Playing with Fire

On Christian Book Burning

Christians 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 torched.

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 demonic.

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 heritage.

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.

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

13 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. hoaxdetector said on September 9th, 2010 at 7:57am #

    Gary opines: 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?

    Hmmm, let me see. Everybody from Franklin Graham to American generals to Hilary Clinton to a gentle Muslim imam in Florida to President Obama himself are trying desperately to forestall the Koran burning precisely because everyone knows — even leftists know, even Gary Leupp knows — that adherents of Islam in various parts of the world will retaliate against whoever is handy to retaliate against. People with no connection to the bookburning, including people strongly opposed to the burning, are gonna die at the hand of Islamic believers, because there are adherents of Islam in a wide range of places poised and ready to deal out death indiscriminately in the sincere belief that killing honors the Koran and upholds the integrity of Islam. In today’s world, innocent people die regularly at the hands of adherents to Islam, in the name of faithfulness to Islam.

    Oh, I forgot, it’s not PC on a blog like this to admit that Islam is a religion that results — regularly — in wicked and evil actions.

  2. 3bancan said on September 9th, 2010 at 8:10am #

    hoaxdetector said on September 9th, 2010 at 7:57am #

    Another zionazi preacher on his/her barbaric hasbara mission…

  3. Rehmat said on September 9th, 2010 at 8:32am #

    It’s not only these extremist Christian religious leaders on Jewish payroll or Zionist Rabbis who who spread hatred toward Muslims and Islam – their are many Christian political leaders who are ignorant of their history of Christian hatred towards the Jews.

    The recent example is from the man, whose ancestered expeled Jewish community from England for 350 years – former Prime Minister of Britain, Tony Blair, who stated on BBC while launching his new book that the western colonial powers are occupying or supporting the occupations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya, Palestine, Kashmir, Philippines, Bosnia, Kosova, etc. is because they want to save the world from “radical Islam”.

  4. bozh said on September 9th, 2010 at 9:22am #

    It is not possible for any person TO KNOW how-where-when wld some muslims of some countries retaliate against qoran burning.

    My own guess is that ulema-imams wld urge all muslims not to engage in any violence against americans in america. Obviously, violence begets violence; and retaliatory violence by US wld be much greater than individual muslim violence.
    One thing appears certain: if there is any military action against US for allowing book burning, it cannot be from any islamic land, only some stupid individuals.

    9-11 may have been perped by saudis, but helped by cia-fbi as per uncle sam’s wishes because US wanted to continue indian wars.

    Curioso appears tha US, UK, france waged a war against axis powers which merely demanded and wanted assurance from serbia that it wld not ever again commit terorism against bosnia or in bosnia.
    Demand being refused which led to austrian invasion of serbia. Demand most likely refused on advisce of tsarist russia, UK, france, italy and US.

    So that’s all US had to do: demand that people suspected of perping 9-11 be surrendered to US and assurance that no afghan ever again commits crimes against US.
    Natch, mullahs wanted to see some evidence that arabs in afgh’n have particpated in 9-11 before arresting them and delivering them to US.
    US, people say, refused the offer.
    To this day, there is no shred of evidence that any afghan or arab living in afgh’n at that time ever even knew of the plot to commit 9-11 let alone be in commision of it.

    However, when it comes to indian wars and taking land from them, sanity and honesty cannot do. tnx

  5. bozh said on September 9th, 2010 at 9:46am #

    Actually, serbs and croats hated bosniaks [muslims] more than any western countries.
    And, ‘religion’ playing biggest par in that hate. They are also hated for abandoning christianity after conquest of bosnia i mid 14oo.
    Conversion to islam had been led by serb and croat ‘nobles’.
    Both the serbs and croats waged wars against bosniaks in late ’92 in order to split asunder bosnia.
    Only in early ’94 clinton changed his mind and decided to keep it together. Canada, et al followed suit in ’95.
    Bosnia did not always belong to croats, Serbia also ruled bosnia from time to time.
    As for kosova, it belongs to its residents, 90% of which are muslims and catholics. It cannot forever belong to serbia just beacause it conquered it, say, ca. 800 ad.
    And albanians may have since 2500 always lived in kosovo. Slavs came to balkans in seventh century.
    Yugoslavia never needed to break up. However, fascists in all republiks prevailed. tnx

  6. mary said on September 9th, 2010 at 12:56pm #

    A comment from the medialens message board.

