“Well, any good comeback needs some true believers” – John Boehner
I don’t usually like to wade into questions about whether one supernatural critter or another is mythological, mostly because if they are I can still appreciate the narrative and secondarily, should they turn out to have some phenomenal existence it would just piss them off, but in the case where a disembodied spirit called into question the reality of a hypothetical messiah, I just couldn’t resist. Two imaginary friends arguing over who is less imaginary just screams for a little elucidation. It’s a bit like the debate over using emoticons vs. emoji. In the late 19th Century, the ghost of Pope Gregory VII declared (during a spiritualist séance) that Jesus of Nazareth was a complete fabrication cobbled together from a range of non-Christian religious figures, and that he himself had ordered the famous Roman Library of Palatine Apollo burned to the ground in order to cover up incontrovertible evidence of this.
The Library of Palatine Apollo was established in 28 B.C. by the first Roman emperor, Augustus (63 B.C. – 14 A.D.) on Rome’s Palatine Hill adjacent to the Temple of Apollo, filling its shelves with a veritable treasury of the greatest ancient Latin and Greek works on law and the liberal arts, a collection that was added to by successive emperors, probably representing one the finest amalgamations of recorded history, much of which is of course lost to us today. There seems to be some confusion as to whether the library was ultimately struck by lightning for the sins of emperor Lucius Antonius Commodus (161–192 A.D.) and burned to a crisp, or was deliberately torched by either Pope Gregory I (540-640 A.D.) or Pope Gregory VII (1015 – 1085 A.D.), and some scholars have suggested that they may have independently ordered the burning of the library.
Lucius Antonius Commodus, the fifteenth in line from Augustus, was a man depraved by all the infamous vices of cruelty, lust and obscenity, often took part in gladiatorial combats, and frequently fought with beasts in the amphitheater. He also put to death many senators, especially those whom he observed to excel in nobility and industry. The city paid the penalty of the outrages of the king; the Capitol was struck by lightning, which ignited the great library that had been collected by the painstaking care of previous generations, and with the rapidity of a whirlwind burned to the ground the other buildings located in the neighborhood. In spite of this it is said that it was blessed Gregory who burned the library of profane writings that there might be more ample room for the Holy Scriptures, and that their authority might be enhanced and their study more diligently pursued. The two stories are in no way incompatible, however, since the thing might have happened twice at different times (John of Sailsbury, “The Policratus”, Chapter XIX).
Christianity was declared Rome’s official state religion by Emperor Theodosius I’s Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., but Constantine I’s 313 A.D. Edict of Milan had already established tolerance on par with the other available religions at the time. There was an impressive smorgasbord of philosophies and metaphysics available for those inclined towards theological experimentation in 4th Century A.D. Rome, but Constantine seemed to recognize that soon Nicene Christianity would be bigger than the Beatles. All sorts of prophets, saints, messiahs, miracle workers and sons of gods and their followers were wandering about the Roman Empire, from Alexander of Abonoteichus to Apollonius of Tyana, and if there is one thing we know about the Greco-Roman World in the first few centuries of the Common Era, it’s that religious syncretism was a big thing. In short, ever since the Greeks ran into the Romans, folks had been swapping gods and heroes, salting their mythologies with a little bit of this and that borrowed from their neighbors, and generally being inadvertently ecumenical in the interest of not unduly angering any particular set of celestial egomaniacs. Essentially, humanity is so fast and loose with its mythologies, it’s no surprise that all the religions more or less start to sound the same and tell similar stories in the end. By the fall of the Roman Empire around 476 A.D., most anybody in the West who was writing anything (or even copying ancient texts) was associated with the Catholic Church, and consequently took the authenticity of the historical Jesus as prima facie.
At the dawn of the 19th Century, feeling themselves rather enlightened, a few cantankerous scholars started to ask questions about why we don’t have any writings attributed to Jesus when all his theological contemporaries were busy scribbling away at their manifestos, and apart from a whole bevy of decidedly un-messianic “Yeshuas” loitering about the Holy Land at the turn of the Common Era, nobody talked about him or mentioned him until the New Testament (and that had been redacted a few dozen times across the centuries). Given, being an international man of mystery can certainly pump up your mojo, so perhaps Jesus of Nazareth just had a subtle and undeniably effective marketing strategy. Yet in the absence of actual data, there is school of thought loosely grouped under the rubric “the Christ Myth Theory”, the three central commonalities of which are that (1) the authorship and credibility of the New Testament is questionable, (2) we lack any actual historical evidence of Jesus of Nazareth from his contemporaries, and the sole mention of him by Flavius Josephus may have been a later addition, and (3) historically, there have been a host of “Christ-like” religious figures and dying-and-rising again gods from Horus to Mithras to Krishna. This of course, does not guarantee that Jesus of Nazareth never existed, just that he was in line with a few millennia of other archetypal myths. I don’t particularly care whether he did or not, because it’s not the scandal that ultimately screws you, it’s the cover-up.
