June 02, 2004

Burning heresy

Awhile back, I noted what appeared to me to be something of an inconsistency in Elaine Pagels' erudite and thought provoking work, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas. Specifically, she suggested that Athanasius, writing in 367 A.D., offered the first ever list of New Testament books. I noted two things: that Eusebius of Caesara, writing more than 60 years earlier, provided a similar list (although Eusebius is vaguer -- he refers to the "Pauline epistles" rather than listing them, and he raises doubts about the authenticity of Revelation), and that Athanasius' letter, at least what portion of it I could find online, did not, contra Pagels, explicitly or implicitly call for the destruction of heretical texts. In a comment to that post, reader Steve H. wrote,

Somehow, the image of some early church authority clamping down on (and burning?) 'unauthorized gospels' seems to haunt modern re-tellings of church history.

This may be another instance of that idea. Is there any direct evidence that book-bannings (or book-burnings) ever happened? Especially against the wishes of the common believer?

To be honest, I had the same impression. Timothy D. Barnes notes, in Constantine and Eusebius, that Constantine ordered copies of a work by Porphyry, a pagan polemicist who wrote a tract called Against the Christians, to be burned, and it does not seem unreasonable that heretical works would have been condemned to the same fate at some point, either by lay or ecclesiastical authorities. But I'm not aware of a similar order regarding the likes of the Gospel of Thomas.

Pagels assumes that the Nag Hammadi library, a collection of gnostic texts dating to the mid to late fourth century, was buried to protect it from flames. In The Gnostic Gospels, for example, Pagels cites the work of Irenaeus and Hippolytus -- two anti-heretical polemicists who wrote long before Constantine's conversion and ascension to power (that is, at a time when they had no authority to ban or burn books they didn't like) -- and goes on to write,

By the time of the Emperor Constantine's conversion, when Christianity became an officially approved religion in the fourth century, Christian bishops, previously victimized by police, now commanded them. Possession of books denounced as heretical was made a criminal offence. Copies of such books were burned and destroyed.

Constantine certainly attempted to suppress heretical sects (although he allowed the Arian sect to flourish in the East), confiscated their property, and so on, but I haven't encountered any indication that, aside from Porphyry, he ordered books to be burnt.

I tend to trust Pagels, and I imagine that if I devoted some time to this, I could find the orders to burn the sacred texts of Donatists and gnostics and what notsics, but whether they came from religious or temporal authorities is an interesting question as well.

Posted by Ideofact at June 2, 2004 11:39 PM