Burning Down the House: A Christian Conspiracy?

September 2, 2013 | 10 comments

The great Library of Alexandria in Egypt was reportedly one of the largest libraries of the ancient world. Constructed in the third century B.C., it functioned as a center of scholarship. The library was believed to have opened during the reign of either Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II (323-246 B.C.). The function of the library was to collect all of the world’s knowledge, and the staff was responsible for translating the works to be housed there.

Some conspiracy theorists claim that Christians burned it down to hide their pagan roots. Not long ago, I ran across the following online comment:

If the Library at Alexandria had not been torched by a mob of zealots (Christians) we would have a much clearer understanding of the origins of religious practices and beliefs.

(The Library at Alexandria was torched in 400 AD and 750,000 volumes were destroyed – and it is no coincidence that it happened so soon after the Council of Nicea which was partly convened in an attempt to hide the pagan origins of the new faith).

This is yet another trick (from a very large bag of tricks) used to discredit Christianity by suggesting that it had something to hide.

First of all, there is no archeological evidence to suggest that there was ever a building in Alexandria large enough to house 750,000 volumes. In fact, no remains of structures large enough to house 70,000 (the actually number of volumes most commonly believed to have been there) have been discovered. This lack of evidence suggests that the size and scope of the library were exaggerated over time.

Some old encyclopedia entries about the library appear to corroborate the claim that Christians burned it down, but the primary source evidence does not back this assertion at all.

The fact of the matter is that other pagans destroyed this famous library. Between 48 and 47 B.C., Julius Caesar was embroiled in a civil war. Ancient sources say he set fire to his own ships; the fire spread to shore, destroying the library and other structures. In his Life of Caesar, ancient Greek historian Plutarch describes it this way:

[W]hen the enemy endeavored to cut off his communication by sea, he was forced to divert that danger by setting fire to his own ships, which, after burning the docks, thence spread on and destroyed the great library.

This isn’t the only evidence that the contents of the library were destroyed during Caesar’s Alexandrian campaign. Ammianus Marcellinus (AD 378) wrote:

Besides this there are many lofty temples, and especially one to Serapis, which, although no words can adequately describe it, we may yet say, from its splendid halls supported by pillars, and its beautiful statues and other embellishments, is so superbly decorated, that next to the Capitol, of which the ever-venerable Rome boasts, the whole world has nothing worthier of admiration. In it were libraries of inestimable value; and the concurrent testimony of ancient records affirm that 70,000 volumes, which had been collected by the anxious care of the Ptolemies, were burnt in the Alexandrian war when the city was sacked in the time of Caesar the Dictator (Roman History, 22).

Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart dismantles this myth in an article that appeared in First Things magazine:

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.

Other scholars have suggested that, if the Christians weren't responsible for the destruction of the library itself, they may have been responsible for the destruction of a “daughter library,” which the patriarch of Alexandria supposedly destroyed in 391. To this Hart responds:

[I]n fact, there is not a single shred of evidence—ancient, medieval, or modern—that Christians were responsible for either collection’s destruction, and no one before the late eighteenth century ever suggested they were.

Jon Sorensen is the Director of External Activities for Catholic Answers. After earning his bachelor’s degree in 3D Animation and Visual Communications, he worked in the automotive industry producing television commercials, corporate videos, and print advertising campaigns. Jon has been with Catholic...

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Comments by Catholic.com Members

#1  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

Just curious, why are Catholic apologists not currently ON FIRE with Pope Francis's call for peace in Syria? He couldn't be clearer or more passionate in his stance. His latest tweet: "War never again! Never again war!"

I think politics clouds the minds of Catholic apologists on the left and right. I think we should all be loudly and firmly behind our Pope.

September 3, 2013 at 11:57 am PST
#2  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

I do support Pope Francis. Are you suggesting that my mind is clouded because I chose something other than Syria to write about?

September 3, 2013 at 1:16 pm PST
#3  Michelle Arnold - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Peter, over the weekend Catholic Answers posted to our Facebook page Pope Francis's appeal for Catholics to fast and pray for peace on September 7.

September 3, 2013 at 3:11 pm PST
#4  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

I don't mean to come off snippy. I just can't believe this isn't on the tips of your minds.

Follow your Pope, whether it means sticking with your own political philosophy or not. A Facebook post about it is, as they say, weak sauce.

September 3, 2013 at 3:14 pm PST
#5  Daniel Moore - Arlington, Tennessee

What's the concern, Peter? I doubt Mr. Sorensen is deliberately ignoring the Syrian crisis--he probably just wanted/planned to write about the Alexandrian library myths. It seems like he is continuing the theme of dispelling historical myths about Christianity, which I find very interesting. Personally I would like to see an article about the Crusades--I am tired of the simplistic declarations that seem to come with any claims about Catholic accomplishments: "You may have done X, but you started the Crusades, so nah"

September 3, 2013 at 4:44 pm PST
#6  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

Honestly my concern isn't with this article. It's actually a very good read. My concern is that the Pope's recent commentary on military action in Syria is nowhere to be found in most Catholic media at the moment. If there were an event in the gay-marriage struggle, every Catholic blog would be covering it wall-to-wall. I'm tired of my church being the Church of Sex, when it could be the Church of Peace. The situation in Syria has grabbed our leader's attention. It should grab ours.

September 3, 2013 at 5:08 pm PST
#7  Jon Sorensen - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Peter, I share your concern for the people of Syria, but I honestly don't know enough about the situation there to write an entire blog post on it. God bless.

September 3, 2013 at 8:11 pm PST
#8  Nicole Stacy - Hartford, Connecticut

May I suggest bigpulpit.com for Catholic perspectives on Syria?

Or have you thought about starting your own blog? (I'm not being snippy either.)

September 4, 2013 at 8:24 am PST
#9  William Bean - Waterbury, Vermont

A certain mindset will always regard the Catholic Church as being anti-sex. Those same people will also regard her as anti-peace, no matter what the facts. I appreciate anyone who sets the record straight in either case. Thanks for the article, Jon.

September 6, 2013 at 3:47 pm PST
#10  Linh Ngo - Scottsdale, Arizona

I've seen a movie about this, and it didn't put catholic in a good light of course. I had a feeling that the movie was bias and prejudice against the Christian faith, so I was always curious what really happened and this was really helpful. Thanks for the good write up!

September 13, 2013 at 5:23 pm PST

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