Dec/Jan 2013

Believe It or Not

Michael Dirda

Care to guess the name of “the most dangerous book that never existed”? It’s neither the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred nor The King in Yellow—see the works of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert W. Chambers for the eldritch details about these accursed volumes. How about the 1917 edition of the Anglo-American Cyclopaedia, the unsettling, otherworldly reference book of Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”? Nope.

All these are certainly dangerous books—within the fictional frameworks in which they appear. But De tribus impostoribus (On the Three Impostors) made its impact in the real world over the course of five hundred years. Between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, everyone knew that this notorious treatise declared that Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad were nothing but charlatans, three charismatic hypocrites who either were deluded or deliberately used religion as a way to achieve temporal power. By extension, De tribus impostoribusalso implied that God was a bogey who didn’t exist; that the afterlife was hooey; that the secular powers employed the temple, church, and mosque as instruments of control and oppression; and that people bowed down to established religion mainly out of fear of the unknown or fear of the state.

Such beliefs were, obviously, anathema to Christian Europe. Even possessing a copy of The Three Impostors might lead to immolation at the stake. And yet, for hundreds of years, scholars, heterodox thinkers, book collectors, and devout clergymen searched in vain for this sulfurous volume. There is, as Georges Minois shows in his enthralling work of scholarly detection, no evidence that this “atheist’s bible” actually existed. Not that anyone ever doubted that samizdat manuscripts akin to it were out there, secretly cackled over by heretical miscreants. Still, if De tribus impostoribus didn’t exist, it would have to be invented. Publishers, especially, abhor a vacuum.

In 1716 the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz examined a handwritten copy of De tribus impostoribus, describing it in a letter as a short text of only twenty-eight folio pages. It was probably partly composed in 1688 by a German writer named Johann Joachim Müller. In 1719 there appeared a greatly amplified French version, printed under the innocuous-seeming title La vie et l’esprit de Spinoza (The Life and Mind of Spinoza). Only four copies survive. Later republications discarded the biography of philosophy’s arch-atheist, and gradually began to use the title Traité des trois imposteurs (Treatise on the Three Impostors). However, by the Enlightenment, the book’s alleged blasphemies had become commonplace.

Yet why did people believe for so long in the reality of a nonexistent book? Minois begins the story in 1239, when Pope Gregory IX issued an encyclical letter attacking his bitter rival Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II for having declared that “the whole world has been fooled by three impostors, Jesus Christ, Moses and Muhammad.” This was almost certainly a piece of Vatican propaganda, but from there, the medieval equivalent of an urban legend took hold and spread. It was soon conjectured that the emperor—acting alone, or in conjunction with his adviser Pierre des Vignes—had authored a tract proving his damnable assertions.

Of course, the ground had long been prepared for the circulation of such freethinking blasphemy. One early Jewish work had boldly stated, in Minois’s paraphrase, that Jesus was “the illegitimate son of the hairdresser Miriam of Bethlehem and the legionary Joseph Pandira, or Panthera. Ambitious, jealous and violent, he made use of the sorcery he learned in Egypt to penetrate into the Temple of Jerusalem and gain access to its secrets, which permitted him to perform fake miracles and to fool the crowd. At his death, his body was stolen by the gardener who buried it in his garden.”

For the Middle Ages and after, Muhammad was nothing less than a diabolical figure. In the early seventeenth century, Lucilio Vanini, related that the founder of Islam secretly placed a disciple inside a well and then ordered him to cry out “I am God, and I swear to you that I have designated Mahomet to be my great prophet!” After that clever bit of stagecraft, Muhammad quickly had the well filled up with heavy stones, thus silencing the one person who might reveal his imposture. As for Moses: Could any secular ruler be more cruel and bloodthirsty, commanding the Israelites to exterminate entire tribes and rival sects?

Up through the eighteenth century, virtually every heterodox thinker was rumored to be the secret author of this phantom book—from Averroës to Montaigne. The general consensus now is that the 1719 French version is a syncretic work, contrived by disciples of Spinoza and materialist philosophy.

Yet the main point of both the mythic text that everyone “knew” without having seen and the actual printed book seems roughly identical: Religion is a “pious lie,” useful to the powerful because it “guaranteed the social order.” In addition, by unmasking the three founders of the three great Western faiths as masters of deceit and expediency, all sincere religious belief was instantly undercut. The Three Impostors thus functioned as an apologia for atheism.

I can’t speak enthusiastically enough for Minois’s excellent book. The Atheist’s Bible is more scholarly than Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve(2011) and less playful than the philological detective work that Robert K. Merton displayed in On the Shoulders of Giants (1965), but it offers comparable intellectual pleasure. Lys Ann Weiss’s translation, moreover, reads beautifully. Most of all, though, The Atheist’s Biblemight be a supplement to Charles Mackay’s Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841), a work all too pertinent in this Internet age. After all, just because people believe something to be true doesn’t make it so. Or does it?

Michael Dirda is a weekly book columnist for the Washington Post and the author of On Conan Doyle (Princeton University Press, 2011).