Playing with Fire

On Christian Book Burning

by Gary Leupp / September 9th, 2010

have a long tradition of book burning, dating back to the first decades
of what some call the “Jesus movement.” The Book of Acts in the New
Testament records how Christian believers in Ephesus collected books
with offensive content (involving “magic” and “spells”) “made a bonfire
of them in public.” According to the scripture, “The value of these was
calculated to be fifty thousand silver pieces.” This destruction of
such literature revealed the power of God (Acts 19:18-19).

But the real wave of book burning started in the fourth century.
Then, in the course of one person’s lifetime, Christianity was
legalized (by the Edict of Milan in 312), its doctrine standardized by
state order at the Council of Nicaea in 325, and under Theodosius I the
faith was made virtually compulsory for Roman subjects ca. 390. (Jews
were accorded a special exemption.) Believers in Jupiter and the other
Greco-Roman gods had a brief reprieve under the rule of Emperor Julian
(“the Apostate”) who reigned from 355 to 363. But then came the era of
violent Christian intolerance. Temples to the pagan gods were
shuttered, destroyed or converted to Christian churches. Manichaeism,
the faith from Persia popular in some parts of the empire, was harshly
suppressed, along with all pagan cults. Eventually Plato’s Academy in
Athens was shut down–all in the name of the Christian God.

Scholars dispute the popular story that a Christian mob burned down
the great Library in Alexandria, Egypt in 391. But after the Council of
Nicaea, Christians publicly burned the works of Arius, a priest from
Alexandria who maintained that Jesus was not God but rather a
“creation” of God. (A famous ninth century Italian picture shows
Emperor Constantine blessing the incineration.) You weren’t allowed to
publish that opinion at that time.

In 364 the Christian emperor Jovian ordered the burning of the great
library of Antioch, in the third largest city in the empire. It had
been richly patronized by his predecessor Julian. Many if not most
Christians–there were deep divisions among them–regarded the
destruction of “heretical” or pagan material as eminently justified.
(Why not burn what you know–via your religious faith–is false?)

Whenever you read that a text by Sophocles, or Aristophanes, or some
other ancient author, or perhaps one of the many “gospels” composed by
“heretical” Christians is “lost” (known only by title and some extracts
in another test), think: Christian book burning. We know that there
were many forms of early Christian belief because second and third
century “heresiologists” like Irenaeus and Hippolytus summarized their
views, selectively and tendentiously quoting texts in order to explain
why they were ridiculous or wrong.

(Examples include the well-known Gospel of Thomas and the recently
rediscovered Gospel of Judas.) They lived before the church was merged
with the state. They were concerned with merely refuting and
discrediting the texts they disliked, since they weren’t in a strong
position to destroy them. But from the fourth century, as the bishops
acquired political power, the offending texts were systematically

There are innumerable medieval examples of Christian book burning;
the philosopher Peter Abelard was forced by a synod council to burn his
own book (offering a rationalistic explanation of the doctrine of the
trinity) in 1121. In France the works of the heretical Cathars were
burned in the thirteenth century, along with the works of the Jewish
philosopher Maimonides and the Talmud. During the Reformation, works of
opposing Christian movements burned one another’s’ books with glee,
including Bibles translated into vernacular languages, without some
church’s official permission.

Even during the Enlightenment the “Imperial Book Commission” of the
Holy Roman Empire could order the burning of the writings of the German
Deist, Johann Christian Edelmann. Frankfurt’s entire municipal
government as well as a large crowd turned out to watch a thousand
copies of his works set to the torch in 1750. (Edelmann had dared to
declare that Jesus was a man, not a god.)

Thus if violence is, as H. Rap Brown once declared, “as American as
cherry pie,” book burning is as Christian as the bread and wine of the
Eucharist. There are modern Christians who uphold this long tradition.
The Amazing Grace Baptist Church of Canton, North Carolina, planned a
book burning on Halloween 2009. The pastor wanted to incinerate modern
English translations of the Bible, since his church believes only the
King James Version (of 1611) is God’s Word and all the other versions
are “heretical.” The plan was stymied by torrential rain but the
righteous ones did indeed trash the offending Bibles.

