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Psalm 78
. . . we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the LORD, his power, and the wonders he has done. .
so the next generation would know them . . . and they in turn would tell their children.
Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

History Revised

I read to the children today from Jean Fritz's Around the World in a Hundred Years (1994), a book about the great explorers. The book sets the stage by reviewing the history of map-making and exploration. In the midst of telling about Ptolemy's (second century A.D.) geography, Fritz then writes,
"Then suddenly all this wondering and figuring stopped. Christianity was a new religion, fighting for survival, and in A.D. 391 Christians burned the city of Alexandria and its famous libraries, which contained, along with many ancient treasures of scholarship, the work of Ptolemy. Christians did not believe in scholarship. They thought it was sacrilegious to be curious. Anything people wanted to know, they said, could be found in the Bible..."

Having just studied the history of the first millennium after Christ, this passage seemed odd. The issue of whether on not Christianity encourages science and curiosity will go on ad nauseam, I suppose, but blaming Christians for the burning of the city of Alexandria and its famous libraries was the charge that surprised me. If this was true, how'd we miss it in our studies of this time period? I wondered if our sources were slanted and didn't mention it.

However, a quick check shows that this isn't the case. The fact of the matter is that the much-lamented loss of the ancient library of Alexandria is a mystery of history without a firm answer. There are apparently three theories. The library may have been lost to Julius Caesar's military efforts against the city (48 B.C.), an idea rooted in the writings of Seneca and Plutarch. It may have been a victim of Bishop Theodosius' attempt to purge the city of paganism (391 A.D.), which would be the "Christian" attack, although the motives were against paganism, not scholarship and curiosity. Or, another major theory is that the Amr ibn al-As and his Muslim army destroyed the library in their attack on the city in 642 A.D.*

Jean Fritz's assertion that Christianity was the reason that science and scholarship went dark for nearly a millennium, as evidenced by the burning of Ptolemy's Geography in Alexandria at the hand of Christians is quite an assumption, but is presented as fact.

We love Jean Fritz's books, by the way, and will continue to read them, but with an eye for signs of revisionism.

*Three theories found in a quick internet search and mentioned in the collection What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? in an essay entitled "The Destruction of the Library of Alexandria: An Archeological Viewpoint" by Jean-Yves Empereur, p. 75ff. (See Google Books: What Happened to the Ancient Library of Alexandria? (2008).

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