Today Christians in the Western world are typically living in a post-Christian society. Christian beliefs are met with skepticism, and people see little reason to believe. Christians are confronted with daily challenges to their faith, and often struggle to understand the relevance of Christianity to modern life.
Archive for the ‘Christian Atrocities’ Category
Hypatia has been depicted as a revolutionary woman scientist, the last of the ancient pagan scientists, a representative of feminist values, and the designer of the astrolabe and hydrometer.  Her death has been considered exemplary of the intolerance of religion, and the death of Greek science. 
Hypatia was a neo-Platonist lecturer and scholar in 4th century Alexandria (Egypt), who taught mathematics and astronomy to members of the privileged elite as part of the mysteries of Neoplatonism.
She was not the first woman ‘scientist’ or mathematician.   Her position as a teacher of men did not threaten the existing social or religious order. She did not invent the astrolabe,  and there is no evidence she invented the hydrometer.
Her earliest historian (a Christian), praised her and condemned her murderers. She is quoted as having expressed many rationalist ideals,     but these are all fictional.     
 ‘Hypatia of Alexandria (ca. 370–415) Egyptian astronomer, philosopher, teacher, and mathematician regarded as the first woman scientist, and the first woman to contribute to the study of mathematics.’. Todd, ‘The Facts on File Algebra Handbook’, p. 66 (2003).
 ‘Alic, Margaret. Hypatia’s Heritage: A History of women in Science from Antiquity Through the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Beacon and London: Women’s Press, 1986. Examines biographical and scientific evidence to reveal the lives and accomplishments of women in natural and physical sciences and mathematics. The material dealing with Hypatia claims for her the roles of the last important pagan scientist in the western world, and the representative of end [sic] of ancient science.’, Magill, Moose, & Aves (eds.), ‘Dictionary of World Biography: The ancient world’, p. 583 (1998).
 ‘Little known for centuries, Hypatia emerged in the nineteenth century as a symbol for feminists of the historical suppression of women’s accomplishments.’, McIntyre, ‘Hypatia’, in Traver (ed.), ‘From polis to empire, the ancient world, c. 800 B.C.-A.D. 500: A Biographical Dictionary’, The Great Cultural Eras of the Western World, p. 205 (2001).
 ‘Synesius refers to two mechanical devices, a hydrometer and a silver astrolabe, that he and Hypatia invented‘. Rosser, ‘Women, Science, and Myth: Gender beliefs from antiquity to the present’, p. 13 (2008).
 ‘Synesius of Cyrene (North Africa) a student of Hypatia, credited her with the invention of apparatus for distilling water and measuring the level of liquids.’, Lumpkin, ‘Hypatia and Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt’, in Van Sertima (ed.), ‘Black Women in Antiquity’, p. 155 (1984).
 ‘Usually interpreted as an illustration of barbaric religious fanaticism and intolerance for humanistic inquiry,’, Naylor, ‘North Africa: a history from antiquity to the present’, p. 51 (2009).
 ‘Her death presents the perfect symbol of the end of the classical world, the end for a long time of the possibility of disinterested scientific inquiry.’, Whaley, ‘Women’s history as scientists: a guide to the debates’, p. 19 (2003).
 ‘Van der Waerden reiterates the theme that Alexandrian science ceased with her death:’, Dzielska, ‘Hypatia of Alexandría’, p. 25 (1995).
 ‘They were from wealthy and influential families; in time they attained posts of state and ecclesiastical eminence. Around their teacher these students formed a community based on the Platonic system of thought and interpersonal ties. They called the knowledge passed on to them by their ‘divine guide’ mysteries. They held it secret, refusing to share it with people of lower social rank, whom they regarded as incapable of comprehending divine and cosmic matters.’, ibid., p. 105.
 To her disciples Hypatia was a medium of divinely revealed truths.
 In Hypatia’s day there was actually no such thing as a ‘scientist’ in the modern sense of the term, only the ‘natural philosopher’, who studied the natural world and typically combined observations with religious and philosophical commentary.
