Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Augustine's Letter to Firmus

I have recently been reading through Augustine's "City of God" again. It is a fascinating work. In reading a few secondary sources I rediscovered a letter written by Augistine to a man named Firmus. One can find a nice English translation on Roger Pearse's blog and from which I quote in full here. One can glean some interesting insights with regard to the late antique publication and distribution of a Christian writing.

"To Firmus, My Distinguished and Deservedly Honored Lord, and My Cherished Son, Augustine Sends Greeting in the Lord.

The books on the City of God which you most eagerly requested I have sent you as I promised, having also reread them myself. That this, with God’s help, should be done has been urged by my son and your brother, Cyprian, who has furnished just that insistence I hoped would be forthcoming.

There are twenty-two sections. To put all these into one whole would be cumbersome. If you wish that two volumes be made of them, they should be so apportioned that one volume contain ten books, the other twelve. For, in those ten, the empty teachings of the pagans have been refuted, and, in the remainder, our own religion has been demonstrated and defended—though, to be sure, in the former books the latter subject has been dealt with when it was more suitable to do so, and in the latter, the former.

If, however, you should prefer that there be more than two volumes, you should make as many as five. The first of these would contain the first five books, where argument has been advanced against those who contend that the worship, not indeed of gods, but of demons, is of profit for happiness in this present life. The second volume would contain the next five books, where [a stand has been taken against those] who think that, for the sake of the life which is to come after death, worship should be paid, through rites and sacrifices, whether to these divinities or to any plurality of gods what­ever. The next three volumes ought to embrace four books each; for this part of our work has been so divided that four books set forth the origin of that City, a second four its prog­ress—or, as we might choose to say, its development,—the final four its appointed ends.

If the diligence you have shown for procuring these books will be matched by diligence in reading them, it is rather from your testing than from my promises that you will learn how far they will help you. As for those books belonging to this work on the City of God which our brothers there in Carthage do not yet have, I ask that you graciously and will­ingly acceed to their requests to have copies made. You will not grant this favor to many, but to one or two at most, and they themselves will grant it to others. Among your friends, some, within the body of Christian folk, may desire instruc­tion; in the case of others, bound by some superstition, it may appear that this labor of ours can, through God’s grace, be used to liberate them. How you are to share it with them you must yourself decide.

For my part I shall take care to make frequent inquiry, God willing, what progress you are making in my writings as you read them. Surely, you cannot fail to know how much a man of education is helped toward understanding the written word by repeated reading. No difficulty in understanding occurs (or, if any, very little) where there is facility in reading, and this gains in scope with successive repetitions. Constant appli­cation [brings to fruition] what [through inattention] would have remained immature.

In earlier letters, my distinguished and deservedly honored lord and my son Firmus, you have shown acquaintance with the books on the Academics that I composed when my con­version was yet fresh. Please write in reply how you came to this knowledge.

The range of subject matter comprised in the twenty-two books of my composition is shown in the epitome that I send you." (Augustine, ep. 1A)

In response to Pearse's blog post, Dirk Jongkind of Tyndale house had made some observations over on the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog (I made a  couple of comments there myself referring to Gamble). There he notes that Augustine is likely referring to unbound loose leaves of an already written book that could then be assembled in the various orders as Augustine instructs Firmus.

It is of course impossible to know how common this practice was, but Augustine's letter may be evidence that authors (at least late antique authors) had some input over the paratextual features of a work. Not just the titles, but even the physical format of it's publication.

Also, what we have here is another, very common example of books being distributed through private networks. In this case the author is giving advice as to what form the book should take. Notice also that Firmus is to be sending out copies of the book to those in Firmus's network.

"As for those books belonging to this work on the City of God which our brothers there in Carthage do not yet have, I ask that you graciously and will­ingly acceed to their requests to have copies made. You will not grant this favor to many, but to one or two at most, and they themselves will grant it to others."

It is note worthy that Augustine does not want many copies to be made by Firmus, "only one or two at most." Any other copies should be made by those who receive the books from Firmus. Those in Carthage should then distribute copies as they see fit. 

One can see in this description the ever widening and broadening circles of distribution for the "City of God" as people in Carthage and beyond request and circulate copies.

Of course, this same network would inadvertently provide a means by which textual alteration of the work would be made known. Notice how Augustine had been informed that there were those who had already received and read portions of the "City of God." In a similar way, he could be made known if readers misunderstood his work, misrepresenting it, or even if they were plagiarizing or altering it.