Those particular burners have the ”faith-based” conviction that
somehow God in his wisdom called upon these translators in the early
17th century, with their limited knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, to
render scripture definitively into English for all time. And that any
subsequent translations must be the devil’s work. The inability of such
people to understand that developments in such fields as archeology and
linguistics are constantly producing better translations of texts never
ceases to amaze me. What do they think are the “true” French, German,
Spanish or Chinese versions of what they think is “God’s word”? Do they
believe that the Creator of the universe first spoke through prophets
in Hebrew and Greek, then decisively through the holy language of
English, in a translation by 47 English linguists assembled by Hampton
Court by the Anglican son of Mary Stuart, the Roman Catholic “Queen of
Scots” as of 1611?

A hilarious parody of these believing types can be found here.

The (fictitious) “Landover Baptist Church” declares: “Unlike the
sissy ‘Jesus is Love’ fake-Christians (whom both the Lord Jesus and we
loathe) we have running around today, the early followers of Christ
were never ashamed to burn books. In fact, if you ever find yourself
being grateful for the destruction of most of the works of pagan
nincompoops like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, you have a Christian
to thank!”

It’s satire. But (just like Tina Fey’s parodies of Sarah Palin
actually reflect Palin’s views) the satire reflects the genuine beliefs
of some U.S. Christians. (Recall that Palin once tried to get the
Wasilla City Librarian to remove certain books, but when called to
account as a political candidate later told the press, ”Sweet Lord, no!
I would never ask the librarian to burn books!”)

There are many fundamentalist Christians who fear to allow their
children to attend public school precisely because they fear
philosophical discussion, openness, dialectic, nuance, Socratic doubt.
And many see college professors, in general, as nefarious if not

The widely publicized plans of the Dove World Outreach Center in
Gainesville, Florida, to burn Qur’ans on Sept. 11 thus continues a long
tradition of ignorance and intolerance. This intolerance is not
normative in modern Christianity in the U.S.; ecumenism has long been
the more mainstream tradition. But when you have someone of the stature
of the Rev. Franklin Graham opining that Islam is “a very evil and
wicked religion,” does he not encourage the book burners?

It needs to be said: since the seventh century, the Islamic world
has been generally more tolerant towards books than the Christian
world. There have been some egregious departures from tolerance; the
destruction of the library in the Nalanda (Buddhist) monastery in
northern India by a Muslim army from Central Asia in the 12th century,
for example. (Reports of the sacking of the Library of Alexandria by an
Arab army in 642 are generally now discounted.)

But rather than burning the books of Jews and Christians, Muslims
recognized these communities precisely because they were “Peoples of
the Book” entitled to their texts! In South Asia they tended to also
recognize Hindus and Buddhists as “Peoples of the Book” with their own
sutras and sophisticated ideas derived from them. While Christians were
burning books (to eradicate what they thought were evil influences and
establish their own monopoly on thought), Muslims were preserving books
and contemplating varied interpretations of reality. Muslims have never
had a formulaic creed (like the Nicene creed) establishing doctrine, or
a papacy to enforce belief. The Qur’an states “There should be no
coercion in religion” (surah 2: 256). And while there are contradictory
passages in the Qur’an (an historical text written by human beings over
a certain amount of time) this message of tolerance has generally
prevailed over the last thousand three hundred years.

The Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (r. 764-809), a contemporary of
Charlemagne (whom he sent an elephant as a present) presided over a
diverse court that included Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and
probably Buddhists and Brahmins. Born in Tehran, Persia, he enjoyed
presiding over debates between thinkers of different religions.
(Charlemagne tolerated the Jews in his empire and began the
“Carolingian Renaissance.” But he was probably less religiously
tolerant than al-Rashid who sought his friendship.)