After Theodosius, the last Roman Emperor over Imperial Rome, had abolished all other philosophies except that of Christos, “the same year the Alexandrian Library, containing 280,000 manuscripts of all the revealed religions of the world, was destroyed. This was followed up by Pope Gregory ordering the destruction of the Library of the Palatine Apollo, containing many thousands of books of religion. The Druids worshipped the God Jesus, or Hesus; and it is easy to see why the name Hesus Christos was selected at the Convention of Nice as the new title. To put a stop to the religious controversy the two Gods were conjoined: Hesus of the Druids, and Christos of India! All the writing of Apollonius and thousands of works referring to him were destroyed, mutilated, forged, and names changed. St. John of the Gospels was Damis, the secretary of Apollonius. In Timothy the name is spelled Demas. As the Oracle of Vespasian and his Memoirs, compiled by Damis, had come into the possession of the Empress Julia Dumna, wife of Septimus Severus, she ordered them to be written by Philostratus, so that it was not easy to get rid of this evidence. However, to the thinker, one thing is clear, and the answer is demanded from every authority on Christianity. Why is Jesus of Nazareth the only great religious teacher who left no writings? Why did Apollonius and Jesus never meet nor ever hear anything of each other, nor any of their disciples and followers? All the great Scripture authorities express astonishment that this is the case, but no doubt, for discreet reasons, offer no solution (Edwards, 1914, p113-114).
We’ve been burning each other’s books for millennia as a means for controlling our own identities. After all, if my god can eat your god, I don’t have much use for the ramblings of your divinity or your version of events. Wipes the slate clean and lets you refashion history without all the messiness of having to account for confounding evidence or alternate viewpoints. Even people who agree on the same book can’t agree on its interpretation. Things can get ugly and violent schism is the rule of thumb across religions. Best to sweep as much of that nonsense under the carpet as possible if you want to get your god business on. This was the rumor as to why the Library of Palatine Apollo could not be suffered to exist.
From the fourth to the fourteenth century the most valuable literature of the ancients was destroyed by popes, bishops and priests who couldn’t allow such evidence of the mythical origin of the Christian religion to exist. The heartless destruction of the library of the Palatine Apollo by Pope Gregory VII in the eleventh century, holding all the writings from early part of the first to the middle of the fourth century; recording facts proving no such person as Jesus Christ ever existed (Morton, 1913, p40).
Now, we don’t have any indisputable evidence as to why Pope Gregory might have ordered the library burned, and obviously don’t have the card catalog of the Palatine Apollo to let us know precisely what was stored there. We’re pretty sure that he decided it needed to burn. The milder interpretation of this act was that he felt those easily distracted monks needed to focus on sacred text rather than profane, heathen tomes. Monks destroyed a lot of stuff anyway in the interest of logistics. Paper was expensive, and if the choice came down to whitewashing a copy of an ancient pagan textbook or not creating another beautifully illuminated version of the New Testament or some similarly Church-sanctioned work, those monks buckled down and got to erasing. “The monks were inveterate destroyers of books. They were indefatigable in erasing the works of ancient authors in order to transcribe upon the obliterated vellum their own fabulous productions” (Bayley, 1909, p203). The slightly less charitable view, although still shying away from grand conspiracy, is that Pope Gregory was fanatically opposed to anything that smelled of paganism.
Inflamed with the blindest zeal against everything pagan, Pope Gregory VII ordered that the library of the Palatine Apollo, a treasury of literature formedby successive emperors, should be committed to the flames! He issued this order under the notion of confining the attention of the clergy to the holy scriptures! From that time all ancient learning which was riot sanctioned by the authority of the church, has been emphatically distinguished as profane—in opposition to sacred (Disraeli, 1823, p91).