 ‘She [Dzielska] also unearths a number of references to women in the late Greek philosophical world, which show Hypatia’s example to be not so unusual as had been thought.’, Hodgkin, ‘A history of mathematics: from Mesopotamia to modernity’, p. 72 (2005).
 ‘(Incidentally, Hypatia is not the earliest known woman mathematician; Pappus had directed a polemic against a female teacher of mathematics named Pandrosion, and a certain Ptolemais is quoted in Porphyry’s commentary on Ptolemy’s Harmonics.)’, Jones, ‘Later Greek and Byzantime mathematics’, in Grattan-Guinness (ed.), ‘Companion Encyclopedia of the History and Philosophy of the Mathematicla Sciences’, volume 1, p. 65 (2003).
 ‘Hypatia, after all, wasn’t the first woman philosopher. The Project on the History of Women in Philosophy amply documented that there were many women philosophers before Hypatia; she didn’t come along unti lafter the fourth century A.D. Among those who preceded her were numbers of Pythagorean women philosophers from the sixth to the third or second century B.C. and others -‘, McAlister, ‘Hypatia’s Daughters: fifteen hundred years of women philosophers’, p. x (1996).
 ‘The highly public nature of Hypatia’s career was consistent with the African tradition of Egyptian women,’, Lumpkin, ‘Hypatia and Women’s Rights in Ancient Egypt’, in Van Sertima (ed.), ‘Black Women in Antiquity’, pp. 155-156 (1984).
 ‘The invention of the astrolabe is usually attributed to Hipparchus of the second century BC. But there is no firm evidence to support this view. It is however certain that the instrument was well known to the Greeks before the beginning of the Christian era.’, Sarma, ‘The Archaic and the Exotic: studies in the history of Indian astronomical instruments’, p. 241 (2008).
 ‘It is generally accepted that Greek astrologers, in either the 1st or 2nd centuries BCE, invented the astrolabe‘, Krebs, ‘Groundbreaking Scientific Experiments, Inventions, and Discoveries of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance’, p. 196 (2004).
 *In fact her student Synesius wrote her a letter telling her how to make one for him, and explaining how to use it; ‘I am in such evil fortune that I need a hydroscope. See that one is cast in brass for me and put together. The instrument in question is a cylindrical tube, which has the shape of a flute and is about the same size. It has notches in a perpendicular line, by means of which we are able to test the weight of the waters. A cone forms a lid at one of the extremities, closely fitted to the tube. The cone and the tube have one base only. This is called the baryllium. Whenever you place the tube in water, it remains erect. You can then count the notches at your ease, and in this way ascertain the weight of the water.’ Fitzgerald, ‘The Letters of Synesius of Cyrene’, p. 99 (1926).
 ‘As the Czech historian Maria Dzielska documents in a recent biography, Hypatia got caught up in a political struggle between Cyril, an ambitious and ruthless churchman eager to extend his authority, and Hypatia’s friend Orestes, the imperial prefect who represented the Roman Empire.’, Lindberg, ‘Myth 1: That the Rise of Christianity Was Responsible For the Demise of Ancient Science’, in Numbers (ed.), ‘Galileo Goes to Jail: and other myths about science and religion’, p. 9 (2009).
 ‘her death had everything to do with local politics and virtually nothing to do with science. Cyril’s crusade against pagans came later. Alexandrian science and mathematics prospered for decades to come.’, ibid., p. 9.
 ‘That Synesius, a Christian, maintained such close ties with the Greek intellectual traditions and with his teacher Hypatia, suggests that a hybrid amalgam existed between the intellectual pagan and intellectual Christian traditions.’, Wessel, ‘Cyril of Alexandria and the Nestorian controversy: the making of a’, p. 54 (2004).
 ‘Among Christian intellectual elites, this Neoplatonic variety of paganism posed no real threat to their theological views. Such easy coexistence between certain pagan and Christian intellectuals suggests that Hypatia’s paganism per se may not have angered Cyril as much as John of Nikiu claimed.’, ibid., p. 54.