Saturday, February 20, 2021

Cicero: Making Duplicates of Letters

Scholars have often recognized the ancient practice of writers keeping copies of their own letters. One example from Cicero (54 BC), illuminates the many difficulties that arise out of the practice of communicating through letters. Writing to his brother Quintus,
"I forgot to write to you about Caesar; for I see what sort of a letter you have been expecting. But he wrote to Balbus and told him that the whole packet of letters, in which were mine and Balbus's, was so soaked with water when he received it that he did not even know there was any letter from me. He had, however, made out a few words in Balbus's letter, to which he replied in the following words : "I see that you have written something about Cicero, which I could not understand, but as far as I could conjecture, it was the sort of thing that I thought more to be desired than hoped for." So later on I sent Caesar an exact duplicate of my letter." (Ep. ad Quint. Frat. 2.12)
There are a few interesting incidental details that reveal the problems associated with letter writing. First, there was an entire packet of letters delivered to Caesar all at once. The phrase in Latin here is "fasciculum ilium epistularium," which is just referring to a packet or parcel of letters. It seems to imply a loose bundle of individual leaves rather than anything that was bound together like a codex. One can infer that these letters, though written likely over a span of several days, were delivered to Caesar at one time, indicating that it may have taken some time to deliver them.
Second, the material, either papyrus or parchment, was damaged by inclement weather. Either the pages were so stuck together that they couldn't be separated and the writing made out, or the ink had been completely washed away by the rain (or likely both). This reveals the precarious nature of the material written upon. It is a miracle that there are any documents that have survived from the ancient world at all.
Third, this side note by Cicero reveals that a common practice was for letter writers to keep a duplicate copy of their correspondence on file for just such a circumstance. Cicero was able to make another copy of the letter and re-send it to Caesar.
Finally, this anecdote presents an example of social networks preventing the loss or corruption of texts. In this instance, it was not the deliberate alteration or misuse of a written text that was being guarded against, but the loss of text through damage by rain and moisture. It looks like Balbus, upon receiving his reply from Caesar, notified Cicero that his letter to Caesar had been damaged and lost and Cicero was able to re-write the letter and thus allowing the transmission of the message or information to be completed.

This example brings together a few themes from the ancient world that often surface. First, that the written material was highly volatile and susceptible to environmental damage or loss (such as this example from Arsinoites in Egypt during the first and second centuries AD). As in the story of the worn archival documents at Arsinoites, the only insurance against the loss of these documents was in having duplicates of these texts, in this case, the duplicates of Cicero's letters. And second, one aspect of this preservation against the loss or corruption of texts was through social networks guarding against this loss.


Cicero, Letters to his Friends. M. Cary trans. LCL. Vol 3. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960. Page 523.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

The Philosopher and the Tightly Wound Bookroll

My father, who has been reading through the moral letters of Seneca the Younger, alerted me to an interesting passage in Seneca's Letter 95 (ca. 65 AD). In this epistle Seneca is trying to explain a particular aspect of philosophy that Lucilius, the recipient of the work, had asked Seneca to expound upon. He begins the epistle with tongue-in-cheek that Lucilius may be requesting something that he does not really want. To illustrate this Seneca gives an example he thought that Lucilius could relate with (and probably many educated Romans at the time).

"There are many things that we would have men think that we wish, but that we really do not wish. A lecturer sometimes brings upon the platform a huge work of research, written in the tiniest hand and very closely folded; after reading off a large portion, he says: "I shall stop if you wish;" and a shout arises: "Read on, read on!" from the lips of those who are anxious for the speaker to hold his peace then and there." (Ep. 95.2)

The portion of the illustration that I zeroed in upon had to do with the description of the "research" that was being read by the lecturer. I give it in English and in the Latin below.

"A lecturer sometimes brings upon the platform a huge work of research, written in the tiniest hand and very closely folded"
"Recitator historiam ingentem attulit minutissime scriptam, artissime plicatam."

When I first read this reference I immediately wondered if Seneca could be describing a codex. The English translation states that the book was "closely folded," which gives the impression of folded pages. At first glance, this wording gives the impression of a compact, tightly folded codex that was written in a small script. This English translation is not unlike the phrase Martial uses to describe a codex.

"You who wish my poems should be everywhere with you, and look to have them as companions on a long journey, buy these which the parchment confines in small pages. Assign your book-boxes to the great; this copy of me one hand can grasp."
"Et comites longae quaeris habere viae, Hos eme, quos artat brevibus membrane tabellis: Scrinia da magnis, me manus una capit." (Epigr. 1.2)
It is pretty clear that Martial is referring to a parchment codex that is compact in size and contains a great deal of written material. His use of "brevibus membrane tabellis" makes this explicit as "membrana" is referring specifically to it's material, animal skin, and also it's form. Quintilian, uses the same word for his obvious description of a parchment codex in Institutio Oratoria 10.3.31. Martial also employs the word "tabellis" which was a common term for the ancient writing tablet.

