Was the Apostle Paul a Book Burner?
Paul warned that Christ followers would be slandered. A book review in Nature shows it is still going on.
In Nature recently (18 March), Robert P. Crease reviewed his own book – a practice that is quite unusual. At least we know what the author thinks of his own words. That Nature printed it without any criticism tells us that the journal editors pretty much agree with him. Their headline reads, “The rise and fall of scientific authority — and how to bring it back; Robert P. Crease harks back to the shapers of our scientific infrastructure and what they can tell us about how to handle the threat we now face.” Watch for the bogeyman!
So what does Robert say about his own book under Nature‘s imprimatur? The title is, The Workshop and the World: What Ten Thinkers Can Teach Us About Science and Authority Robert P. Crease W. W. Norton (2019). His first paragraph is accompanied by a large facsimile of a piece of art at the Louvre which he describes:
Hanging in the Louvre Museum in Paris is an imposing painting, The Preaching of St Paul at Ephesus. In this 1649 work by Eustache Le Sueur, the fiery apostle lifts his right hand as if scolding the audience, while clutching a book of scripture in his left. Among the rapt or fearful listeners are people busily throwing books into a fire. Look carefully, and you see geometric images on some of the pages.
The not-so-subtle message hinges on Galileo Galilei’s famous statement in 1623 that the book of nature is written in mathematical figures — implying that those who decipher it speak as authoritatively as clerics. That was religious heresy.
By implication, Paul the Apostle is directing a book-burning campaign – including books of science! Images of Hitler come to mind. Can it be that the humble apostle of love (I Corinthians 13, Ephesians 4:1-3), truth (Ephesians 4:15) and righteousness (Ephesians 4:24) would do such a thing? The man who traveled thousands of miles preaching the grace of God to Gentiles, with the inclusive message that both men and women, slaves and free, Jews and Gentiles, barbarians, Scythians and everyone could all be one in Christ, was a book burner? The man who suffered countless dangers and persecutions himself, including stonings, beatings and imprisonment would persecute those who simply wanted to understand the natural world? What would have motivated Le Sueur to paint such a scene?
The book-burning incident comes from the New Testament book of Acts, chapter 19, quoted here in full:
13 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists undertook to invoke the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul proclaims.”14 Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this.15 But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I recognize, but who are you?” 16 And the man in whom was the evil spirit leaped on them, mastered all of them and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. 17 And this became known to all the residents of Ephesus, both Jews and Greeks. And fear fell upon them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was extolled. 18 Also many of those who were now believers came, confessing and divulging their practices.19 And a number of those who had practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all. And they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver. 20 So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily. (Acts 19:13-20, ESV)
Several key evidences from this passage exonerate the apostle of the grace of God from any allegations of book burning.
- There is no indication that Paul ordered, directed, or defended the book burning. Since Luke is writing about the incident, there is no proof that Paul even knew it was going on at the time. Nowhere does he commend such an action.
- The passage says that “a number” of people did it, not everybody.
- The passage indicates that those who burned their own books did it freely out of their own will, not at the direction of Paul or anyone else. This was their personal decision about what to do with their own property after turning from the occult to the true God. Since nowhere else in Scripture is book burning advocated, it is highly doubtful Paul would have ordered such a thing.
- The books were not books of science; they were books of pseudoscience! They were books of “magic arts” including curses, incantations and attempts to manipulate mystical powers outside of nature for their own selfish interests. Such matters are at polar opposites of science, and of the message of Paul and Jesus.
- The ones who burned their own books were “those who had practiced magic arts” like the sons of Sceva. They were the farthest thing possible from students of science! When they witnessed the spectacular failure of those who dabbled in controlling evil spirits, and saw, by contrast, the power of “the Jesus whom Paul proclaims,” they wanted nothing more to do with matters of darkness and ignorance.
- Additionally, though they could have sold the books for “fifty thousand pieces of silver,” they didn’t want their books to remain and potentially lead others into occultic dangers.
Other passages in the New Testament show Paul’s attitude as friendly to science. For instance:
- In I Thessalonians 5:21, Paul says “test everything; hold fast what is good.” That is the heart of science: testability.
- In Acts 17:11, he commended the Bereans as “more noble” than others, because they searched the Scriptures for evidence that what Paul preached was indeed true. He didn’t expect his listeners to take his word for it.
- In Philippians 4:13, he says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”
- Most importantly, he advocated testing the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection. In I Corinthians 15, he listed the eyewitnesses who saw Jesus alive, including 500 who saw him at one time. Many were still alive, he mentioned, and could be interviewed. Also in Acts 17, he appealed to verifiable evidence for God, both to the Gentiles in Lystra and to the scholars in Athens.