 ‘Hypatia was a pagan, but she had a lot of students who were Christians and maybe even a few Jewish students.’, Moore & Bruder, ‘Philosophy: the power of ideas’, p. 85 (2001).
 ‘Pagan religiosity did not expire with Hypatia, and neither did mathematics and Greek philosophy. (Dzielska 1995, p. 105).’, Hodgkin, ‘A history of mathematics: from Mesopotamia to modernity’, p. 72 (2005).
 Socrates Scholasticus, ‘Historia Ecclesiastica’ (c. 439).
 ‘Hypatia was unimpressed with what she called religious superstition. She once described how she felt “truth” was different from religious beliefs: “Men will fight for superstition as quickly as for the living truth – even more so, since superstition is intangible, you can’t get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”‘, Donovan, ‘Hypatia: Mathematician, Inventor, and Philosopher’, p. 43 (2008).
 ‘Making matters even worse, Hypatia made public statements against organized religion: All formal… religions are delusive [able to easily mislead people] and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final.’, p. 48.
 ‘As Hypatia explained, “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”‘, p. 43.
 ‘She also warned about the dangers of teaching children myths and fairy tales: Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truth is a most terrible thing. The mind of a child accepts them, and only through great pain, perhaps even tragedy, can the child be relieved of them.’, ibid., p. 42; this is sometimes understood as advice against teaching religion to children.
 This has derived support from Lynn Osen’s ‘Women in Mathematics’ (1975), which ironically does not attribute these statements to her at all, but to her father Theon; ‘”All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final,” he told her. “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all” (Hubbard 1908, p. 82).’, Osen, ‘Women in Mathematics’, p. 24 (1975).
 ‘The most creative is the exciting account of Hypatia’s educational training and life composed by Elbert Hubbard in 1908, who made up most of it to compensate for the lack of historical evidence. He even invented quotations that he attributed to Hypatia, and had a suitably ‘ancient’-looking picture of her in profile drawn to illustrate the piece.’, Cohen, ‘Philosophical Tales: being an alternative history revealing the characters, the plots, and the hidden scenes that make up the True Story of Philosophy’, p. 47 (2008); all quotations attributed to Hypatia or her father are the invention of Hubbard, who had no historical training.
 ‘”All formal dogmatic religions are fallacious and must never be accepted by self-respecting persons as final,” said Theon to Hypatia. “Reserve your right to think, for even to think wrongly is better than not to think at all.”‘, Hubbard, ‘Little journeys to the Homes of Great Teachers: Hypatia’, pp. 82-83 (1908).
 ‘Said Hypatia, “Fables should be taught as fables, myths as myths, and miracles as poetic fancies. To teach superstitions as truths is a most terrible thing. The child-mind accepts and believes them, and only through great pain and perhaps tragedy can he be in after-years relieved of them. In fact, men will fight for a superstition quite as quickly as for a living truth – often more so, since a superstition is so intangible you can not get at it to refute it, but truth is a point of view, and so is changeable.”’, ibid., pp. 84-85.
 ‘In his ability to see the good in all things Hypatia placed Plotinus ahead of Plato, but then she says, “Had there been no Plato there would have been no Plotinus, and although Plotinus surpassed Plato, yet it is plain that Plato, the inspirer of Plotinus and so many more, is the one man whom philosophy cannot spare. Hail Plato!!”‘, ibid., p. 93
 ‘”To rule by fettering the mind through fear of punishment in another world, is just as base as to use force,” said Hypatia in one of her lectures.’, ibid., p. 99.
Between 40,000 and 60,000 people died in the witch hunts of the Early Modern period. Three developments in Christian doctrine contributed: 1) a return to belief in witches, 2) changes in the doctrine of Satan, 3) the identification of witchcraft as heresy.
Mainstream medieval Christian teaching denied the existence of witches and witchcraft, as mere pagan superstition.   Examples include an Irish synod in 800,  Agobard of Lyons,  Hrabanus Maurus, the Canon Episcopi edited by Regino of Prüm, the Council of Anse, Buchard of Worms, John of Salisbury, Pope Gregory VII,  and Serapion of Vladimire.  The traditional charges and punishments were likewise condemned. 