The truth is, we didn’t know why Pope Gregory VII determined that the Library of Palatine Apollo needed to burn, or at least we didn’t until spiritualist J.M. Roberts, Esq. (1821-1888) started talking to a host of famous spirits, ranging from Plotinus to Zoroaster, from 1878-1886 and publishing them verbatim in his spiritualist-oriented magazine Mind and Matter. One such incorporeal communique was from a reluctant Pope Gregory VII, claiming that other spirits forced him to appear and clear up the mystery surrounding why he burned the Library of Palatine Apollo.
“Good Day: — I come here by force, as the preceding speaker (the spirit of Plotinus) told you; and what is worse, I am forced to tell you exactly what I did, when here in the mortal form. When living on earth I was known as Pope Gregory, and what I am here for to-day is to own to the destruction of the Library of the Palatine Apollo, which contained the whole of the writings of the School of Alexandria from the days of Potamon to the days of one Maximus. And what was my excuse for its destruction? Religious bigotry. I made the excuse for it, that I did not want the clergy to have their minds diverted from their holy work by studying heathen literature. But the real cause of my action in that matter was, that there were recorded in that library all the facts that would prove that no such person as Jesus of Nazareth ever existed; and therefore, feeling the weakness and insecurity of my position, I did all I could to strengthen it, by letting as few as possible know what the real contents of that library were. I am here also to state that there is a power — a band of spirits now occupying a position that enables them, when they want a man to return here and atone for the wrongs he has done during his mortal life, to force him to come back and communicate the truth. By the force of truth itself, he is compelled to come back and acknowledge his wrongs. It is the same with spirits as with mortals; they love power and hate opposition as much there as they did here. That is all I have to say” (Roberts, 1892, p59).
J.M. Roberts was pretty convinced that Jesus never existed, and the entire mythos of Christianity originated in much older Eastern traditions of solar deities, the entire story of the Nazarene being largely a co-option of the story of his presumed contemporary and remarkably similar messianic figure Apollonius of Tyana (a little extra on Apollonius here at my article “Not Quite as Big as Jesus: Apollonius of Tyana, Pythagorean Messiah”). Ghosts, of course are notoriously bitter and unreliable, but consider the logic of rejecting the claims of one disembodied spirit in favor of the claims of another disembodied spirit. In the light of day we are forced to admit that if a Jewish carpenter was the son of God, born of a virgin, crucified by the Romans, and rose again all without anybody who wasn’t an apostle recording the event for posterity, or even taking the slightest notice, we don’t have to stretch our credulity that much to go with the possibility that the ghost of Pope Gregory VII would cave under spiritualist interrogation and admit that there was a lot of evidence that the whole thing was a scam. Pick your poison. Countless people have lived and died in faith, whether they were Christians, spiritualists, or dedicated followers of Apollonius. Ultimately, does historicity matter? Well, I suppose it does when people kill each other over it, but George Bernard Shaw probably summed it up best when he said, “There is only one religion, although there are a hundred versions of it”, echoing the ancient Japanese sentiment “There are many paths up the Mountain, but the view of the moon from the top is the same.” Still, take anything a messiah or a ghost tells you with a grain of salt.
Bayley, Harold. A New Light On the Renaissance Displayed In Contemporary Emblems. London: J. M. Dent & Co., 1909.
Disraeli, Isaac, 1766-1848. Curiosities of Literature. 7th ed., corr … London: J. Murray, 1823.
John, of Salisbury, Bishop of Chartres, d. 1180. The Statesman’s Book of John of Salisbury: Being the Fourth, Fifth, And Sixth Books, And Selections From the Seventh And Eighth Books of the Policraticus. New York: Knopf, 1927.
Morton, Francis Torrey, 1840-. The Proven Continuity of Life: It’s Relation to Jesuitism and the Christian Religion. Boston: R. G. Badger, 1913.
Roberts, Jonathan M., 1821-1888. Antiquity Unveiled: Ancient Voices From the Spirit Realms Disclose the Most Startling Revelations, Proving Christianity to Be of Heathen Origin … Philadelphia: Oriental publishing co., 1892.
“Origin of the Profane”. The Antiquarian and General Review: Comprising Whatever Is Useful And Instructive In Ecclesiastical Or Historical Antiquities v3:2 (April); Serving As a Book of Useful Reference, On Subjects of Research And Curiosity. Schenectady, NY, 1847.
Edwards, W.H. “Apollonius and Jesus”. Rider’s (Occult) Review v19. London, 1914.