Why Do We Think That? (That = Christian Mobs Destroyed the Library of Alexandria)

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by Neil Godfrey

Who told us that Christian mobs were responsible for destroying the Great Library of Alexandria?

I had long thought it was true. I must have heard or read it somewhere, sometime when I was still a Christian. Such a factoid made no difference to my faith, no doubt, if only because I had long known that not all professing Christians have always behaved like saints. (Somewhere along the way I learned otherwise, but I never felt I or anyone else had believed in the rampaging Christian mob story for any sinister and diabolical reasons.)

But recent chastisements, one (or two) from an atheist, the other from a Christian, directed against atheists (no-one else, only atheists) for holding on to this bit of apparently false belief (the accusation being that they believe it for no better reason than that they hate Christianity and want to believe anything that casts Christianity in a bad light) have led me to try to find the source of this “misinformation”.

A visit to the virtual archive of the internet turned up the following:

The image of incensed early Christian mobs destroying Greco-Roman temples comes in part from the early modern period. Back in the late 18th century, armchair historian Edward Gibbon provided a view of temple destruction that had lasting repercussions. In his epic work, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he described the tearing down of the Serapeum in Alexandria as illustrative of the empire as a whole. He also described it as a direct assault on Roman idolatry:

“The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages.”

Sarah Bond, Were Pagan Temples All Smashed Or Just Converted Into Christian Ones?

I like that “armchair historian” bit.

In the mouth of at least two witnesses . . .

Ever since Edward Gibbon’s vivid account of the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria at the hands of Christians, scholars have tended to view the conversions of temples into churches as clear manifestations of an intolerant Church wishing to express its triumph over paganism. Feyo L. Schuddeboom, The Conversion of Temples in Rome

Of course. Well, that makes some sense. I did read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall many years ago and that was probably what planted that “vicious little anti-Christian lie” into my head. Presumably many other readers of the same work, atheists and others, picked up the same notion.

We have all fallen in with the “prevalent proof” fallacy at times. We believe something for no better reason than that it is what we read, or what other people say and everyone seems to take for granted — or at no-one makes a fuss with a contrary opinion.

Not everyone has read Gibbon, though. So maybe a popular film (though I did not see it) has also had its influence:

The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the wonders of ancient civilisation having collected many thousands of scrolls containing knowledge and literature from across the known world.

The 2009 movie Agora is partially about its destruction and tells this story (my emphasis):

When the Christians start defiling the statues of the pagan gods, the pagans, including Orestes and Hypatia’s father, ambush the Christians to squash their rising influence. However, in the ensuing battle, the pagans unexpectedly find themselves outnumbered by a large Christian mob. Hypatia’s father is gravely injured and Hypatia and the pagans take refuge in the Library of the Serapeum. The Christian siege of the library ends when an envoy of the Roman Emperor declares that the pagans are pardoned, however the Christians shall be allowed to enter the library and do with it what they please. Hypatia and the pagans flee, trying to save the most important scrolls, before the Christians overtake the library and destroy its contents.  

Did Christians burn the Great Library of Alexandria?

The same website spreads the blame further yet:

Carl Sagan told a similar story in his series Cosmos (see this clip from about 3:30 in).

You’ll have to go to the website to try to access “this clip” since it is forbidden for Australians (or presumably anyone outside the USA) to access it online.

So it looks like Gibbon planted “the meme”.

However, that second sceptic site adds some caveats. We cannot be sure, it warns:

This version of the story [as in the film Agora] has been frequently repeated as an argument about the irrationality of religion, but it has been disputed. For example, David Bently Hart (commenting on the movie) says the following:

The story he repeats is one that has been bruited about for a few centuries now, often by seemingly respectable historians. Its premise is that the Christians of late antiquity were a brutish horde of superstitious louts, who despised science and philosophy, and frequently acted to suppress both, and who also had a particularly low opinion of women.

