The Bible Attacked
THE collection of writings that we know as the Bible, or the Holy Scriptures, was recorded over a period of more than 1,600 years. The earliest part of this collection was penned by Moses; the last, by a disciple of Jesus Christ about a hundred years after His birth.
Efforts to silence the Scriptures have a long history extending from well before our Common Era, through the Middle Ages, and down to modern times. An early record of such efforts dates back to the time of God’s prophet Jeremiah, who lived over 600 years before the birth of Jesus Christ.
An Unpopular Message Attacked
The prophet Jeremiah was directed by God to write in a scroll a message condemning the sinful inhabitants of ancient Judah and warning them that their capital city, Jerusalem, would be destroyed unless they changed their ways. Jeremiah’s secretary, Baruch, read the message aloud, in public in Jerusalem’s temple. He read it a second time in the hearing of Judah’s princes, who took the scroll to King Jehoiakim. As the king listened to God’s words, he did not like what he heard. So he cut the scroll into pieces and burned it.—Jeremiah 36:1-23.
Then God ordered Jeremiah: “Take again for yourself a roll, another one, and write on it all the first words that proved to be on the first roll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah burned up.” (Jeremiah 36:28) Some 17 years later, exactly as God’s word through Jeremiah had foretold, Jerusalem was destroyed, many of its rulers were slain, and its inhabitants were taken into exile in Babylon. The message that scroll conveyed—and a record of the circumstances surrounding the attack made upon it—have survived until our day in the Bible book of Jeremiah.
Bible Burnings Continue
Jehoiakim was not the only person in pre-Christian times who attempted to burn God’s Word. Following the breakup of the Greek Empire, Israel came under the influence of the Seleucid dynasty. The Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes, who ruled from 175 to 164 B.C.E., wanted to unite his empire in Greek, or Hellenistic, culture. To that end, he attempted to force Greek ways, customs, and religion on the Jews.
About 168 B.C.E., Antiochus plundered Jehovah’s temple in Jerusalem. Atop the altar, he built another in honor of the Greek god Zeus. Antiochus also prohibited the observance of the Sabbath and commanded the Jews to leave their sons uncircumcised. The penalty for noncompliance was death.
An element of that religious purge was Antiochus’ attempt to eliminate all scrolls of the Law. Although Antiochus pursued his campaign throughout Israel, he failed to destroy all copies of the Hebrew Scriptures. Some carefully-concealed scrolls may well have escaped the flames inside Israel, and copies of the Holy Scriptures were known to have been preserved by colonies of Jews living elsewhere.
Another prominent ruler who tried to destroy the Scriptures was the Roman Emperor Diocletian. In 303 C.E., Diocletian promulgated a series of increasingly harsh edicts against Christians. This resulted in what some historians have termed “The Great Persecution.” His first edict ordered the burning of copies of the Scriptures and the demolition of Christian meeting places. Harry Y. Gamble, professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, wrote: “Diocletian took it for granted that every Christian community, wherever it might be, had a collection of books and knew that those books were essential to its viability.” Church historian Eusebius of Caesarea, Palestine, who lived during that period, reported: “We saw with our very eyes the houses of prayer cast down to their foundations from top to bottom, and the inspired and sacred Scriptures committed to the flames in the midst of the market-places.”
Three months after Diocletian’s edict, the mayor of the North African city of Cirta, which is now known as Constantine, is said to have ordered the Christians to hand over all their “writings of the law” and “copies of scripture.” Accounts of the same period tell of Christians who preferred to be tortured and killed rather than to hand over copies of the Bible to be destroyed.
The Intent of the Attacks
The shared intent of Jehoiakim, Antiochus, and Diocletian was to wipe out—yes, to obliterate—God’s Word. Yet the Bible survived all attempts to destroy it. Rulers of Rome after Diocletian began to profess a conversion to Christianity. However, attacks on the Bible continued. Why?
The rulers and the church leaders claimed that Bible burnings were not attempts to destroy the Bible. Rather, these men were simply trying to keep the Bible out of the hands of the common people. But why would church leaders want to do that? And to what lengths did the church go in their efforts to suppress Bible reading? Let us see.