On a closer examination however, it appears that Seneca does have a Roman bookroll in view. He uses the term "historiam," which is obviously the classic term used for a work of history and this type of work would have been more at home in the Roman bookroll in the first century. Most interesting is that Seneca is attempting to describe the density and detail of this work of literature.

First, by noting that the script is written in a small hand, "minutissime scriptam," which means that more written material could fit in the physical medium of the book.

Second, he indicates that the book is, "artissime plicatam." The adverb "artissime" is the superlative form of "artus," having the meaning of; close, strait, narrow, confined, short, brief. Together with the verb, "plicatam," the perfect passive participle of "plico"; to fold, to lay or wind together, to fold up, double up. The translator chose to use the sense of "folding," yet the verb can also have the sense of "coiling" or "winding" like a snake. Thus the verb can be used to described the coiling up action of winding a bookroll.

These descriptors help to paint the picture of a very large quantity of research material almost forcefully confined within a single bookroll by using very small handwriting, and tightly winding the parchment into a compact bookroll. When compared with the description Martial gives for the codex, this history looks to have been an unwieldy object!


Martial, Epigrams (Walter C. A. Ker, trans. Vol. 1. LCL. London: William Heinemann, 1919).

Seneca the Younger, Ad Lucilium Epistulae Morales (Richard M. Gummere, trans. Vol. 3. LCL. London: William Heinemann, 1925).

The Latin definitions are derived from;

A Latin Dictionary. Founded on Andrews' edition of Freund's Latin dictionary. revised, enlarged, and in great part rewritten by. Charlton T. Lewis, Ph.D. and. Charles Short, LL.D. Oxford. Clarendon Press. 1879.

Monday, February 1, 2021

Elijah Hixson and P50 as A Possible Forgery

Here is a fantastic presentation by Dr. Elijah Hixson of CSNTM arguing that Papyrus 50 is likely a forgery by Kirsopp Lake.


Thursday, January 28, 2021

3,000 Year old Egyptian Papyrus Bookroll

Recently archaeologistst in Egypt uncovered a Funerary Temple in Saqqara that belonged to Queen Nearit wife of pharaoh Teti who reigned from circa 2323 B.C. to 2291 B.C. Close by the pyramid of Teti, where the Temple was discovered, several burial shafts were uncovered that contained the remains of people who lived from circa 1550 B.C. to 1186 B.C. Many coffins were found in these shafts that belonged to a Pharoah worshiping cult. Amongst these coffins was one that belonged to Pwkhaef, along with four figurines meant to help the person in the afterlife. One of the more fascinating finds was the remains of a thirteen foot long papyrus bookroll that contained what looks to be chapter seventeen of the well known "Book of the Dead" and this roll also has the name Pwkhaef inscribed upon it. Though a precise date is uncertain as of now, it was most likely placed in the burial shaft along with the coffin and other artifacts during the period from circa 1550 B.C. to 1186 B.C. That means that this papyrus book is well over 3,000 years old. Judging by the press release images, the roll is very fragmentary, yet this bookroll is an example of the incredible length of time papyrus books could last (though in an extrememly fragmentary state) for hundreds of years in the right conditions.

Egyptian Antiquities Ministry Press Release http://www.antiquities.gov.eg/DefaultAr/pages/NewsDetails.aspx?newsid=2420 

Live Science Press Release 

Thursday, January 21, 2021

Christian Networks and the Circulation of Christian Books


Sailing ship, 1st cen. AD (Pompeian tomb of Naevoleia Tyche Museo Della Civiltà Romana)

I recently learned of a fascinating account of Christians responding in various ways to Roman Imperial persecution in an excellent chapter by Jakob Engberg in a recent work.

"Caring for African Confessors in Exile: the Ministry of Numeria and Candida during the Decian Persecution (Cyprian, Epistulae 21-22)," pages 267-293 in Carmen Angela Cvetković and Peter Gemeinhardt, eds, Episcopal Networks in Late Antiquity: Connection and Communication Across Bounderies (Arbeiten zur Kirchengeschichte vol. 137. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2019)

After a military coup, Decius became the new Caesar of the Roman Empire in 249 CE. During this time, there were a series of revolts across the Empire and the Goths invaded Moesia and Thrace. In response to the unrest Decius issued an edict requiring all those in the Empire (not to include the Jewish people) to make sacrifices to the Gods in order to bring their favor on the troubled Empire (Engberg, 267). Decius set up an entire bureaucratic infrastructure to oversee this requirement and would issue certificates of compliance to those who would render the honor to the Gods. There are several of these certificates, or libelli, extant on papyrus (see here). Christians responded in different ways as Cyprian informs us in his treatise "On the Lapsed "(he was bishop of Carthage at the time); from actually performing the sacrifices, to bribery, having a certificate forged, or having another person perform the sacrifices in the Christian's place.

