The Atheist's Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed

The Atheist's Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed

by Georges Minois

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Like a lot of good stories, this one begins with a rumor: in 1239, Pope Gregory IX accused Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, of heresy. Without disclosing evidence of any kind, Gregory announced that Frederick had written a supremely blasphemous book—De tribus impostoribus, or the Treatise of the Three Impostors—in which Frederick

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Like a lot of good stories, this one begins with a rumor: in 1239, Pope Gregory IX accused Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, of heresy. Without disclosing evidence of any kind, Gregory announced that Frederick had written a supremely blasphemous book—De tribus impostoribus, or the Treatise of the Three Impostors—in which Frederick denounced Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as impostors. Of course, Frederick denied the charge, and over the following centuries the story played out across Europe, with libertines, freethinkers, and other “strong minds” seeking a copy of the scandalous text. The fascination persisted until finally, in the eighteenth century, someone brought the purported work into actual existence—in not one but two versions, Latin and French.
Although historians have debated the origins and influences of this nonexistent book, there has not been a comprehensive biography of the Treatise of the Three Impostors. In The Atheist’s Bible, the eminent historian Georges Minois tracks the course of the book from its origins in 1239 to its most salient episodes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, introducing readers to the colorful individuals obsessed with possessing the legendary work—and the equally obsessive passion of those who wanted to punish people who sought it. Minois’s compelling account sheds much-needed light on the power of atheism, the threat of blasphemy, and the persistence of free thought during a time when the outspoken risked being burned at the stake.          

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Editorial Reviews

Bookforum - Michael Dirda
“I can’t speak enthusiastically enough for Minois’s excellent book. The Atheists’s Bible is more scholarly than Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and less playful than the philological detective work that Robert K. Merton displayed in On the Shoulders of Giants, but it offers comparable intellectual pleasure. Lys Ann Weiss’s translation, moreover, reads beautifully.”
Times Higher Education
“Just as in Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery, if you create false evidence in order to discredit your enemies—be they Jews or Jesuits, Carbonari or Bolsheviks, Masons or the Vatican—you will soon find people eager not only to believe you but also to serve the cause you have been trying to undermine. The text that is the object of Georges Minois’ study, the Treatise of the Three Impostors, provides a perfect illustration of this peculiar dynamics of deceit, credulity and paranoia."
Walter Stephens
“Georges Minois’s timely and elegant study The Atheist’s Bible is a landmark addition to both the history of ideas and the history of the book. The Treatise of the Three Impostors set a record for advance publicity—before it was finally published, intellectuals accused one another of writing it for nearly half a millennium. Its real author was not any single thinker but the cumulative, nervous imagination of the entire European intelligentsia. Like a Freudian id, it exposed the repressed, traumatic thought that all religion was a hoax: centuries before avowed atheism became possible, accusations that someone else had written the Treatise of the Three Impostors explored the particulars and possibilities of irreligion. Readers who are intrigued or scandalized by the diatribes of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens will discover in The Atheist’s Bible that, as that other Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun.”

Joscelyn Godwin
“The Treatise of the Three Impostors is a book that enjoyed centuries of notorious nonexistence until (as Voltaire would say) it became necessary to invent it. Georges Minois writes with empathy, erudition, and a novelist’s sense of buildup and timing, weaving in the parallel story of Europe’s courageous freethinkers. In the face of today’s social and even legal pressures against criticizing religion, it is good to see an honorable French tradition asserting itself.”—Joscelyn Godwin, author of The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance


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The Atheist's Bible

By Georges Minois


Copyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-53030-7

Chapter One

The Origin of a Mythical Theme: The Prehistory of the Three Impostors (Up to the Thirteenth Century)

On 1 July 1239, Pope Gregory IX addressed to the monarchs and ecclesiastical dignitaries of all Christendom an encyclical letter accusing the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II of being "a scorpion spitting out poison from the stinger on its tail." "This pestilent king," he continued,

has notably and openly stated that—in his own words—the whole world has been fooled by three impostors, Jesus Christ, Moses, and Muhammad, two of whom died honorably, while Jesus himself died on the Cross. Moreover, he has dared to affirm, or rather, he has fraudulently claimed, that all those who believed that a virgin could give birth to the God who created nature, and all the rest, were fools. And Frederick has aggravated the heresy by this insane assertion, according to which no one can be born without having been conceived by the prior intercourse of a man and a woman; he also claims that people ought to believe nothing that cannot be proven by the strength and reason of nature.

