I have been interested in ancient book publication for a good long while now: partly because of my own interest in books, partly because of how complex and challenging it can be to sort it all out, and partly because it may help me devise realistic models for how early Christian and Jewish texts came into being. On this thread I will simply lay out some of the ancient evidence for how ancient books were disseminated, and what could happen to them in the process.
Two Stages of Dissemination
The ancients knew of (at least) two very distinct steps in the dissemination process. One first made notes or memoirs; then one crafted, if desired, those notes or memoirs into a polished rendition for official publication:
Lucian, How to Write History 47-48 (translation slightly modified from K. Kilburn in the Loeb edition, Lucian VI): 47 As to the facts themselves, [the historian] should not assemble them at random, but only after much laborious and painstaking investigation. He should for preference be an eyewitness, but, if not, listen to those who tell the more impartial story, those whom one would suppose least likely to subtract from the facts or add to them out of favor or malice. When this happens let him show shrewdness and skill in putting together the more credible story. 48 When he has collected all or most of the facts, let him first make them into a series of notes [ὑπόμνημα], a body of material as yet with no beauty or continuity [ἀκαλλές ἔτι καὶ ἀδιάρθρωτον]. Then, after arranging them into order [τὴν τάξιν], let him give it beauty and enhance it with the charms of expression, figure, and rhythm.
Suetonius, Life of Julius Caesar 56: He left memoirs [commentarios] too of his accomplishments in the Gallic and in the Pompeian civil war, for the author of the Alexandrian, African, and Spanish wars is uncertain. Some suppose that it was Oppius, others Hirtius, who also supplied the most recent and unfinished book of the Gallic war. To the memoirs [commentariis] of Caesar in the Brutus itself Cicero refers thus: "He wrote memoirs [commentarios] to be strongly commended indeed. They are naked, straightforward and lovely, stripped of the vesture of every adornment of oration; but while he wished others to have these things prepared, whence those who wished to write a history might assume, he ended up gratifying the inept, who wish to use the curling irons on them. Sane men, in fact, he deters from writing." Of these same memoirs Hirtius thus proclaims: "They are so approved in the judgment of all men as to have taken opportunity away from writers, rather than to have offered them one. Our admiration for his accomplishment, nevertheless, is greater than that of the rest; for they know how well and faultlessly, and we also how easily and quickly he wrote them out." Asinius Pollio supposes that they were composed with too little diligence and integrating too little truth; since Caesar for the most part both believed the things related through others and improperly published things related through him, either deliberately or perhaps from memory lapse; and he thinks that he was going to rewrite and correct them.
Galen, Concerning His Own Books, prologue: Why the many read my [books] as their own, you yourself know the reason, most excellent [κράτιστε] Bassus. For they were given to friends and disciples without inscription [χωρίς ἐπιγραφής], as nothing was for publication [οὐδὲν πρὸς ἔκδοσιν], but were made for those who requested [δεηθεῖσιν] to have notes [ὑπομνήματα] of what they heard. So, when some of them died, those with them who had them and were pleased [ἀρεσθέντες] with them began to read [ἀναγινῶσκον] them as their own. [....] ...having shared [κοινωνησάντων] them traveled to their own fatherland and, after passing some time, some here and others there began to make them into lectures [ἐπιδείξεις]. In time, after they were all exposed, many inscribed [ἐπεγράψαντο] my name on the repossessed [text]. And, having found that they differed from all the others, they carried them to me, encouraging me to rectify them. So since, as I said, they were not for publication [οὐ πρὸς ἔκδοσιν], but were according to the habit and the need [ἔξιν τε καὶ χρείαν] of those who requested [τῶν δεηθέντων] them, it was likely at any rate that some be stretched out and others pressed together, and the interpretation [ἑρμενείαν] and teaching [διδασκαλίαν] of the theorems should be either complete [τελείαν] or lacking [ἐλλιπή]. It was clear, at any rate, that those written from the things that were spoken [τοῖς εἰρημένοις] would not have the completion of the teaching, nor would have been examined accurately [διηκριβωμένον], as they neither requested [δεομένων] nor were able to learn [μανθάνειν] all things accurately [ἀκριβώς] before having some habit [ἔξιν] in the essentials. These kinds of books [βιβλία] some who came before me wrote up as outlines [ὑποτυπώσεις], just as some wrote sketches [ὑπογραφάς]. And others wrote introductions [εἰσαγωγάς] or synopses [συνόψεις] or guides [ὑφηγήσεις].
It is clear that, while the notes or memoirs stage was considered a normal step in arriving at a polished product for publication, there was not always a perceived necessity to push the text beyond that first stage, especially in a didactic situation such as that described by Galen.
Sometimes an author, upon publishing (in whatever sense) a work, might republish it:
Tertullian, Against Marcion 1.1.1-2: 1 Nothing I have previously written against Marcion is any longer my concern. I am embarking upon a new work to replace an old one. My first edition [primum opusculum], too hurriedly produced, I afterwards withdrew, substituting a fuller [pleniore] treatment. This also, before enough copies [exemplariis] had been made, was stolen from me by a person, at that time a Christian but afterwards an apostate, who chanced to have copied out some extracts very incorrectly [mendosissime], and shewed them to a group of people. 2 Hence the need for correction [emendationis necessitas facta est]. The opportunity provided by this revision has moved me to make some additions. Thus this written work, a third succeeding a second, and instead of third from now on the first, needs to begin by reporting the demise of the work it supersedes, so that no one may be perplexed if in one place or another he comes across varying forms of it [varietas eius].
