“The destroyers came from out of the desert”: a vigorous account of a vengeful early Christianity that burned temples and books—and dissenters.
Think today’s fundamentalist Christianity is anti-science, anti-woman, and anti-diversity? Things were even more fraught in its early centuries, writes Times (U.K.) arts reporter and classicist Nixey. In the case of the great ancient Near Eastern city of Palmyra, ascetic religions targeted the temple of Athena for destruction forthwith, setting into motion what the author calls, with qualification, the “triumph of Christianity”—with qualification because in a zero-sum game, there can be no triumph without someone vanquished, and the vanquished included the philosophers, artists, and writers of the ancient world as well as people of ordinary belief, so the “triumph” came at considerable cost. Nixey suggests that Western philosophy as such ended in 529, when the last “pagan” thinkers were driven from Athens and St. Benedict destroyed the temple to Apollo at Monte Cassino. Many other events figure in these pages: the burning of the much-torched Library of Alexandria and the gruesome murder of the philosopher Hypatia, the torching of ivory statues in Rome, the suppression of divergent Christianities such as Arianism, and the beginnings of the systematic oppression of Jews, who, accordingly to the zealots at the head of the new Christian movement, “were not a people with an ancient wisdom to be learned from: they were instead, like the pagans, the hated enemies of the Church.” Nixey paints with a wide brush, but her point is well-taken that even if it took hundreds of years for Christianity to sweep aside competing forms of belief in the ancient world, it was not universally well-received—though its narrative that it was greeted with open arms everywhere was accepted as truth after the fact, in a landscape of temples in rubble, mutilated statuary, and lost libraries.
A fine history that is surely controversial in its view of how victims become victimizers and how professions of love turn to terror.