Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum--Lucretius' ancient cry of protest over the crimes committed in the name of religion...


TREASON AGAINST GOD: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy

Tantum religio potuit suadere malorum--Lucretius' ancient cry of protest over the crimes committed in the name of religion finds an eloquent echo in this first of a promised two-volume survey. Professor Levy (Claremont Colleges) is a legal historian--his Origins of the Fifth Amendment won a Pulitzer prize in 1969--and more interested in how the law was used to crush theological dissent than in theology itself. Nevertheless he has worked up a tremendous body of technical material on such topics as Sabellianism and other early Trinitarian controversies, antinomian Protestant sects, etc., and recast it in a lucid narrative. What it all adds up to, or will when completed, is a vast chronicle of intolerance in Great Britain and America from the Middle Ages to the present, prefaced by a detailed study of the judicial persecution of heretics in the first centuries of Christianity. Yet despite its careful scholarship and its readable prose, Levy's work suffers from some major structural flaws. The first and greatest of these is his inability to make a convincing distinction between blasphemy and heresy (both Aquinas and Luther--and innumerable preachers and inquisitors--lumped the two together). So, instead of tracing the career of a single species of injustice, Levy is really attacking an entire genus, and the various victims and oppressors he chooses to discuss are a more arbitrary and less revealing lot than he imagines. Secondly, Levy goes to great lengths to show that Judaism, unlike Christianity, tried to define blasphemy as narrowly as possible and to punish it as rarely as possible. This is true, but it glides over the Old Testament's bloodthirsty harshness toward ""idolaters,"" which has clear affinities with later (and admittedly more vicious) Christian modes of bigotry. Elsewhere Levy has a strong tendency to quote scholars who agree with him and ignore those who don't (the trial of Jesus was pure fiction, and so forth). An honest and dignified Voltairean history--Levy calls it ""unfashionably Whiggish"" -- but not altogether to be trusted.

Pub Date: Feb. 2, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Schocken

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1980