    Channel 4 News…more publicity for the war criminal Blair
    Posted by Ed on September 9, 2010, 7:05 pm

    Concerning the planned Koran burnings, Jon Snow tells us Channel 4 will be speaking to Tony Blair “who runs a charity to promote understanding between religious faiths”.

    Blair cancels his book signings and Tate party because people are sick of this war criminal, then Jon Snow comes along and promotes him.

    PS Channel 4 is one of the five terrestrial TV channels in the UK and Jon Snow is the senior presenter, once a firebrand for truth and justice but now just one of the messengers of the gangsters-in-charge.

  7. hayate said on September 10th, 2010 at 12:01am #

    Is what is planned a Christian book burning, a a zionist ordained book burning?

  8. mary said on September 10th, 2010 at 3:10am #

    By e-mail just received

    Burning copies of the Qur’an!
    Mixed feelings of joy and sadness

    By: Mohamed S. Kamel*
    Montreal, September 11th, 2010

    Noone is announcing September 11, 2010 as international burn the Qur’an day. He and his church of 50 members are spreading their ignorance and hatred by burning copies of the Qur’an, the Holy Book. Whether he does it or not, the damage has been done.

    This church that is spreading its teachings in Africa and Latin America as well as the United States, believes their direct connection to the Holy Spirit gives them an authority that is beyond ordinary accountability or argumentation. The Noone, a fundamentalist Christian, calls for public action against Islam.

    We still remember when some members of these extremist groups sent their children to the area schools on the first day of classes with t-shirts emblazoned with the church’s motto, “Islam is of the Devil.” The children were sent home by school authorities, and media coverage followed.

    Did any of them read it? In his word: “I have no experience with it whatsoever. I only know what the Bible says.” I don’t think that he knows anything about what the Bible says!

    Are those that flushed a copy of the Qur’an down the toilet in Guantanamo Bay, the illegal prison, members of this church? It is not necessary, but for sure they are all part of the new extreme right wing that if given the chance will be worse than the Nazis. They are the same group who called for the killing of all Muslims, denying them the right for mosques. They are also the creators and the promoters of Islamophobia.

    Many are protesting his action on different levels;

    The archbishop Lawrence John Saldanha of Lahore, Pakistan, described the plan to burn the book as “contrary to the respect owed all religions and against our doctrine and faith.”

    The Noone plan is a return to the Mongol-Tatar era, when burning books was the answer to difference and a symbol of intention to deny people’s existence and destroy their future.

    It was more than 800 years ago when the Tatar burned the Baghdad Library and then came Bush, in another Tatar campaign to burn Baghdad, the entire city.

    And Noone is the new Julius Caesar who burned the great Ptolemic library in Alexandria in the year 48 BC. The same library, its daughter library, had been destroyed in 389 AD as a result of an edict by the Emperor Theodosius.

    Or he is the new Noone, tried to be the new Nero who burned Rome in 64 AD?

    Our new Nero, as well as those of his liking never read history, and if it happened that they read it, they never understood it. The Baghdad Library after the earlier burn came back stronger and Baghdad became the new capital of civilization. And Baghdad will rise again after the recent burn.

    Alexandria and Rome as well came out stronger and played major positive roles in history and their burners have been denounced in every corner. Did humanity lose something by these burns? Yes, they lost years of knowledge but since then it has been recovered.

    This Noone is a real ignorant, but this ignorance is not limited to him. His title and ignorance has been shared by officials in the NATO, White House, and Canadian governments. Their comments were restricted to the so called “…the safety of our troops in Afghanistan…” and “..recruitment bonanza for al-Qaeda…”

    Another layer of ignorance has been added, so he can burn the Qur’an as long as his act will not endanger the safety of our troops. Let me repeat my well know position, our troops will be safe at home, our troops are not fighting for the wellbeing of humanity, our troops are occupying other people’s lands, killing children and women indiscriminately.

    Does the image of burning copies of the Holy Qur’an endanger our troops, more than the images of burning women and children in Baghdad, Afghanistan and Palestine? These killings have been going on for decades, some by our own hands, some by our troops, some by our support and financial aid and others by our silence.