The first Abbasid caliphs founded the “House of Wisdom” library in
Baghdad, which also served as a center for the translation of ancient
Greek texts into Syriac or Arabic throughout the eighth and ninth
centuries. Christians and Jews under Muslim rule played important roles
in preserving these books. Some had been burned and lost in Christendom
but were only re-introduced due to the fact that Muslims conquered the
Iberian peninsula and established centers of intercultural dialogue in
places like Cordoba. (Yes, that’s Cordoba, as in the New York City
Islamic center, Cordoba House, that bigoted fools demanded change its
name so as not to “offend” “Americans”…)

Everyone who’s received a decent primary education should realize it
was interaction between Christians and Muslims in Muslim Spain that
allowed for the revival of much classical learning lost to Christendom
during the Dark Ages. It’s from Cordoba that we acquired algebra (which
by the way, is a word derived from Arabic).

In some countries it’s against the law to deny the Holocaust (or its
extent or nature). It’s considered a hate crime. What about burning a
book which is the heart and soul of a community, denouncing it as the
work of the devil? (Yes I know the Florida pastor plans to torch the
Talmud too, just like his medieval forebears, making it plain to his
flock and the world that he doesn’t just hate Muslims. But it seems an
afterthought, a way of saying “I’m not just hostile to Muslims but to
Jews too.”)

What about setting fuel and match to a text handled reverentially as
a matter of course by a fifth of the world? Isn’t that even more
provocative than challenging any historical record? Whether or not it’s
a hate crime according to somebody’s legal definition, it’s a moral
crime that Christians and all of us should deplore. Book burning’s part
of an historical pattern, but Christians can question and renounce that

The world itself is burning. People are blowing themselves up in
Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan. People are being fried by missile
strikes on wedding parties in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Stinger and
Griffin missiles burn bad . Everywhere the U.S. flag is getting torched
precisely because of the crazy behavior and political influence of some
U.S. Christians desperate to see the Apocalypse, after which they
imagine the Beast and False Prophet will be thrown into a lake of fire
(“to burn forever,” Rev 20:15). The latter (even those burning the
Talmud) are eager to cheer on Zionist Jews including those with the
most grotesque racist, Islamophobic inclinations, ‘I’m on God’s side,”
they think, holding his His holy fire in their hands—stupid kids
playing with fireworks.

After the rally in Kabul on Tuesday by Afghans denouncing not just
the Florida church but Obama and the whole U.S. occupation of
Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus in urged the Rev. Terry Jones of Dove World
Outreach to step back. The general knows he can’t change the people’s
religion. He’s just charged with the task of bringing Afghanistan under
the control of the U.S. military-industrial complex, and as a rational
man sees a contradiction between the overall objectives of U.S.
imperialism and the objectives of the Islamophobes in the U.S. fired up
by cable news airheads. But the U.S. ruling elite–have despite all the
talk about tolerance–deployed tools of bigotry from square one. (Think
of Bush’s reference to a “Crusade” after 9-11.)

Malcolm X (a U.S. Muslim of significance) once said, “The chickens
are coming home to roost.” After quoting that, right after 9-11, a very
decent U.S. academic got ferociously attacked in a sort of book burning
frenzy. But now even the top brass is alarmed at those chickens coming
home to roost. It’s not like they really care about burning books in
principle; they shred documents detailing their crimes, they attack
WikiLeaks and demand it remove documents from the web.

But they suddenly care about anti-Muslim book burning “blowback”
impeding their efforts in Southwest Asia. That blowback is their bad
karma. And the inevitable decline of an immorally constituted empire is
(in my humble opinion) fine. The main issue is the welfare of humanity.
During the Spanish Inquisition, the Qur’an was burned in Spain. The
German writer Heinrich Heine in his 1821 play Almanso,
observed, “Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende
Menschen. (“Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn
human beings.”)

If the crazies in Gainesville do their thing this Saturday they will
burn more than books. They will perhaps draw down fire on all of us,
contented that whatever happens is part of what they think is their
god’s plan. Those among us, religious or irreligious, believers or
atheists, with a sense of compassion for humanity and capacity for
reason ought to protest such provocative actions.

There are plans for a rally this September 11 to defend the right of
New York City Muslims to build a mosque or Islamic center—wherever they
want, wherever is legal and approved by local authorities. On that day,
as the idiots do their ugly thing in Florida, I hope there’s a good
turnout in New York (especially of non-Muslims) to oppose bigotry.

Leupp is a Professor of History, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative
Religion at Tufts University, and author of numerous works on Japanese
history. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Gary.

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