Bruce Metzger, in what seems like a lifetime ago, was once the head of the RSV translation committee. He told the tale of how, when it came out, a certain fundamentalist Baptist Church in my home state of N.C. saw fit to blow torch a whole pile of them, as somehow a translation that polluted and subverted the holy KJV. After reporting this incident, which transpired in the 1950s, he quipped: “Well at least we are making progress. We use to burn the translators themselves (e.g. Tyndale), now we just burn the books.” Burning books is a subject that makes some of us burning mad, and it is an appropriate subject to discuss in light of the fact that everybody and his brother has a theory, involving fire, about what happened to the ancient world famous library at Alexandria.
For some time now there has been a fine book by an Italian classics scholar named Luciano Canfora entitled The Vanishing Library. A Wonder of the Ancient World (U. of California Press, 1990). It is well worth the read, even though its arcane and scholarly diction may prove somewhat impenetrable to the casual reader. It is, for example loaded with parenthetical references and scholia along the way, the very stuff of which dissertations are made, and by which sleep is induced amongst those not inclined in scholarly directions. But I digress.
It is the thesis of Luciano that the fire caused by Julius Caesar in the first century B.C. in Alexandria had to do with scrolls kept in warehouses near the docks, and had nothing to do with the loss of the vast and famous library at Alexandria. Indeed, as Luciano does his detective work, he shows how the aforementioned library continued to exist right up into the 7th century when the Caliph in Constantinople finally ordered the burning of all books in Alexandria that did not honor Allah. This alas, would include both pagan and Christian ones alike. In other words, the bulk of the library out lived Caesar by some eight centuries.
As Canfora also demonstrates, one of the problems with the whole discussion is what counts as a library, and where was it housed in Alexandria? First of all he painstakingly takes time to demonstrate that the Greek word bibliotheke does not literally mean a library. It literally refers to a shelf on which books are placed. He stresses this because too often scholars have simply assumed that the word referred to a purpose built building which houses scrolls, then codexes, and finally books in the modern sense of the word. No, says Canfora, this is anachronistic thinking. In antiquity there were: 1) basically no public libraries; 2) definitely no lending libraries; and 3) all actual libraries were either associated with a palace (and so the ruler’s library), or a temple (and so the priests and scribes and scholars library), or with a wealthy individual, and so a private library. To this I would add the holdings that schools of rhetoric and philosophy held as well.
Much of the book is taken up with demonstrating, by means of exploring ancient buildings, why no archaeologist can really find separate buildings called libraries. It is because they were simply parts of temples or palaces or even in some cases tomb complexes. He shows how in the case of Egypt what is referred to by the word bibliotheke is the shelves in niches in rooms in a Serapeum or a palace where the scrolls would be laid.
What happened to ancient scrolls, besides loss due to fire, was loss due to deterioration. One of the reasons scrolls from antiquity have basically only been found in places like the Dead Sea or the deserts of Egypt is because of course papyrus is vegetable matter. In the damper climes of a Galilee or various places in Turkey, Greece, or Italy, they would deteriorate, sadly. Canfora shows how this happened to precious collections of Aristotle’s works originally in the Academy in Athens, then in the possession of one of Aristotle’s students, then buried (!!!) in wet ground), then dug up in pathetic shape, then taken to Rome and sold to the wealthy. As it turns out in the first century A.D. many well to do Romans with too much money and too much time on their hands were bookaholics.
Also along the way in this fascinating study, Canfora shows how badly mistaken Edward Gibbon was in railing against ancient Christians for being mainly responsible for destroying Latin and Greek classics right, left, and center. Yes, there was one benighted Bishop named Theophilus who went to burning scrolls in Egypt he deemed beyond the pale, but this was entirely atypical. In fact we may thank the monks and monasteries for preserving the classics, and Jewish lore such as Josephus, not to mention even Gnostic literature until it was banned by Athanasius in the 4th century. Christians do not deserve the reputation as book burners in general though there are notable and notorious exceptions to this rule ( see Acts 19.19– they are not burning Cicero or Virgil, they are burning incantation or magical papyri).
And as for the astronomical figures predicated of the number of ‘books’ in the Alexandrian palace library, Canfora rightly reminds us that that a scroll does not constitute a whole book in many cases. We should not think the famous Isaiah scroll from the Dead Sea was at all typical. Many works were on multiple papyrus rolls, necessarily so. A guesstimation would be that if there were say 100,000 scrolls in the Alexandrian library, we might be talking about 40-50,000 individual works. Alas, what is true is that much has been lost from antiquity, both of Christian works, and of the classics. This is what makes it exciting when new finds are uncovered by archaeologists.
In regard to Canfora’s book I would urge you to heed the exhortation Augustine once heard over his back fence— ‘pick it up and read it’.