Thus the theme of the three impostors was launched. At the start, it consisted of a gratuitous accusation, immediately denied by the emperor, who responded by calling the pope himself a heretic. The tension between the two men continued to mount, in the context of what we now call the quarrel of the papacy and the empire, or the Investiture Controversy. Ever since 1075, when Pope Gregory VII proclaimed himself the supreme leader of Christendom and claimed that the emperor held power only through him, the war of the leaders had raged, reaching its heights under Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa (c. 1122–1190) and Pope Innocent III (1160–1216). Between deposition of the pope, on the one side, and excommunication of the emperor, on the other, the spiritual and temporal powers fought each other for 150 years to decide which of the two would exercise supreme power.

On 19 March 1227, Cardinal Hugolin, the comte de Segni, nephew of Innocent III, was elected pope at the age of fifty-seven, and took the name Gregory IX. Austere, stubborn, and energetic, an expert in canon law, and a personal friend of Francis of Assisi, the new pope dreamed of solidifying the supreme domination of the Holy See over Europe and the Holy Land. To achieve this, he needed the submission and collaboration of the Holy Roman Emperor, head of the premier temporal power of Christendom. The problem was, the reigning emperor was one of the strongest and most distinctive personalities of the Middle Ages, and was determined to affirm his independence with respect to the pope. This exceptional emperor was Frederick II, of the Hohenstaufen family. He had ruled since 1215; his states held those of the pope in a vise because, in addition to ruling Germany, he was king of Sicily (which is to say, of all of southern Italy). In the northern part of the peninsula, he imposed his authority on Lombardy by force, intervening frequently in Lombard affairs. In 1227, he led a crusade, which he had to interrupt right at the start due to a sudden illness. The pope excommunicated him. The following year he set out again, and in February 1229, an agreement with the Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil restored to the Christians Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nazareth, and a coastal strip from Jaff a to Acre. Frederick II proclaimed himself King of Jerusalem, yet maintained friendly relations with the Muslims, an attitude that cost him dearly when the pope confirmed his excommunication. The excommunication was lifted on 28 August 1230, and a fragile reconciliation took place at Anagni. Nine years later, there was another break: in February 1239, the confrontation in Lombardy polarized, as Frederick led a pitiless campaign, while Gregory federated all the anti-imperial towns and once again excommunicated the emperor. Frederick then directly threatened the papal city. This was the context in which the pope launched his accusation: Frederick was a heretic and a blasphemer who had called the three great founders of the monotheistic religions impostors.

The First to Be Accused: Frederick II and Pierre des Vignes (1239)

Gregory's accusation was likely to be believed, as the emperor already had a demonic reputation. He surrounded himself with suspect characters of heterodox tendencies who did not hesitate to cross religious boundaries. For example, Master Theodore, the court philosopher, was close to Arab circles, and made an extract for the emperor from the Secretum secretorum, a work attributed to Aristotle. Michael Scot, a Scottish philosopher, astrologer, diviner, and mathematician, was a member of Frederick's court from 1227 to 1235. While in Toledo, Spain, in 1217, he had translated from the Arabic several works of Aristotle, such as On the Heavens and On the Soul, and also translated into Latin some works of the Arabic philosopher Ibn Rushd (Averroes). Both of these were rationalist authors; both were considered dangerous. Worst of all, there was Pierre des Vignes, whom the church viewed as Frederick's evil twin. Son of a Capuan judge, he studied civil and canon law at Bologna and became prothonotary of the kingdom of Sicily, and then logothete (literally, "he who puts into words"; that is to say, the head of the justice system and the drafter of legislation). It was he who established the written protocol of the court, using ambiguous expressions that referred to the emperor as an emanation of divinity and compared him to Christ. Playing on his own name, Pierre was at once Peter, prince of the apostles of the new savior Frederick, "a new Moses who came down from Sinai bearing the Law," and master "of the vineyard of the Lord." A prelate of the day wrote that "[Pierre] des Vignes is the rock [pierre] on which the Church of the Emperor is built when the emperor relaxes at a banquet in the company of his disciples." Mingling the profane and the sacred, and borrowing extensively from ancient Rome, des Vignes masterminded the effective deification of the emperor, as revealed in monumental statuary inspired by the late Roman Empire. Although he was the alter ego of Frederick II, Pierre des Vignes ended up abusing his high office, granting favors for money, and betraying the commands of the emperor. He was arrested in 1249 and imprisoned at San Miniato, where he killed himself by striking his head against the wall. Even his death did not restore his reputation in the eyes of the church, though it did gain him a place of honor in Dante's Inferno, in the circle of those who had done violence to themselves—not far from Michael Scot, likewise damned to hell by the Italian poet as a seer and fortune-teller.

