Christians did not burn the library at Alexandria and other things “Agora” gets wrong

David Hart has a great piece at First Things today, “The Perniciously Persistent Myths of Hypatia and the Great Library,” responding to the movie Agora and its depiction of Christians burning the library in Alexandria and murdering Hypatia, a non-Christian woman philosopher. Hart argues that there are problems with both parts of the story, beginning with the fact that the first never happened.

The tale of a Christian destruction of the Great Library—so often told, so perniciously persistent—is a tale about something that never happened. By this, I do not mean that there is some divergence of learned opinion on the issue, or that the original sources leave us in some doubt as to the nature of the event. I mean that nothing of the sort ever occurred.

He goes on to point out that the library was likely destroyed much earlier and that you find no evidence for Christian involvement in its destruction until the 18th century.

With respect to Hypatia, there is no denying that she was brutally murdered and that Christians did it. That absolutely remains a black spot on the record of early Christianity. But, Hart helpfully points out that she was killed for the reasons identified in the movie or in popular imagination. In other words, she wasn’t killed because she was a woman (female teachers being common in Alexandria), because she was a scientist of philosopher (both well supported by Alexandrian Christians), or because she was an enemy of the faith (she had a number of prominent Christian friends). No, Hart argues that she was murdered because she unfortunately got caught in a power struggle between Cyril of Alexandria and the city’s imperial prefect. So, he concludes:

In the end, the true story of Hypatia—which no one will ever make into a film—tells us very little about ancient religion, or about the relation between ancient Christianity and the sciences, and absolutely nothing about some alleged perennial conflict between Christianity and science; but it does tell us a great deal about social class in the late Hellenistic world.

The post is well worth reading, as are some of the comments, if you’d like to understand these events a bit better.

Comments

comments

14 Responses to “Christians did not burn the library at Alexandria and other things “Agora” gets wrong”

  1. andyphon June 4, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    And don’t forget Agora has the only movie depiction of a Greek Father – Cyril of Alexandria. Beat that Athanasius!

  2. sonja September 7, 2010 at 11:04 am #

    Well the evidence the Bible being a source of truth is a heck of a lot smaller than the evidence for the Christian burning of Alexandria.

  3. jolietjeff March 26, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Truth is the Early Catholic church burnt thousands of books which were called heretic .. No opinions but those of the Pope were allowed and only through buried texts like that at Nag hammadi that we are able to see books written by Early Christians besides those favored by the Catholic church .. Irenaeus in 180 AD was the bishop who influenced burning of books and killing of Heretics and in 325 AD at Nicaea what teaching would be allowed were set up then. Paganism was made illegal by an edict of the Emperor Theodosius I in 391. The holdings of the Great Library (both at the Mouseion and at the Serapeum) were on the precincts of pagan temples. While this had previously lent them a measure of protection, in the days of the Christian Roman Empire, whatever protection this had previously afforded them had ceased.[The temples of Alexandria were closed by Patriarch Theophilus of Alexandria in AD 391. although we may never know who burned the Library these facts make the Catholic church likely culprits!

    • Nero June 30, 2011 at 10:06 am #

      of course the christians burned down the library. theyd do the same thing today if allowed. for those thoughtless zombies all answers of their worthless existence is in the bible…so they detest n hate anything that might threaten their house of cards. by exterminating great thoughts of human endevour the christians can stay stagnant in their insanity n never progress. nowadays christains are nothing more than lost wasted beings to be pitied, nothing more

      • Frank April 25, 2012 at 4:36 am #

        Then why are the rest of you so afraid of them?

      • Bad horse February 4, 2013 at 11:53 pm #

        Your sadly mistaken and know nothing of Christianity.

  4. thinkingriddles September 22, 2011 at 3:25 pm #

    Nice. Who needs unbelievers when the lies are come from within our own camp.
    iii. “If those books are in agreement with the Quran, we have no need of them; and if these are opposed to the Quran, destroy them.” – Caliph Omar

  5. Margaret Morey June 10, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

    The Word of God will prevail books or no books, good book or bad books. God is in each of us; and will reject bad information by instinct. God gave us all free will. It is not Christian to destroy any of man’s creativity, or to try to control anyone’s creativity. What about the “prodigal son”…he did not need the Bible or any book to learn his final lesson.
    I am ashamed of any Christian who takes CONTROLLING measures to promote God and/or Christ. Not needed. Not really Christian. Think, and be wise. When you see a wrong, contrast it by a right…and seeing true GOOD demonstrations are building blocks that all mankind needs to grow in God. Be a testament to God in your works, not by destroying, but by building.

    • RisticStefan July 1, 2012 at 4:24 am #

      I totally agree with you Margaret :)

  6. D.Bose July 8, 2012 at 2:53 am #

    When Christians even today have no respect for other religions/philosophy/scientific methods, it is not a surprise that they destroyed the Library of Alexzandria and killed Hypathia. Even today Christians ( along with the Jews and the Muslims) call both Buddha and Krishna as devils and all other religions as Pagans.
    Read the Old Testament; it is a violent book prescribing racism, genecide, mass destructions. All the so-called Prophets of The Bible Moses, Soul, Dadid, Abraham, except Jesus, were mass murderers, Nazis, Fascists.
    Jesus was a real exceptions; that was the reason Jews demanded his executions.
    The Messages of Jesus have nothing to do with The Bible.
    The Christianity has nothing to do with Jesus.
    Christianity is also a violent religion, just like Judaism and Muslim religion,. It was not created by Jesus, but by Paul, who has just dressed up Judaism as Christianity.

    • Michael July 19, 2012 at 12:35 am #

      I prefer to stand with Thomas Jefferson on this issue by considering Jesus (actually Joshua ‘Carpenter’) was a learned man, a philosopher and teacher. A clue to this understanding comes from two obvious points: Corpses do not bleed, and Jewis Men were fordidden to handle a corpse. There is much more evidence supporting the Jeffersonian view than the contemporary belief system, even though the early church burned as many books as they could find…

  7. Raphael Gamaroff October 31, 2012 at 9:54 pm #

    I am doing some research for an article entitled “Dualism and Jewalism.” The connection between Greek and Jewish thought comes, naturally, into the picture. My thoughts are now on that most tragic of all cultural calamities: the burning down of the library of Alexandria. Who burned down the library? There are three accounts: the pagan Julius Ceasar (48 BC), Christians (circa 400 AD) and Muslims (640 AD). No matter who torched the over half million precious docs, I’m fuming. I want to cry. How AM I going to be able to write anything of substance on the most vital aspect of dualism-monism, which is the who and the how of creation, huh?

    • Sam November 7, 2013 at 10:22 pm #

      You could be on something there. Jews had tremendous power in alexandria during that time. they were the tax collectors for the roman empire and they had roman legions under their control to keep people in line as far as taxes are concerned. don’t forget, the year when the library was burned there were a lots of jewish unrest to the point that jews were gathering daily to protest. before the library was burned, a theatre was burned by the jews because they were not permitted to have one of their festivals there. few days later the library burned. could they be the culprit?

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