    Those people are always looking for a group to discriminate against. They discriminated against the black, the Jewish, earlier the Japanese… and now the Muslims.

    But why did this ignorance bring me a mixed feeling of joy and sadness?

    I am very sad that we are in the 21st century and we are still practicing discrimination. We don’t read, we are practicing racial profiling and we are accepting ignorance and prejudgment. We don’t use the knowledge acquired to help humanity but rather to destroy it.

    Joy has been mixed with sadness due to my optimistic nature. Joy is arising from the fact that those hate lead groups are losing the battle by imagining that they can burn the knowledge.

    The Noone said, “If God told us to do it” — burn the Korans — “then I guess he could tell us to do something different.” So we are waiting for other surprises from his imaginary God.

    Baghdad, Alexandria and Rome have been born again stronger and played a real role in our current civilization, and history flushed down their burners.

    * Mohamed S. Kamel: is a Freelance writer, the editor of I.N. Daily. He is a professional engineer, a LEED Green Associate and a recognized project manager professional, he is a co-founder of the Canadian Egyptian for Democracy (CEFD), Alternative Perspective Media (APM-RAM), , Quebec Antiwar movement “Échec à la Guerre”, Coalition for Justice and Peace in Palestine “CJPP” and ex-president and co-founder of the Canadian Muslim Forum. He could be reached at public (at)

    Please notice that I omitted the Noone’s name to be sure that I don’t give him the publicity he is looking for and I will leave it to you and history to judge him and his actions.

  9. Josie Michel-Bruening said on September 10th, 2010 at 7:15am #

    Many thanks to the author, Gary Leupp, for this extensive historian view.

  10. beverly said on September 10th, 2010 at 9:08pm #

    It’s interesting to see individuals and groups from all over the world mobilize to: 1) denounce the Florida church’s Koran burning event and, 2) support the proposed Muslim center near Ground Zero in NYC.

    If only a similar tidal wave of emotion, denunciation, and mobilization could be seen on other matters such as ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, stopping the US govt’s descent into fascism and shameless shredding of the Constitution, forcing govt to use money to help individuals not reward bankster theives, and the list goes on.

    It is almost comical to hear and see reactions from religious leaders from the Pope to your local clergy. Where is this type of passion and fire when it comes to denouncing the US and other powers for their acts of aggression that are a bigger recruiting tool for terrorists than any book burning at some two bit church in Florida? Drones that kill more civilians than alleged terrorists, renditions, black site prisons, indefinite detentions, support of Israeli human rights violations – all these trump an old-fashioned book burning any day.

    Something to chew on: Saudi rich guy that funds the folks wanting to build Muslim center near Ground Zero also holds shares in Fox Newscorp worth billions.

    Could this Muslim community center dust-up be a convenient smokescreen to black out discussion what the 9-11 Truth Commission didn’t make public? For more food for thought, watch former Senator Mike Gravel and Richard Gage, AIA, Founder of Architects & Engineers for 9/11 Truth, discuss scientific findings at the National Press Club, on Sept 9 with hard evidence that the WTC buidlings were destroyed by explosive controlled demolition.

    This press conference will be webcast at This may sound like conspiracy theorists run amok but a lot of this information can’t be dismissed as wacko. Besides, the more one delves beyond mainstream propaganda, the more one finds lots of info that ain’t wacko, it’s the truth.

  11. beverly said on September 10th, 2010 at 9:16pm #

    Correction to the link I posted in above post.

    Go to Yahoo News and put in search box:
    “News Corp’s number-two shareholder funded ‘terror mosque’ planner” to access article by John Cook

  12. truthspew said on September 11th, 2010 at 5:33pm #

    I support the 1st amendment right of Jones to burn whatever he chooses as part of his freedom of speech and action.

    However I’d like to suggest he burn a few other books so he can’t be pointed at and shown to be anti-Islamic. For example, if burned a Bible too he’d be in the clear.

    And you have to admit, it’s been some time since we had a good old fashioned book burning.

  13. 3bancan said on September 11th, 2010 at 6:02pm #

    truthspew said on September 11th, 2010 at 5:33pm #