Pierre des Vignes, in his capacity as logothete, was responsible for answering the pope's accusation, making the emperor's case, and denying the charge concerning the three impostors. His response, however, only served to reinforce the suspicions, and gave rise to a persistent rumor whose repercussions echoed from century to century: Pierre des Vignes was said to have written, in collaboration with Frederick II, a Latin treatise entitled De tribus impostoribus [On the Three Impostors], denouncing the religious imposture of the three prophets of the religions of the Book: Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. For hundreds of years, scholars, seekers, collectors, and heretics searched for the notorious accursed manuscript whose title became a damaging label used to stigmatize the heterodox.

No one knew the precise contents of the treatise, of course, but the title was held to summarize the whole work: it was a proclamation and a provocation, the supreme blasphemy, because it not only grouped Muhammad, Moses, and Jesus, but also accused all three of being liars, fabulists, and in short, impostors. At the same time, it was a double-edged blade: on the one hand, each religion hated to see its own founder treated as an impostor; yet on the other hand, each rejoiced to see the other two founders accused of the same crime. No work could have been better calculated to reveal at once the mutual hatred and the solidarity among religions, to the benefit of atheism. Because the work was known only by its title, Christians, Muslims, and Jews could all fantasize about the contents. This helped ensure the continuing notoriety of the work, enriched by the inventions of its enemies and its partisans alike—one of the properties of myth. Everyone interpreted the work in their own fashion, imagining its contents and developing its themes, thus building up this book, whose very existence was uncertain, into a sort of antireligious bible that collected all the arguments hostile to faith. This work, which no one had ever seen, became a powerful weapon for believers of all sorts—one that was timeless because, contrary to logic, people attributed it in succession to any strong mind whom they wanted to bring down. "Author of On the Three Impostors" quickly became the ultimate defamatory slogan.

It's no accident that the accusation was first brought against Frederick II. The intent was to blacken the image of this public figure who, in the eyes of the Catholic hierarchy, was guilty of crime piled upon crime: intellectual curiosity, rationalism, syncretism, eclecticism. And in fact there is ample evidence of his wide-ranging interests. Consider the list of philosophical questions he submitted to Michael Scot: Is hell located beneath the earth? Is there something that holds up the earth? How many heavenly spheres are there? What moves them? In which sphere does God have his substance? In what manner do the angels and saints make a crown for him? What is the difference between the spirits that approach God and those that have been cast out of heaven? Can a soul return in this life to speak or show itself? How would the propagation of the human species, which God willed, be possible without original sin?! Here was impertinence indeed. For the church, simply posing such questions was the sign of a rash mind, busying itself with secrets that God had not revealed. Even worse, Frederick looked for answers not in the Bible but in Aristotle, and to that end he freely consulted with infidels. During the crusade of 1228–1229, he gave his ambassadors the assignment of asking certain "learned questions" of the Muslim sages; he personally interviewed the Spanish Jew Judah ben Salomon ha-Cohen Matqa, author of the Inquisitio sapientiae [Investigation of Knowledge]. To the Muslim philosopher from Andalusia, 'Abd al-Hakk ibn Sab'in, himself somewhat unorthodox, he sent a list of leading questions, known as the Sicilian Questions. Ibn Sab'in himself summarized the list:

A document containing these questions had been sent by the Emperor to the East, that is, to Egypt, Syria, Iraq ... and Yemen, but the responses of the Muslim philosophers of these countries failed to fulfill the prince's intent.... O prince worthy of being loved, you have said: "Wise Aristotle, in all his writings, clearly states that the world exists ab aeterno; no doubt he held that opinion, however, if he proved it, what are his arguments?" ... O king, you have asked: "What is the goal of theology and what are the indispensable preliminary theories of this science, if indeed it has preliminary theories?" ... O prince ..., you have asked about the soul, without specifying what species of soul you were talking about.... Moreover, you added: "What is the indication of the immortality of the soul ... and if it is immortal?" ... You have requested a material explanation of these words of Mahomet, upon whom be peace: "The heart of the believer is between two fingers of the Merciful One."!

