August 25, 2004


In response to this old post on Elaine Pagels, Eusebius, Athanasius and other matters, reader Michael Rae sent me a long response, which I'll produce below (the comments on that old post are closed, which is just as well, because Mr. Rae's comments are of interest, and might not be noticed had he just left them there. The only changes I have made to them is to format the quotes with blockquotes, and to incorporate the URLs he provides as links.

Before quoting his email, I think I should point out that my specific problem with Pagels had to do with her citations. If I write a history of, say, the Chicago Cubs, and as part of my thesis mention that baseball's commissioner and other owners had conspired over the years to prevent the Cubs from winning the World Series ever since 1908, and in support of my allegation I direct the reader to a book showing that over the years the baseball commissioner and other owners had conspired to prevent the Red Sox from winning the World Series, I haven't exactly proven my case. The Cubs might also be victims of conspiracy, or they might be victims of their own ineptitude. Citing the book on the Red Sox doesn't prove anything one way or the other about the Cubs. In the same way, Pagels cites several works to support her contention that the Council of Nicea and Athanasius were instrumental in suppressing Gnostic Gospels like Thomas. Yet Nicea and Athanasius were far more concerned with the Arian heresy, which nearly prevailed over Athanasius and the orthodoxy he represented in that contentious fourth century. Athanasius left voluminous writings about the Arians, yet, so far as I am able to tell, uttered hardly a word about the Gnostic Gospels, suggesting to me at least they were not a preoccupation of his, or a serious threat to orthodoxy in the period in which he lived. And now, without further ado, the email:

Ideofact asks,

Was Athanasius' list [of books to be considered canonical] the earliest? In his Ecclesiastical History, in a passage completed most likely before 303 A.D., Eusebius ... does spell out a canon that doesn't differ all that much (it would be nice if Eusebius would have listed the individual Pauline epistles rather than lump them together, for example).

But if the issue is one of a divinely-inspired, infalliable Canon of scripture, no amount of disagreement can be brooked. What is interesting is how much diversity there was in views on this subject even as late as the end of the second century, and even amongst the proto-orthodox camp within Christianity: see the proto-orthodox authors amongst those given here.

Note the apparent acceptance of the canonicity of works such as the Epistle to the Laodiceans, I Clement, the Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, the Shepherd of Hermas, and the Apocalypse of Peter by proto-orthodox writers such as Clement of Alexandria, Didymus the blind, likely Origen, and even (ironically) Irenaeus; and their inclusion in the Moriturian Canon and Codex Sinaticus. Meanwhile, neither the Gospel of John nor the Revelation enjoyed universal acceptance, even among the proto-orthodox.

Ideofact continues:

 Juxtaposing Nag Hammadi, where a large cache of gnostic gospels were found, with Athanasius' setting forth of the canon creates something of a misleading impression -- that until Athanasius' letter, those works were part of mainstream belief, and that, in order to fortify Athanasius' newly formed Canon, they were suppressed. I'm not sure that's quite the way it happened...

[commenter] steve h chimes in:


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? Posted by: steve h

Probably the most famous -- and unfortunately exaggerated -- bookburnings by the emerging State-sponsored Church from around the time of Athanasius and the Nag Hammadi burial was the destruction of the Serapeum ordered by Theophilus bishop of Alexandria: because a significant amount of the Liibrary of Alexandria was housed there and in other temples ordered razed, much of the Library's collection was destroyed gleefully along with the icons. Paulus Orosius' History Against the Pagans says that  "there exist in temples book chests which we ourselves have seen, and, when these temples were plundered, these, we are told, were emptied by our own men in our time, which, indeed, is a true statement."

This event has been exaggerated into a wholesale destruction of the Library, which isn't accurate; it has also been confounded with the later murder of Hypatia by a Christian mob under the goading of Cyril, Theophilus' nehphew and successor as bishop.