Thus, supposedly, one tragic day in a.d. 391, the Christians of Alexandria destroyed the city’s Great Library, burning its scrolls, annihilating the accumulated learning of centuries, and effectively inaugurating the “Dark Ages.” …

This is almost all utter nonsense, but I have to suppose that Amenábar [the director of Agora] believes it to be true.

The tale of a Christian destruction of the Great Library ”so often told, so perniciously persistent”is a tale about something that never happened.

And for emphasis:

So were mobs of Christians responsible for the destruction or is that just a modern myth?

The Library of Alexandria was destroyed/heavily damaged at least four times.

  • 48 BC: Julius Caesar accidentally burns the library when he sets fire to his ships and the fire spreads from the docks. (Plutarch, Life of Caesar)
  • 272 AD (roughly): Several areas of Alexandria (including the Library) are damaged when Emperor Aurelian suppresses Queen Zenobia’s revolt. (per Ammianus Marcellinus)
  • 391 AD: Emperor Theodosius I makes paganism illegal. Anti-Arian riots take place, and destroy many religious objects (Socrates of Constantinople, Historia Ecclesiastica), although I find it unclear whether the scrolls of knowledge in the Library were actually destroyed.
  • 642 AD: The Muslim army captures Alexandria. ~500 years later, several accounts of the invasion mention the destruction of the Library and/or some or all of its contents by the order of Caliph Omar (such as Al-Qifti, History of Learned Men)

Yes, there were religion-based riots in 391 AD, and yes, things in the Serapeum were destroyed. Whether the destroyed items included the scrolls of the Library or only the religious artifacts, however, I’m unclear.

Such is the information found at https://skeptics.stackexchange.com

So there we go. It looks like no-one really knows what happened to the Great Library of Alexandria. The evidence opens up a number of possible views. I suppose different people can mount arguments of varying strengths for any one of the explanations. I don’t think I’ll be losing sleep over trying to figure out which one is more likely. I won’t live in angst not knowing.

What I do find surprising, though, is that an atheist should write so vehemently against other atheists who have been misled into thinking this little detail in history is true, as if it is a shameful thing for atheists to think that Christianity should have any stain in its historical record. But I’ll discuss that little quirk another time.


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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “Why Do We Think That? (That = Christian Mobs Destroyed the Library of Alexandria)”

  1. “What I do find surprising, though, is that an atheist should write so vehemently against other atheists who have been misled into thinking this little detail in history is true, as if it is a shameful thing for atheists to think that Christianity should have any stain in its historical record.”

    Of course there are enough stains in the historical record for everyone to have a share. Those vehement atheists will speak for themselves, but the take-away lesson for me is that those who scold others for their excessive credulity need to be very, very careful about their own acceptance of what “everybody knows.”

  2. While it may not support the theory that Christian mobs destroyed the Library of Alexandria the fact is Christians have since opposed the spread of knowledge by banning and burning books repeatedly and still do so.

  3. You said: “What I do find surprising, though, is that an atheist should write so vehemently against other atheists who have been misled into thinking this little detail in history is true, as if it is a shameful thing for atheists to think that Christianity should have any stain in its historical record. But I’ll discuss that little quirk another time.”

    You misrepresent Tim O’Neill. Those are two of many, many posts on his “History for Atheists” blog. He’s about good history vs historical myth among the people he sees as his tribe. The only reason that it appears he’s about Christianity is that a great deal of the fake history he rails against is concerned with the “Science vs Christianity” theme. This can make it appear that he’s pro-Christianity or engaged in whitewashing Christianity. As far as I can tell, he isn’t.

    If you dig deeper into him, you may not like him very much – he bluntly describes Jesus Mythicism as a long-discredited fringe theory and Richard Carrier in very unflattering terms.

    1. My impression is that Tim goes to the other extreme of even suggesting that Christianity overall was a positive influence and force for scientific advance and enlightenment. His review of Nixey’s book, for example, cherry-picks certain passages and simply fails to mention other passages that specifically made the very point Tim leads readers to think she is denying.