These questions reveal the recurring central themes in antireligious controversies: the eternity of the world, the immortality of the soul, the role of reason in theological speculation. Frederick II was one of those people whose curiosity seems insatiable; he never ceased asking the one question guaranteed to irritate all the clerics of the world: "Why?" This is the question that pushes the theologians' backs against the wall and forces them to pull out their weapon of last resort, the unanswerable argument that reduces such questioners to silence: God's intentions are impenetrable. But Frederick II was not to be placated with an answer that was no answer. He wanted to know, and to know everything, the how as well as the why. Thus, the Franciscan friar Salimbene, in his chronicle composed in the 1260s, accused him of devoting himself to abominable experiments: making a man die in a barrel in order to watch his soul leave the body, disemboweling another to study the workings of the human digestive system, sacrificing divers to explore the gulf of Messina, raising children in total isolation in order to see what language they would speak. For Salimbene, Frederick II showed evidence of "wicked presumption and madness; ... he was an atheist."

With that, the word was out, the curse, the ultimate accusation. Its indiscriminate use has continued to cause confusion right up to our day, when zealous philosophers try to restore its etymological purity. Some get worked up over how one can class as "atheists" all those who are simply heterodox, pantheists, theists, agnostics, libertines, and freethinkers. In fact, in the history of religious controversy, an atheist is one who does not believe in the existence of the god(s) of his adversary's religion. Use of the term is justified to the extent that, for the accuser, his is the only god; thus, to believe in another god is to believe in nothing—that is, a-theism.

Frederick II, however, was viewed as an atheist by all religions. "He was a materialist," wrote Sib? Ibn al-Djawzi. Christians could not stand the good relations he maintained with Muslims and Jews, even though this practice followed the tradition of the Norman kingdom of Sicily. The emperor took an interest in the philosophy of Maimonides, as explained to him by Moses ben Solomon of Salerno. At court, the Jew Jacob ben Abba Mari ben Samson Anatoli was a friend of Michael Scot, and the Muslim Ibn Wasil described the sovereign as a "distinguished and cultivated man, a friend of philosophy, of logic, and of medicine, and favorable to the Muslims." The story was told that in Palestine he had been in contact with the "Old Man of the Mountain," the chief of the sect of Assassins, who in Frederick's day was painted as a master of imposture—a long-lived myth. He was rumored to recruit young men, who were forced to lead a very hard life for years. Then, they were given a big dose of hashish and left in an enchanting place surrounded by fountains, greenery, and plenty of (willing) virgins. They were told that this was paradise, something they had no trouble believing. Upon their return to "earth," they were ready to take all kinds of risks, including suicide attacks, in order to return to "paradise" as quickly as possible.

In the emperor's eyes, Aristotle, Averroes, and Maimonides were more worthy of belief than Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, and he had nothing but sarcasm for Christian miracles, such as the Immaculate Conception. "How much longer can such a deception last?" he is said to have remarked at the sight of a priest on his way to administer the last rites. Likewise, he is supposed to have confided to his circle that "the soul dissipates like a breath and rots like an apple, given that fruit, like man, is made up of four essences."

This notorious reputation, in which it is impossible to distinguish reality from fable, was constructed within the emperor's own lifetime by chroniclers, all of whom were clerics, and who repeated the pope's accusations: a man like that, who had no respect for Yahweh, or God, or Allah, could only have seen Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as impostors. This was repeated in unison by Alberic of Trois-Fontaines, Matthew Paris, and the authors of the Chronicle of Augsburg and the Life of Gregory IX. According to the last of these, Frederick became convinced of this blasphemy "through trafficking with Greeks and Arabs, who promised him universal rule through knowledge of the stars and made him so infatuated that he believed himself to be a god ... and said aloud that three impostors had come to seduce mankind. He added that his own task was to destroy a fourth imposture tolerated by the simple folk, which is the authority of the pope." In 1245, at the Council of Lyons, the papal representative, Albert Behaim, called Frederick II a "new Lucifer. He has waged an assault upon heaven, to elevate his own throne above the stars, to become superior to the Vicar of God.... He has wished to usurp divine rights, alter the eternal alliance established by the Gospel, change the laws and the living conditions of men.... This so-called emperor is no more than a Herod, an enemy of the Christian religion, of the Catholic faith, and of the liberty of the Church."


Excerpted from The Atheist's Bible by Georges Minois Copyright © 2012 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF CHICAGO PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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