Obviously, if a person can hijack an edition of a work, then it seems unlikely that any edition of that work can have truly
been withdrawn from circulation in antiquity. Multiple editions of the same work in circulation might be a good source for textual variants.
The extract from Tertullian above gives an example of bootlegging, as does the following:
Quintilian, Oratory Institution 1, preface 7-8: Two books [duo... libri] are now circulating under my name on the art of rhetoric which were neither published [editi] by me nor agreed to for this purpose. For the one is a lecture held over two days that the boys to whom it was presented took down, the other a lecture captured [in print] for many days, as much as the good youths were able to follow in notation, but it was with too much love that they rashly made them available by doing me the honor of publication [editionis honore]. Wherefore in these books some things will also be the same [eadem aliqua], many things changed [multa mutata], many more added [plurima adiecta], all things more truly composed and elaborated as much as we are able.
Any situation involving oral teaching would be susceptible to this kind of treatment at the hands of listeners, whether well meaning or not.
Additions & Subtractions
We have rather many indications from antiquity that books were regularly subtracted from or added to (interpolated):
Revelation 22.18-19: 18 I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book; 19 and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book.
Artemidorus, Oneirocritica 2.70: 70 I ask those who read my books not to add to or remove anything from the present contents. For any person who is able to add points to my work would more easily write a work of his own. And if certain things that I have written in these books seem superfluous, the reader should use only those things that please him without discarding the rest of the books. For he should realize that it was out of obedience to Apollo, the overseer god and guardian of all things in addition to being my own native god, that I undertook this treatise. Apollo has encouraged me in the past, and now especially, when I have made your acquaintance, he clearly presides over my work, and has all but commanded me to compose this work.
Eusebius, Church History 4.23.12: 12 The same writer [Dionysus of Corinth] also speaks as follows concerning his own epistles, alleging that they had been mutilated: "As the brethren desired me to write epistles, I wrote. And these epistles the apostles of the devil have filled with tares, cutting out some things and adding others. For them a woe is reserved. It is, therefore, not to be wondered at if some have attempted to adulterate the Lord's writings also, since they have formed designs even against writings which are of less account." There is extant, in addition to these, another epistle of Dionysius, written to Chrysophora, a most faithful sister. In it he writes what is suitable, and imparts to her also the proper spiritual food. So much concerning Dionysius.
Rufinus, preface to On the Falsification of the Books of Origen: I do not think it can be doubted that it could in any way happen that a man of such an education and so prudent — which of course even his accusers can grant — a man who was neither foolish nor insane, would have written what is contrary to himself and repugnant to his own opinions. Or even if we grant that this could in some way have happened — for perhaps someone will say that in the decline of life he might have forgotten what he had written in his youth, and that he later brought forth things at variance with what he had formerly thought — what shall we do about the fact that sometimes in the very same passages, and, so to speak, in practically the next section, an opinion is found inserted that is of a contradictory sense? Could he have forgotten his own views in the same chapter of the same book, [or] sometimes, as we have said, immediately in the next section? For example, when he had said just before that nowhere in all the Scripture is it found that the Holy Spirit was said to have been made or created, would he immediately add that the Holy Spirit had been made along with the rest of the creatures? Or again, could he who has pointed out that the Father and the Son are of one substance — which is said in Greek as ὁμοούσιος — have said in the immediately subsequent sections that he is of another substance and was created, the one whom he had but a little before declared to have been born of the very nature of God the Father? Or again, concerning the resurrection of the flesh, was it possible that he who so clearly declared that the nature of the flesh ascended with the Word of God into heaven, and there appeared to the heavenly powers, presenting to them a new and marvelous sight of himself, has said, on the other hand, that this [flesh] is not to be saved? Since, then, these things could not happen even to a man who was out of his mind and who was not sound in the brain, I will briefly clarify the cause of this to the best of my ability.
We also have rather many indications that entire books could be forged under false names, but that topic seems to deserve a treatment unto itself. Bart Ehrman has published books dealing with ancient forgery of books.
I conclude (for now) with a quote from a modern researcher on the topic at hand:
Harry Y. Gamble, Books and Readers in the Early Church, pages 84-85: In providing copies of a work to friends an author effectively surrendered further personal control over the text. A recipient might make her copy available to another, who could then make a copy in turn. No expense was involved other than the cost of materials and, if need be, the services of a scribe. In this way copies multiplied and spread seriatim, one at a time, at the initiative of individuals who lay beyond the author's acquaintance. Since every copy was made by hand, each was unique, and every owner of such a copy was free to do with it as he or she chose. In this way a text quickly slipped beyond the author's reach. There were no means of making authoritative revisions, of preventing others from transcribing or revising it as they wished, of controlling the number of copies made, or even of assuring that it would be properly attributed to its author. In principle the work became public property: copies were disseminated without regulation through an informal network composed of people who learned of the work, were interested enough to have a copy made, and knew someone who possessed the text and would permit it to be duplicated. Thus a text made its way into general circulation gradually and for the most part haphazardly, in a pattern of tangents radiating from the points, ever more numerous, where the text was available for copying.
It is my feeling that the hazards of ancient book publication may have particular implications for how early Christian and Jewish texts have come down to us.