      Tim’s historical methods seem to me to be driven more by an ideological agenda than cool rationalism, and he demonstrates very little awareness of historical philosophy and methodologies. (In other words, he does not demonstrate any serious knowledge of the nature of history itself and falls back on regular appeals to authority and ad hominem.)

      Anyone who goes out of his way to use insults to attack those who hold views he opposes does not deserve to be taken seriously as an honest interlocutor. I have invited him to discuss his views both here and anywhere else on condition that he refrain from abusive language. That condition is obviously too much for him to abide by. His abusive language is a rhetorical tactic that functions to detract from the weaknesses and fallacies of his arguments. It’s what’s called “intellectual bullying”.

  4. Atheists are to blame for everything Christians have ever said about us and therefore we have to live absolutely perfect lives to make up for these imagined failings, while Christians are not even able to pretend to be skeptical, ethical, or rational. And while living these perfect lives we also must keep our damned mouths shut lest any Christian feel that we are saying that we are truly perfect and always absolutely correct and they are not. There are no gray areas. Atheists are always bad and Christians are always good, but the way atheists talk makes it seem as if this is totally the other way around so please shut up.

  5. I researched this case after the movie “Agora” came out. My conclusion was that that the evidence was pretty strong that Christians did destroy the library and did kill Hypathia.
    Naturally, because the evidence suggests it probably happened, we can draw the conclusion that Christians should not be allowed to speak on any moral issue and should be followed on video when they go near a library.

    1. I don’t think Tim O’Neill is a Christian apologist even though he ostensibly wants fellow-atheists to concur with the mainstream views of biblical scholars. I recall him once expressing some embarrassment that such scholars might look pityingly down their noses upon pointy-headed atheists who challenged their fundamental views. Tim’s arguments very often resort to appeals to scholarly authority and just as often appear to indicate an ignorance of the reasons mainstream views are sometimes challenged.

      As far as I am concerned, too many biblical scholars demonstrate a poor understanding of normative historical methods, just like Tim himself. He seems to have some inordinate fear of being scoffed at by the faith-dominated field of biblical scholarship and theologians. Why, I don’t know.

  6. this is a rich meme for gnostics as well who like to use it … to paint orthodox christianity as being “the culprit ” ie authoritarian and backward

  7. Thank you for this text. I find Tim O’NeilL site quite disturbing. There is always need for objectivism, but his views, as you write in discussion below this text, “go to the other extreme”. This reminds me of Agnosiewicz, first atheist in polish internet, who for years write and administer greatest site for nonbelievers in Poland. But his worldview had evolved over past decade in very bizarre form. Nowadays, while he still call himself atheist, he would always defend church, religion, politics connected with christianity and mocks other nonbelievers, especially connected to “new atheism” movement. He is not alone, there is even a term, “catholic atheist” for that kind of people.

    1. I would like to know more about their backgrounds and thinking. (Their = Tim O’Neill and Agnosiewicz etc, and other atheists who are likewise seem to fear to be critical of views of mainstream Christian scholarship). I do not understand it.

      1. There’s no distinction between cafeteria Christians and “Agnostics”. Their primary concern is to avoid offending family members and professional associates with whom they are interdependent.

        To a lesser degree Christianity represents a safety net in the event that they should ever find themselves in a situation where they are threatened or require some get-out-of-jail card to play.

  8. Christians did not burn the Great Library of Alexandria, but the confusing is understandable, as it is one of the few libraries in late antiquity that they didn’t destroy, and they did destroy a lot of temple in Alexandria

  9. I spent some time on this at one point during research into the life of Hypatia, and concluded that the library in Alexandria destroyed by Christians was probably the one at the Serapeum: “There was another great library in Alexandria, the Pergamene, housed at the Serapeum. This collection of 200,000 volumes was created by the kings of Pergamum and later given by Antony to Cleopatra. It was destroyed by the Christian patriarch of Alexandria, Theophilus, with the support of Theodosius the Great.” Orosius’ “Historiarum Adversum Paganos Libri VII”, trans. Andrew Fear (2010).

    See “The Library in the Serapeum”: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/daughter.html

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