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.