Christian influence failed to eradicate traditional beliefs, and later developments in the doctrine of Satan proved influential in reversing the previous dismissal of witches and witchcraft as superstition. These beliefs became included in a comprehensive doctrine of Satan,   but it was not until maleficium was identified with heresy that religious trials for witchcraft could start.
Doctrinal change was completed in the fifteenth century,  and new trials started.   Their promotion by Henricus Institoris met resistance in some areas, and his ‘Malleus Maleficarum’ was less influential than previous scholars once believed. 
 Fifteenth to eighteenth century.
 ‘One of the most persistent features of European world views, as we shall see, was the presence of humans who used magic to help or hurt their neighbours.’, Thurston, ‘Witch, Wicce, Mother Goose: The Rise and Fall of the Witch Hunts in Europe and North America’, p. 15 (2001).
 ‘The earliest law codes issued by the northern invaders of the Roman Empire specify penalties for women who were believed to go abroad at night and destroy men by magic.’, Hutton, ‘The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles’, p. 257 (1993).
 ‘Then these clauses were revoked, often explicitly at the insistence of churchmen. The Lombard code of 643 may serve as an example: ‘Let nobody presume to kill a foreign serving maid or female slave as a witch, for it [destruction by magic] is not possible, nor ought to be believed by Christian minds. In 789 Charlemagne imposed Christianity upon the people of Saxony, and proclaimed to them: ‘If anyone, deceived by the Devil, shall believe, as is customary among pagans, that any man or woman is a night-witch, and eats men, and on that account burn that person to death . . . he shall be executed.’12 Thus it might be argued that the spread of Christianity initially resulted in an improvement in the treatment of both religious dissenters and alleged witches.”, ibid., p. 257.
 ‘Likewise, the Lombard King Rothari (c. 606-52) decreed in 643 that Christians must not believe that women devour a human being from inside (ut mulier hominem vivum instrinsecus possit comedere), and therefore supposed witches (strigae) must not be killed, particularly not convicted in court.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, p. 30 (2004).
 ‘Indeed, in those parts of western Europe which were the home of, or taken over by, Germanic tribes, it seems that the Church ended a tradition of hunting and killing witches.’, Hutton, ‘The Pagan Religions of the Ancient British Isles”, p. 257 (1993).
 ‘Certainly the early Church cannot be held responsible for the mass burnings of heretics which commenced seven centuries after its installation in power, or the great witch hunt which began eleven centuries later. During that long interval, Christendom itself changed.’, ibid., p. 257.
 ‘Clearly, there was an increase in sceptical voices during the Carolingian period, even if we take into account an increase in surviving sources.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, p. 31 (2004).
 ‘Likewise, an Irish synod at around 800 condemned the belief in witches, and in particular those who slandered people for being lamias (que interpretatur striga).’, ibid., pp. 30-31.
 ‘A Crown witness of ‘Carolingian scepticism’, Archbishop Agobard of Lyon (769-840), reports witch panics during the reign of Charlemagne. In his sermon on hailstorms he reports frequent lynchings of supposed weather magicians (tempestarii), as well as of sorcerers, who were made responsible for a terrible livestock mortality in 810. According to Agobard, the common people in their fury over crop failure had developed the extravagant idea that foreigners were secretly coming with airships to strip their fields of crops, and transmit it to Magonia. These anxieties resulted in severe aggression, and on one occasion around 816, Agobard could hardly prevent a crowd from killing three foreign men and women, perceived as Magonian people. As their supposed homeland’s name suggests, the crop failure was associated with magic. The bishop emphasized that thunderstorms were caused exclusively by natural or divine agencies.’, ibid., pp. 54-55.
 ‘Hrabanus Maurus, Abbot of Fulda, wrote several attacks, including ‘On the magical arts’, much of which was derived from Isidore of Seville, on those who believed that magicians and sorcerers could accomplish anything that depended on their power alone.’, Jolly, Raudverre, & Peters, ‘Witchcraft and Magic in Europe: the Middle Ages’, p. 201 (2002).
