Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity

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Dirk Rohmann
Studies in Text Transmission
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     2017.
     370 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781481307826.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity opens with an introduction which provides an overview of previous scholarship of the topic and a very engaging section on the transmission of texts in antiquity. It also discusses, ever so briefly but ever so importantly for the remainder of the volume, those factors which affected the transmission of texts.

There follow these chapters: (1) The Great Persecution, the Emperor Julian and Christian Reactions; (2) Fahrenheit AD 451 – Imperial Legislation and Public Authority; (3) Holy Men, Clerics and Ascetics; (4) Materialist Philosophy; (5) Moral Disapproval of Literary Genres; (6) Destruction of Libraries; (7) The Post-Roman Successor States. Everything is drawn together in the conclusion and readers are offered the usual indices and a bibliography to round out the volume.

Readers are carefully taught, in chapter 1, the background of, reasons for, and consequences of the persecution of Julian. “Emperors,”in Dirk Rohmann’s analysis, “introduced censorship legislation as a tool to establish a greater degree of state control” (60). In the second chapter Rohmann leads us to a fuller (and quite meticulous) understanding of the forms of book burning and censorship practiced by the Roman emperors and their appointees and underlings. The third chapter advances to the following centuries when Christianity was dominant and Christians themselves undertook the suppression of “heretical” works. Rohmann notes in this connection that “censorship laws began entering ecclesiastical legislation when it became systematized by the late fourth century and was purported to derive directly from the apostles” (146). The fourth chapter is, in my estimation, the weakest of the work. It attempts, unsuccessfully in the present reviewer’s mind, to convince us that the materialistic philosophies of the period were the foil off of which Christian attitudes towards heretical literature were firmed up and formalized. Extensive citations from Augustine and Cyril of Alexander are provided, but alas, even with this help the aim of the chapter falls short.

In the fifth chapter the same attempts are continued. Rohmann musters material from various of the Church Fathers (including even Saint Jerome) as he strives to persuade his readers that Christian attitudes towards heretical books were rooted in and a response to pagan philosophical traditions. He even goes so far as to imply that Christians were systematically rooting out these philosophical works in an attempt to drown out or eliminate those pagan voices altogether. Regrettably the fact that these philosophical works continued to be copied and preserved demonstrates the weakness of his argument. It isn’t reasonable to assume that Christians on the one hand wanted rid of pagan philosophy while at the same time they were copying them in their monasteries across Europe and North Africa.

In the sixth chapter Rohmann returns to his previously exhibited acuity and brilliance. His description of the fate of various libraries is historical writing at its best. He notes, in conclusion, that “while the evidence for temple destruction is often unclear, the evidence for the deliberate destruction of buildings containing books is even scantier” (260). Finally, in chapter 7 Rohmann wraps up his discussion with the end of the Roman Empire. Here he has given “some examples to suggest that the polemical discourse of late antique authors probably influenced ecclesiastical book bans” (294).

This is a fascinating study. Rohmann has provided students of Christianity with one of the most engaging studies I have yet read. The topic is captivating and the development of the subject is meticulous and wise.

This book is literally packed with important historical details which fill in the gaps about an early Christian practice which raises eyebrows among those who may not know the whence and why of book burning. It ought to be read by those with an interest in the intellectual history of the early Church and by those with a fondness for the peculiarities of some Christian practices.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jim West is Lecturer in Biblical and Reformation Studies at the Ming Hua Theological College at Charles Sturt University. He has written a commentary on the bible, several works of theology and church history, and numerous articles on both the bible and theology. Additionally, he serves as Associate Editor and Book Review Editor (for North America) for the Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament as well as the Copenhagen International Seminar.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Dirk Rohmann is lecturer in the department of history at the University of Wuppertal.

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