Other contemporaneous examples of book-burning by the ascendant Roman state Christianity, of clearly heresiological motivation, are given in Clarence A. Forbes CA. Books for the Burning. Transactions of the American Philological Society. 1936; 67:114-25.

Throughout the fourth and fifth centuries, after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, heresies and opposition to Christianity frequently led to the burning of books. The following definite instances exhaust the information of the present author, but could probably be supplemented by a theologian thoroughly versed in early Christian literature. Before the middle of the fourth century Bishop Paulinus of Dacia, accused of trafficking in magic, was expelled from the Church, and his books of enchantments were burned by Macedonius, another bishop.34 In 398 Arcadius consigned the writings of Eunomius and his adherents to the flames.35 In 435 and again in 448 Theodosius and Valentinian commanded the public burning of unorthodox books, and particularly those of Nestorius, in order to curb the Nestorian heresy and to support the decisions of the Councils of Nicaea and Ephesus.36

The decree of 448 also singled out for condemnation a powerful attack upon Christianity by the neo-Platonist Porphyry. Taylor describes Porphyry as the "founder of Biblical higher criticism."37 The relentless destruction of his work Kata_ Xristianw~n and any other books of a similar nature was decreed in the following words: "We order to be committed to the fire all the writings that Porphyry, impelled by his own madness, or any one else, has composed against the holy Christian religion, no matter in whose possession the books are found. For all the books that move God to wrath and that harm the soul we do not want to have come even to men's hearing." 38

In 455 Marcian, the successor of Theodosius on the throne, fulminated with a decree for the burning of any books or writings which supported the dogmas of Apollinarius, the fourth century heretic of Laodicea, and of Eutyches, another heretic of similar views.39"

Thanks to Mr. Rae for the fine summation -- although I'm still not sure it does much to back up Pagels' claims regarding the Nag Hammadi gospels in the fourth century, which was what I was getting at in my original post.

Posted by Ideofact at August 25, 2004 11:51 PM

I agree with this chain of reasoning. The fact that books were burned in other times and places does not imply that this particular book-burning happened. Especially when the other book-burnings left a large "paper trail", and the claimed book-burning left none.

If I may mention more of my own thoughts about the general idea of the burning of books:

The claim that books were burnt by Christians does not necessarily imply that a powerful orthodox system of belief was enforced by "shepherds" using strong-arm tactics against their sheep.

An example that comes to mind is from the book of the Acts in the New Testament.

[Scene: Paul has been preaching the gospel in Ephesus during a 2-year period of time. Many miracles/supernatural events are attested to, and a large number were converted.] (Acts 19:1-17)

"...many that believed came, and confessed, and showed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all..." (Acts 19:18-9, KJV)

The chain of events which leads up to this burning is a bit strange, but it includes none of the usual suspects for a book-burning.

--No agents of civil government implicated
--No repressive laws mentioned
--No reference to a command by a religious leader that books must be burned as proof of piety
--No punishments recorded against holders of said books
--No commandment recorded that any books were to be forever placed on a list of "forbidden books"

This scene did include a few surprising positive notes:

--An apparent decision by a large number of people that belief in Christ precluded placing any trust in these "curious arts", often referred to as "magic" by later translators.
--An implicit approval by Apostolic authority (Paul)
--A reluctance by Paul to make the burning of specific books a necessary component of membership in the church.

Perhaps I am spending too much time with this one particular case of book-burning. Yet I think this points out that books being tossed into a fire does not necessarily imply an oppresive authority attemting to purge certain common beliefs. The believers may be able to make the decision themselves!

For every claim of book-burning, we do need to ask if it actually happened. (Thanks for keeping that question in the forefront of your statements.)

If we find that it did happen, I think we need to ask how it happened. Not all cases are as easy to dissect as the one I mentioned. But I doubt that every case of book-burning in history falls into the category of oppresion.

Posted by: steve h at August 26, 2004 07:46 PM