 ‘One of the most important ecclesiastical documents of the Middle Ages was the Canon Episcopi, ca. 900, which defined witchcraft as Devil-worship, but declared it to be nothing more than a foolish idea.’, Guiley, ‘The Encyclopedia of Witches, Witchcraft, and Wicca’, p. 50 (2008).
 ‘Witchcraft beliefs however were not always endorsed by the upper levels of society. They were condemned as superstitious by the Council of Anse in 990 and by Buchard of Worms a few years after, as when John of Salisbury dismissed them as the imaginings of ‘a few poor men and ignorant women, with no real faith in God.’, Moore, ‘The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250 ‘, p. 133 (2007).
 ‘In 1080 Harold of Denmark (r. 1076-80) was admonished not to hold old women and Christian priests responsible for storms and diseases, or to slaughter them in the cruellest manner. Like Agobard before him, Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-85) declared in his letter to the Danish king that these catastrophes were caused by God alone, that they were God’s punishment for human sins, and that the killing of the innocent would only increase His fury.”, ibid., p. 55.
 ‘Witches were executed at Novgorod in 1227, and after a severe famine in the years 1271-4 Bishop Serapion of Vladimire asked in a sermon: ‘you believe in witchcraft and burn innocent people and bring down murder upon earth and the city… Out of what books or writings do you learn that famine in earth is brought about by witchcraft?‘, ibid., p. 56.
 ‘A capitulary of Charlemagne (747-814) for the Saxons in 787 imposed the death penalty on those who, like pagans, believed that a man or woman could be a striga, one who devours humans, and burned them.”, ibid., p. 30.
 ‘A decree of King Coloman of Hungary (c. 1074-116, r. 1095-1116) against the belief in the existence of strigae (De strigis vero que non sunt, ne ulla questio fiat) suggests that they were thought to be human beings with demonic affiliation: witches.’, ibid., p 32.
 Study after study has shown how, all over Europe, ordinary people regularly appealed not to their own consciences, or to the conscience of the Church, but to local practitioners skilled in healing, divination, and astrology for help with their everyday problems. They did this frequently in cases of suspected maleficium, but any kind of misfortune, anticipated or experienced, could justify a visit to the ‘cunning’ man or woman.’, Clark, ‘Thinking With Demons: the Idea of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe’, p. 457 (1999).
 ‘Early Christian theologians attributed to the Devil responsibility for persecution, heresy, witchcraft, sin, natural disasters, human calamities, and whatever else went wrong. One tragic consequence of this was a tendency to demonize people accused of wrongs. At the instance of ecclesiastical leaders, the state burned heretics and witches, burning symbolizing the fate deserved by the demonic.’, Hinson, ‘Historical and Theological Perspectives on Satan’, Review and Expositor (89.4.475), (Fall 1992).
 ‘Trevor-Roper has said that it was necessary for belief in the Kingdom of Satan to die before the witch theory could be discredited.’, Larner, ‘Crime of Witchcraft In Early Modern Europe’, in Oldridge, ‘The Witchcraft Reader’, p. 211 (2002).
 ‘Christian theology underwent a major shift of attitude only during the thirteenth century. In his Summa contra Gentiles, Thomas Aquinas (1255-74) not only confirmed Augustine’s semiotic theory, according to which spells, amulets or magical rituals indicated a secret pact with demons, but gave the impression that sorcerers, through the support of the devil, could physically commit their crimes.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, pp. 35-36 (2004).
 ‘Sorcery was, however, still subject to secular law and secular courts, since the main indictment was maleficium. Subsequent inquisitors like Nicolas Eymeric (c. 1320-99), inquisitor of Aragon, in his Directorium Inquisitorum of 1376 equated sorcerers with heretics because both were supposed to adore the devil. Sorcery, or witchcraft, was thus redefined as a spiritual crime, subject primarily to ecclesiastical courts, and the Inquisition in particular.’, ibid., p. 36.
 ‘We are reasonably confident today that the ‘classical’ doctrine of witchcraft crystallized during the middle third of the fifteenth century’, ibid., pp. 18-19.
