It then became possible for people unknown to the author to acquire a text by making a copy of a friends' copy. When strangers could acquire copies of a work, that work can be said to have been ‘made public’ or ‘to have been released.’ The release of a text involved only a decision by the author that other people could make their own copies. If no one wanted to, then none would be made.

No commercial transaction took place. If the author made another presentation copy, he paid for it. If someone else had a copy made, that person paid for the materials and the copying. The author was not compensated. Most readers depended largely if not entirely on privately made copies. Such copies met all the needs before the Ciceronian period and I suspect most needs after it.

An author could come under the patronage of a wealthy person who desired to enjoy the author’s work and share that work with his wealthy friends. The patron would pay for the copies of author’s book and would help the author share it with others.

An ancient author had various ways of making a text available for copying by others: 1) He could send a gift copy to a friend without placing any restrictions on its being copied. 2) He could recite the work to friends and allow them to have copies made. 3) He could deposit a copy in one of the great public libraries, where it was, so to speak, in the public domain and could be copied by anyone who wished…4) An author could allow or encourage his friends to make the book known. 5) An author could deposit a copy with a bookdealer.”14

As you can see, the entire process was centered on the author. Even after the work left his hand, it circulated originally among those who knew the author and eventually reached those who did not know him.

In the case of the four NT Gospels, the authors, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John had a ready-made audience and publisher, the apostolic churches. The author would have published it himself (remember publishing means simply making copies for distribution to people), that is, made a copy of the original and then distributed it to one or more of the apostolic churches who made copies and circulated it through the churches throughout the Roman world. He also could have had copies made that he himself gave to others. The churches had already formed a “communication network” before any of the gospels were published as they distributed Paul’s first ten letters among themselves.

Harry Gamble explains the distribution of texts through the Christian churches,

“Texts were circulated less among individuals than among widespread congregations…The swift dispersion of Christian congregations across the Mediterranean world presented a larger challenge, but also a larger opportunity for the dissemination of texts.”15

Gamble, then gives an example of this dissemination of Paul’s letter throughout the churches mentioned in the NT,

“The mobility of Christians around the Mediterranean world was already a factor in the earliest phases of the dissemination of Christian writings. In the absence of a public postal service, Paul's letters, like any other private correspondence, were entrusted to associates or friends for delivery, and these couriers are sometimes mentioned in the letters themselves (Rom. 16:1; 1 Cor. 16:10; Eph. 6:21; Col. 4:7; compare 2 Cor. 8:16-7). Letter carriers are mentioned in many other early Christian letters (such as 1 Pet. 5:12; 1 Clem. 65.1; Ignatius Phil. 11.2, Smyr. 12. 1, compare Polyc. 8.1; Polycarp Phil. 14.1. Correspondence was carried not only by persons specifically commissioned for the purpose, but also by Christians who were traveling for other reasons. In accordance with the meaning of publication (ekdosis) in antiquity, Paul's letters were published when they were received and read, and this took place in situations that Paul clearly envisioned though seldom alluded to.

In 1 Thess. 5:27 Paul adjures "that this letter be read to all the brethren." Publication in this case occurred when Paul's letter was read aloud to the gathered community, presumably in the context of the service of worship.”16

Paul’s letters had already been circulating among the churches by the time the gospels were written and the apostles had been travelling among the churches in the Mediterranean world for at least 20 years.

Gamble explains the intent of the authors of the gospels to publish and distribute their works to others. He states,
“It can be seen more clearly today than in the heyday of form criticism that the Gospels were written in a literary context with literary skills and a literary view to a readership…Each of these authors was self-consciously engaged in literary composition and therefore sensible not only of his own compositional techniques and theological aims, but also of the prospects for the valuation, circulation, and use of his work.

Of the Gospels that became canonical, the literary sensibility of the author is most obvious in Luke-Acts. On the one hand, the prologue (Luke 1:1-4; compare Acts 1: 1-2) addresses the reader, Theophilus, with a statement of literary intention: to compile a narrative that so orders events that the reader might know the truth of the things of which the reader is informed. It is likely that here, as often elsewhere, the dedicatee (Theophilus— whether a real or fictive figure) is implicitly made responsible for the diffusion of the work.”17

Summary:

There is no reason to believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John did not follow the customary publishing practices of the first century. They would have made copies of their original gospels, given them to one or more apostolic churches and then the churches would have distributed them to other churches. All the available historical evidence points to this simple and known process.


END NOTES

1. Gamble, Harry, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, 1995, 94

2. Tucker, Thomas George, Life in the Roman world of Nero and St. Paul, The Macmillan Company, 1910, p.335-336

3. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.28-30

4. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.28-30, 48

5. Trobisch, David, The First Edition of the New Testament, Oxford University Press US, 2000, p.142 Footnote 93

6. Kenyon, Frederic G., Books and Readers in Ancient Greece and Rome, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1932, p.59-67

7. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.2-4

8. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.73

9. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.78

10. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.73

11. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.75

12. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.31

13. Sider, David, The Library of the Villa Dei Papyri at Herculaneum, Los Angeles, Getty Publications 2005, p.31

14. Starr, R.J., “The Circulation of Literary Texts in the Roman World,” Classical Quarterly 37(1987), 213-23

15. Gamble, Harry, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticutt, 1995, 93

16. Gamble, Harry, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticutt, 1995, 96

17. Gamble, Harry, Books and Readers in the Early Church, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticutt, 1995, 101-102