Monday, July 24, 2017

Martial: A Well Known Book Cannot Change its Author

In a recent issue of the Journal for the Study of the New Testament, Matthew Larsen of Yale University published an article,

"Accidental Publication, Unfinished Texts and the Traditional Goals of New Testament Textual Criticism." Journal for the Study of the New Testament 39.4 (2017): 362-387.

Larsen mines several primary sources from Roman, Greek, Christian, and Jewish authors from Cicero in the first century BCE to Augustine in the fifth century CE. Larsen concludes by writing,
“The varied assortment of examples from Jewish, Greek, Roman and late antique Christian contexts show the prevalence of textual fluidity and unfinishedness in antiquity. Accidental publication, post-publication revision and multiple authorized versions of the same text are not surprising, since publication was only notional and so existed only as a social construct. Every new draft functions only provisionally and temporarily as a final draft, while the notion of a truly finished text in a definitive version does not map neatly onto the material ‘realia’ of the ancient world.” (pg. 15)

Larsen’s article advances our understanding of ancient composition and publication practices, by highlighting underutilized primary sources. Larsen does well to view the composition of the New Testament writings, especially the canonical gospels, as less rigidly defined texts on a sterilized linear progression from composition, to publication and wider circulation.

Yet, in several ways Larsen appears to misunderstand his own cited evidence. To give just one example, at one point Larsen cites Martial (late 1st cen. CE) as evidence for the ancient practice of compositions being plagiarized and repurposed by other authors as their own work. Larsen writes,
“In Martial, Ep. 1.66, he writes that, if you can buy a book for 6 or 10 sesterces, sure, go ahead and buy it, but if you find one yet unpolished by the pumice-stone, yet unadorned with bosses and cover (i.e. unfinished and unpublished), buy it, because you can become the author of that kind of text. Unfinished and unpublished literary raw materials, Martial quipped, were worth more because one could author what someone else wrote.” (pg. 8)
This reference in Martial is a gem of insight into first century attitudes towards literary borrowing and plagiarism. That is, plagiarism was okay, as long as one could get away with using another author’s work and circulating it as their own. Nevertheless, Martial does qualify this practice of plagiarism, here is Martial’s epigram in full;
“You mistake, you greedy thief of my works, who think you can become a poet at no more than the cost of a transcript and a cheap papyrus roll. Applause is not acquired for six or ten sesterces. Look out for unpublished poems and unfinished studies, which one man only knows of, and which the sire of the virgin sheet not yet grown rough by the contact of hard chins, keeps sealed up in his book-wallet. A well-known book cannot change its author. But if there be one with ends not yet smoothed with pumice, and not yet smart with its bosses and wrapper, buy it: such I possess, and no man shall know. Whoever recites another man’s work, and so woos fame, ought not to buy a book, but—silence.” (Epigr. 1.66) (LCL, pg. 71)
It is clear from Martial’s epigram that Larsen is correct to view plagiarism and literary borrowing as an accepted first century practice, as long as one obtained raw notes that had not been circulated. Martial even admits to holding and using unpublished notes when he wrote that, “such I possess, and no man shall know.” Despite this, Larsen goes beyond the evidence by stating that “publication was only notional and so existed only as a social construct” (pg. 15). Martial testifies against Larsen’s thesis when he differentiated between a text that was kept private and unknown and a text that was published and circulating. A text that was published could not (easily) be plagiarized for “a well-known book cannot change its author,” in other words, once a book was published under an author’s name, someone else could not easily steal this author’s work without it becoming known. This consequence can be seen in the very same poem for Martial begins his epigram by accusing another poet of stealing his own work. 

Some of the quotes referenced by Larsen are discussed with reference to the composition of the New Testament writings in,"What are the NT Autographs? An Examination of the Doctrine of Inspiration and Inerrancy in Light of Greco-Roman Publication." JETS 59/2 (June 2016): 287-308.

And in the forthcoming SBL paper,

Exposing Textual Corruption: Community as a Stabilizing Aspect in the Circulation of the New Testament writings during the Greco-Roman Era.
Martial, Epigrams (Walter C. A. Ker, trans. 2 Vols. LCL. London: William Heinemann, 1919).


  1. Another problem with extrapolating from this evidence out to the questions that are being asked in New Testament studies is that there's a difference between applying your own name to someone else's work and applying someone else's name (such as that of an apostle) to your work.

    1. That is a great point Eric. There are, however, some parallels. For example, in the quotation above, Martial alludes to the original author's cooperation when he wrote that a plagiarist is buying the actual author's silence. So it is not just outright theft that is in view here. Rather, a kind of "ghost writing" if you will (though I understand that it is different than the modern conception). Overall, I do agree with your original point that the ancient evidence cannot bear the weight of Larsen's conclusions.

  2. I would quibble with saying that the quote from Martial demonstrates that plagiarism, literary borrowing, ghost writing, etc., is an "acceptable" practice. Martial writes satire, and is usually to some degree critical of whatever person or practice he describes, so this epigram is not likely to simply be advice, but rather to be acerbic (and self-deprecating, which is part fo his style as well) mockery of the kind of thing he describes.