 ‘By the end of the fifteenth century, scattered trials for witchcraft by both secular and ecclesiastical courts occurred in many places from the Pyrenees, where the Spanish Inquisition had become involved, to the North Sea.’, ibid., p. 19.
 ‘In Switzerland, the rustic ‘forest cantons’ of the original Confederation apparently remained unaffected by witch trials until after 1560.’, Behringer, ‘Witches and Witch-hunts: a Global History’, p. 19 (2004).
 ‘the first known witch-hunt in the kingdom of France began in the northern Pyrenees in the spring of 1562’, ibid., p. 21.
 ‘Germany was emphatically not the centre of this activity; Institoris encountered enormous hostility in the Austrian Alps, and absolutely no evidence exists that the publication of his Malleus started any chain of trials anywhere in the Empire.’, ibid., p. 19.
 ‘In its own day it was never accorded the unquestioned authority that modern scholars have sometimes given it. Theologians and jurists respected it as one among many informative books; its particular savage misogyny and its obsession with impotence were never fully accepted.’, Monter, ‘The Sociology of Jura Witchcraft’, in ‘The Witchcraft Reader’, p. 116 (2002)
 ‘The effect that the book had on witch-hunting is difficult to determine. It did not open the door ‘to almost indiscriminate prosecutions’ 50 or even bring about an immediate increase in the number of trials. In fact its publication in Italy was followed by a noticeable reduction in witchcraft cases.’, Levack, ‘The Witch-Hunt In Early Modern Europe’, p. 55 (2nd edition 1995).
Due to the strong support provided for the African slave trade by many Christians, and the well known historical resistance of Christians in the Southern States of the USA to the abolition of slavery, Christianity has acquired an unfortunate reputation for sanctioning and even encouraging slavery. Whilst it is certainly true that Christians have been responsible throughout the centuries for sanctioning, encouraging, and even enforcing slavery, it is also true that there has existed at the same time a strong Christian resistance to slavery.
The following is a brief historical review of Christian opposition to slavery from the 1st to the 19th centuries. Much of the following material has been taken from Edward Roger’s comprehensive work ‘Slavery Illegality in All Ages and Nations‘ (1855).
1st-2nd centuries AD: Polycarp and Ignatius, Christian leaders, free their slaves
3rd century AD: Christians in Asia Minor ‘decried the lawfulness of it, denounced slaveholding as a sin, a violation of the law of nature and religion. They gave fugitive slaves asylum, and openly offered them protection’ (following the commandments in the Old and New Testaments)
3rd century AD: Cyprian, bishop of Carthage condemned a local slaveholder in uncompromising terms, condemning slavery as incompatible with Christianity:
‘You, man of a day, expect from your slave obedience. Is he less a man than you? By birth he is your equal. He is endowed with the same organs, with the same reasoning soul, called to the same hopes, subject to the same laws of life in this and in the world to come. You subject him to your dominion. If he, as a man, disregard or forget your claim, what miseries you heap upon him. Impious master, pitiless despot! You spare neither blows nor whips, nor privations; you chastise him with hunger and thirst, you load him with chains, you incarcerate him within black walls; miserable man! While you thus maintain your despotism over a man, you are not willing to recognize the Master and Lord of all men.’
2nd-4th centuries AD: Christians throughout the empire regularly collect money and go to the slave markets, buying slaves and setting them free immediately afterwards
4th century AD: The emperor Constantine gives bishops the authority to free slaves and forbids the separation of families who are, but maintains the old Roman punishments against runaway slaves, as well as the punishments masters were permitted to inflict on their slaves
The series on Christianity and the witch hunt era is almost completed. Here are the introductory articles:
* Article 1: Introduction and major arguments against common myths regarding the witch hunt era
* Article 2: The witch hunts were not ended by the rationalist ‘Enlightenment’
The next articles demonstrate that the witch hunts were uncharacteristic of historical Christianity. These articles are separated into different historical eras, describing Christian skepticism of beliefs in witches and witchcraft, as well as Christian protests against witch hunts, unjust trials, torture, and the death penalty:
* Article 3: 634-1539
* Article 4: 1540-1610
* Article 5: 1611-1627
* Article 6: 1631-1676
* Article 7: 1691-1695
* Article 8: 1649-1711
* Article 9: 1711-1720
* Article 10: 1720-1788
* Article 11: 1794
* 1794: William Ashdowne published ‘AN INQUIRY INTO THE Scripture Meaning of the Word SATAN, AND ITS SYNONIMOUS TERMS, The DEVIL, or the ADVERSARY, and the WICKED-ONE’, an enlarged edition of his previous pamphlet ‘An enquiry into the scripture meaning of the word Satan’ (1770).
