Monday, November 30, 2020

Seneca: The Fate of an Unused Bookroll

There has been a lot of talk in recent years on the length of time an ancient book, or even "autograph" may have been in use. I briefly addressed this topic in "Myths and Mistakes in New Testament Textual Criticism," Chapter two "Myths About Autographs." In that chapter I cite a comment from the second century physician Galen where he mentions that some of the bookrolls were in an unusable state of decay (even while being stored in a Roman library).
"These (books), then, did not cause me a small pain when copying them. As it is, the papyri are completely useless, not even able to be un-rolled because they have been glued together by decomposition, since the region is both marshy and low-lying, and, during the summer, is stifling." (De indolentia 19).
This passaing comment by Galen is remarkably similar to Seneca the Younger's comments over one hundred years previously (ca. 60s CE). When writing to his friend Lucilius, Seneca attempted to answer a previous question and his response is telling.
"The subject concerning which you question me was once clear to my mind, and required no thought, so thoroughly had I mastered it. But I have not tested my memory of it for some time, and therefore it does not readily come back to me. I feel that I have suffered the fate of a book whose rolls have stuck together by disuse; my mind needs to be unrolled, and whatever has been stored away there ought to be examined from time to time, so that it may be ready for use when occasion demands." (Seneca, Ep. 72).
Though made in passing, Seneca's comments reveal that more is at stake for a book to be usable than merely lasting for many years. Even if a book remains on a shelf in a library, it can become unusable or, at best, very difficult to use because the roll will stick together from lack of use. It would be important then for those who cared for books in collections to exercise these rolls periodically in order to help prevent them from sticking together and decaying as both Seneca and Galen mention.


Clare K. Rothschild and Trevor W. Thompson, "Galen:'On the Avoidance of Grief,'" EC 2.1 (2011): 110-129.

Seneca. Epistles, Volume II: Epistles 66-92. Translated by Richard M. Gummere. Loeb Classical Library 76. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1920.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Paul's Preaching of God's Word and the Corinthian Community

In a recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament is published a new article which is freely available as Open Access.

Timothy Mitchell, “Exposing Textual Corruption: Community as a Stabilizing Aspect in the Circulation of the New Testament Writings during the Greco-Roman Era.” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 43. 2 (December 2020): 266–298.

In this paper I look at the publication and distribution practices of the first few centuries of the Christian era. I argue that because books were copied and circulated primarily through social networks in a community, this naturally created an environment where any macro-level changes to the text, literary theft, and plagiarism of these writings was exposed through these same social networks.

In the article I give examples of this phenomena from pagan and Christian sources. Some of the examples are taken from the New Testament. Though these examples from the New Testament discuss communities of Christians that are in a position to expose doctrinal corruption rather than being explicit references to revealing textual corruption. 

One such example that I did not include in the article is found in the Christian Community of Corinth. Paul wrote to the Corinthian community concerning his ministry of preaching and teaching;

"Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God's word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." (2 Corinthians 4:1-2; ESV)

Here Paul is declaring that he did not twist or "tamper" with God's word. They simply declared the truth and this was done "to everyone's conscience in the sight of God." Because he taught openly the word of God, the community could see for themselves that he was not twisting God's word.

Paul is here referring most likely to the "exegetical" or "interpretational" tampering of God's word and not to the physical tampering of their copies of the scriptures. This same community would be able, in the same way, to detect where Paul would tamper with the "text" if his ministry ever attempted to do so.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

New Testament Textual Corruption in JSNT

In the December issue of JSNT is a newly published article that I wrote on the publication and transmission of the New Testament writings in the first centuries of the Christian era.

"Exposing Textual Corruption: Community as a Stabilizing Aspect in the Circulation of the New Testament Writings during the Greco-Roman Era" Journal for the Study of the New Testament 43.2 (2020): 266-298

The article is open access with both an online reading option and a downloadable pdf version. The link can be found here,

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review of Sabine R. Huebner. Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament


In the September issue of the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society has published a fresh review from me of 

Sabine R. Huebner's, Papyri and the Social World of the New Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019). 

