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.

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on June 4, 2010, in Culture, Historical Theology and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

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

  2. 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. 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!

    • 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

  4. 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

  1. Pingback: Biblioteket i Alexandria « Istappar

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