The pressures that Christians endured during this time must have been intense. Cyprian preserves a series of letters (Ep 20 and 21) that give a contemporary account of three African siblings caught up in this difficulty. They concern a man named Celerinus, who has two sisters that, at that time (ca. 250 CE), were living in Rome. In Cyprian's epistle 20 is preserved a letter from Celerinus to a Christian named Lucian who had been imprisoned after confessing himself a Christian and refusing to sacrifice to the Gods.

"Celerinus to Lucian, greeting. In writing this letter to you, my lord and brother, I have been rejoicing and sorrowful — rejoicing in that I had heard that you had been tried on behalf of the name of our Lord Jesus Christ our Saviour, and had confessed His name in the presence of the magistrates of the world; but sorrowful, in that from the time when I was in your company I have never been able to receive your letters."

Celerinus entreats Lucian to pray for God's forgiveness on behalf of his two sisters currently living in Rome; Numeria who gave in and sacrificed to the God's but had since repented; and Candida who bribed her way out of the sacrifice (or possibly payed to have a libelli forged). In order to give proof of his sister's repentance, Celerinus informs Lucian of their recent service to a group of persecuted Christians.

"For this, my lord and brother, you ought to know, that it is not I alone who ask this on their behalf, but also Statius and Severianus, and all the confessors who have come thence hither from you; to whom these very sisters went down to the harbour and took them up into the city, and they have ministered to sixty-five, and even to this day have tended them in all things, For all are with them. But I ought not to burden that sacred heart of yours any more, since I know that you will labour with a ready will."

Apparently, there was a group of 65 Christians who were likely Africans themselves, some of them Lucian knew, that had travelled by ship to Rome in order to escape persecution, or because they were formally exiled (Engberg, 271).

The letter from Lucian to Celerius in response is preserved in Cyprian's epistle 21. Lucian agreed to grant this request.

"And therefore, beloved brother, greet Numeria and Candida, who (shall have peace ) according to the precept of Paulus, and the rest of the martyrs whose names I subjoin."
Lucian also mentions some of the tortures that he and his other fellow Christian prisoners endured.
"[B]y the command of the emperor we were ordered to be put to death by hunger and thirst, and were shut up in two cells, that so they might weaken us by hunger and thirst. Moreover, the fire from the effect of our torture was so intolerable that nobody could bear it. But now we have attained the brightness itself. . . . Bassus in the dungeon of the perjured, Mappalicus at the torture, Fortunio in prison, Paulus after torture, Fortunata, Victorinus, Victor, Herennius, Julia, Martial, and Aristo, who by God's will were put to death in the prison by hunger, of whom in a few days you will hear of me as a companion. For now there are eight days, from the day in which I was shut up again, to the day in which I wrote my letter to you. For before these eight days, for five intervening days, I received a morsel of bread and water by measure."
Lucian's letter is ended by a long list of names to whom Celerinus was to greet on Lucian's behalf. This reveals that there was a large network of Christians in North Africa and in Rome that know each other and communicate regularly through letters. Celerinus mentions his letters several times,
". . . and I took notice of them in my letters . . . before my letters find you in this world . . ."
Celerinus also mentions that he has written letters to other mutual Christian brethren.
"Your brethren Calphurnius and Maria, and all the holy brethren, salute you. For you ought to know this too, that I have written also to my lords your brethren letters. which I request that you will deign to read to them."
These letters he must have appended to the letter he wrote to Lucian and he expected Lucian to read these out to them.

Lucian makes mention of letters that he and his fellow Christian prisoners wrote and sent out to the community in order encourage fellow believers.
"Moreover, all of us whom the Lord has condescended in such tribulation to call away, by our letters, by mutual agreement, have given peace to all."
These social networks that spanned the Mediterranean and two major Roman city centers (Rome and Carthage) were in constant communication with each other through the exchange of letters, word of mouth, and through acts of service and hospitality. These networks could very easily be avenues by which copies of the Christian scriptures were distributed and disseminated readily and broadly throughout the Roman Empire as Christians fled persecution, were exiled, and visited each other. Not only would this ensure the continued spread and dissemination of the New Testament writings, but it would also provide a check against the "macro-level" alteration of the text of these documents as I argued in my recent article.

"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

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.