- Luke, the writer of Acts, also told his reader Theophilus that Jesus showed himself alive “by many infallible proofs” (Acts 1:3). Both Paul and Luke valued truth ascertained by evidence and invited their readers and hearers to test their claims with verifiable facts they could investigate themselves.
For these and other reasons, the painting by Le Sueur and the allegations by Richard Crease amount to slanderous attacks against a righteous historical figure who brought peace and unity to a world lost in the darkness of superstition and the occult. Not all books are equally valuable, anyway. What would Crease wish to do with a book on how to make a hydrogen bomb at home, or how to make a pressure cooker bomb and sneak it into a crowded place? The issue of “book burning” leaves this question unaddressed. Since Crease is slandering Paul in particular, what does he think of promoting copies of the New Testament, which contains Paul’s story and 14 of his letters? (see commentary below). What does Crease think the Ephesians should have done with their books of magic arts and pseudoscientific falsehoods?
Crease continues his attack against Paul, with Galileo as his hero, using fake history and his straw bogeyman to suggest that Christians (like Paul the falsely-alleged book burner) are intolerant of science. Thus he perpetuates the “warfare thesis” of science vs religion which has been repeatedly debunked by historians of science (see our biography of Galileo).
Today, St Paul is making a comeback: the authority of science is again under attack. In areas of national and global consequence — from climate to medicine —political leaders feel confident that they can reject scientific claims, substituting myths and cherry-picked facts. I have spent five years investigating why this has happened and what can be done.
But would Paul have approved of the religious censorship against Galileo? Most assuredly not. Paul would have recognized the church of the 17th century as heretical, far removed from the gospel of Jesus he preached, and illustrative of the false teachers he warned about to the very elders in Ephesus where the book burning had occurred years earlier. Does this man sound like a book burner? Look into his heart in Acts 20:
I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; 30 and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them. 31 Therefore be alert, remembering that for three years I did not cease night or day to admonish every one with tears. 32 And now I commend you to God and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified. 33 I coveted no one’s silver or gold or apparel. 34 You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my necessities and to those who were with me. 35 In all things I have shown you that by working hard in this way we must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’”
The “Galileo myth” is one of seven myths that historian of science Dr Michael Keas discusses in his new book, Unbelievable: 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion. In Evolution News, Keas points out how “the Galileo myth goes marching on” in spite of numerous debunkings by historians (also hear him discuss it on ID the Future). Keas even argues that atheists – not Christians – are now embracing the occult.
As for “scientific authority” that Nature worries about falling, is not authority the very concept that science rose to challenge? The statement is an oxymoron: science is the opposite of authority. Nullius in verba was the motto of the Royal Society for the Advancement of Natural Knowledge: “on the word of no one,” meaning “nothing by mere statements by authority.” Scientists should “Test all things; hold fast that which is good.” Preach it, brother Paul.
The pompous, self-righteous, misinformed statements by author Robert P. Crease should make him ashamed of himself. Not only is he perpetuating fake history about a great man—Paul—Crease is a radical censor himself! While book burning is perhaps the most permanent form of censorship, Darwin-worshipers, among whom Crease fellowships, have other effective ways of “burning” the memory of books he doesn’t like: books by creationists with PhDs in science, books by advocates of intelligent design who are similarly well-informed and well-qualified in science to critique the reigning dogma of Darwinism. In his Slaughter of the Dissidents trilogy, especially vol. 3, Censoring the Darwin Skeptics, Dr Jerry Bergman documents pervasive and active censorship of anti-Darwin books in libraries, in bookstores, in academia, in funding sources and in mainstream media. (A Darwin skeptic is not necessarily a creationist or ID advocate, but someone who merely doubts the ability of mutation and selection to explain life. That’s enough to get censored by the DODO crowd.) Such censorship is equally effective as book burning.
So let us ask Crease for his opinion: what should be done with intelligent design books and creation books? Should they be freely available on shelves in the Science section? Should they be sold and advertised? Should students have opportunities to read the evidence presented by scientifically qualified Darwin skeptics? Do you, Robert Crease, support the free exchange of ideas in science? Do you disavow the censorship that is going on? If yes, then we advise you to read some of the best works yourself, like Signature in the Cell and Undeniable and others by PhD scientists. But if you are a DODO head, you belong in Le Sueur’s painting, your face instead of Paul’s, and your hated books in the fire.