Though I have some criticisms of the book, mainly her view of early Christianity in Egypt, overall, the book is very good and is chock full of interesting insights. Especially refreshing is Huebner's treatment of the problems in the census of Luke 2:1-3 which are original and appear to satisfactorily reconcile the chronological problems of this census with other known imperial censuses mentioned in the ancient writings.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Exposing Textual Corruption at JSNT

 I just received the proofs from JSNT for my article, "Exposing Textual Corruption", which will be appearing in the December 2020 issue of Journal for the Study of the New Testament. Another exciting development about the article is that it is to be made available Open Access and thus it will not be behind any paywalls.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Burning Magical Books in Ephesus

In Brian J. Wright's excellent book "Communial Reading in the Time of Jesus" he mentions an account found in Acts 19:11-20 that is set in Ephesus (p. 150-151). As many can recall, Paul was ministering in Ephesus, preaching the Gospel and performing many miracles and casting out demons. After a local group of Jewish excorists failed to excise a demon they were attacked and the excorcists fled (Acts 19:16). This sparked a huge revival as the populace began to denounce their magical practices and instead beleive in the Gospel message Paul was preaching. As a result of their coversion, Luke tells us,

"And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily." (Acts 19:19-20; ESV)

In this account, Wright teases out some interesting conclusions. He draws attention to the book burning event, that a significant number of books were burned (worth 50,000 silver coins), and that the burning of these magical texts was set in counter distinction with the the Gospel message in verse 20: "the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily" (ESV). Because of the book burning event recounted in v 19, Wright proposes that, "[t]he 'word of the Lord'  here probably refers to written texts and not merely to oral proclamation, in light of this explicit comparison" (p. 151).

If Wright's interpretation of this text is correct, it would imply that not just Old Testament texts are in view here, but more specifically written texts that include some type of Gospel proclamation. In light of the timing of the composition of Paul's epistles in the Acts narrative, if Wright is correct here, then Luke might include the idea of the circulation of some of Paul's epistles when he wrote that "the word of the Lord continued to increase" (19:20). To be clear, Wright is not specific as to what texts may be in circulation. Because the "word of the Lord" here is referring to the Gospel being spread as a result of Paul's ministry, I wonder if this verse might include the concept of some of Paul's epistles. According to the more common accepted timeline of the composition of Paul's epistles, at this time in the narrative, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians would likely have been written and dispatched, and possibly 1st Corinthians as well while Paul was at Ephesus. Paul at the very least may have begun the process of writing Romans during his three year stay in Ephesus (Acts 19:10; 20:31). The letter to the Galatians may have been written by this time in Acts as well. Therefore, since epistolary writing was a integral part of Paul's ministry, and this reference in Acts 19:20 is speaking specifically about the results of Paul's ministry, it may include the idea of widespread circulation of at least some of the Pauline epistles that had been written at this time and to their reading out to the Church communities as a means by which "the word of the Lord" increased. Especially considering the epistles would have been read out in the Churches as is mentioned in 1 Thess 5:27 (which was written before this time in Acts 19). Edit: I re-wrote the last segment to hopefully better express what ideas I am adding to Wright's proposal and to be more nuanced as to what "the word of the Lord" might be referring to more specifically.

Brian J. Wright, Communal Reading in the Time of Jesus: A Window into Early Christian Reading Practices (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017).

Thursday, July 16, 2020

Vitruvius on the Properly Situated Villa Library

Marcus Vitruvius Pollio (80-15 BCE) was a Roman architect and military engineer that lived during the fall of the Roman Republic and the beginning of the imperial era. He is best known for his work "On Architecture" which influenced many great writers and thinkers over the centuries. Vitruvius dedicated Book 6 of this work to the topic of planning a Roman Villa. In one section he discussed the importance of orienting certain rooms towards the sunlight.
"I shall now describe how the different sorts of buildings are placed as regards their aspects. Winter triclinia and baths are to face the winter west, because the afternoon light is wanted in them; and not less so because the setting sun casts its rays upon them, and but its heat warms the aspect towards the evening hours. Bed chambers and libraries should be towards the east, for their purposes require the morning light: in libraries the books are in this aspect preserved from decay; those that are towards the south and west are injured by the worm and by the damp, which the moist winds generate and nourish, and spreading the damp, make the books mouldy." (De Arch., 6.4.1)
It is notable that Vitruvius includes a "library" with all the rooms that make up an ideal Roman Villa. 
The other interesting facet are the effects that solar heat, moisture, and airflow have upon the proper storage and preservation of the books. He indicates that libraries that face away from the morning sun (to the south and west) are in danger of becoming worm eaten and moldy, and decayed with moisture.
Though this is a passing statement by Vitruvius, I gather that it reflects an observed (and perhaps calculated) reality of the preservation and decay of books. Even when stored within a personal library (thus the owner would have vested interest its maintenance and preservation) books could still be subjected to decay and damage. This is not unlike the comments made by Galen that some of books he encountered in the Roman libraries were often in an almost unusable state due to decay and moisture (Peri Alupias 19)
These factors affected the longevity and useful life of books, even when stored within a personal library.

Vitruvius, De Architectura. (Joseph Gwilt, translator. London: Priestley and Weale, 1826).