Ashdowne addressed specifically the ‘angels which sinned’ in 2 Peter 2:4, and Jude 6, arguing that these were the ten unfaithful messengers sent to spy out the land of Cannaan, punished by death and reserved for judgment at Christ’s return. In his exposition he made the following important points:
* That the Greek and Hebrew word translated ‘angel’ simply means ‘messenger’ and can refer either to a heavenly being or a mortal man
* That the ‘chains of darkness’ in Jude are a reference to dead men being held in the grave (Ashdowne provides examples from Psalms and Proverbs of chains being used metaphorically in this way)
* That the only ‘evil angels’ in Scripture are the ‘destroying angels’ of Psalm 78:49 (obedient angels sent by God to punish Egypt)
Ashdowne demonstrated a familiarity with previous expositions of the subject, showing that there was a recognised continuity of authors and works opposing the previously unchallenged ‘orthodox’ beliefs:
‘The Notions concerning Dæmons, about our Saviour’s time, have been collected, from the best authorities, by Dr Lardner, in his Tracts; by Dr Newton, in his Dissertations on Prophecy; and lately by Mr Farmer, in his Dissertations on Miracles: It only remains, that we should search the Scriptures, and point out some Errors in the application of known Truths.’
William Ashdowne, ‘‘AN INQUIRY INTO THE Scripture Meaning of the Word SATAN, AND ITS SYNONIMOUS TERMS, The DEVIL, or the ADVERSARY, and the WICKED-ONE’, page 40, 1794
* 1680-171?: Sir Isaac Newton wrote extensively on the subject of the devil, demons, witchcraft, and ghosts, his views gradually developing over a long duration. The first signs of his abandonment of the ‘orthodox’ position are found in his writings of the 1680s, whilst his latest and most mature comments on the subject are dated to some time after 1710.
Newton’s views appear to have commenced with his unorthodox reflections on the serpent in Genesis 3, in the 1680s:
‘The first example of this kind comes from another prophetic manuscript, Yahuda MS 9, which dates from the 1680s and thus helps establish a terminus a quo for Newton’s departure from the orthodox view. In this manuscript Newton moves beyond mere description to conscious explication. The first reference to a serpent in the Bible is found in the account of the first human sin committed in the Garden of Eden, and it is to this account that Newton turns when tracing the original of the serpentine imagery of the “spirit of error”. Newton saw the serpent that tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as symbolic of the fleshly lust for her husband that filled her heart.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 5, November 2002
At this time Newton also expressed a disbelief in the existence of evil spirits:
The spirits of God of fals Prophets & of Antichrist are [in 1 John 4] plainly taken not for any substantial Spirits but for ye good or evil dispositions & true or fals perswasions of mens minds; & the spirits of all men who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is called in the singular number the spirit of Antichrist, & said to be come into the world as if it were an evil spirit wch was to reign therein & deceive all the followers of Antichrist. And such an evil spirit is the Dragon in the Apocalyps.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 6, November 2002
From this position, Newton moved to a rejection of belief in demons, using arguments similar to those proposed by Muggleton, Bekker, and Hutchinson, including the argument of accommodated language:
‘Newton’s views on demons follow a similar pattern. The traditional Christian conception of demons holds that they are fallen angels subordinate to the chief fallen angel, Satan. Not so with Newton. As with his view on the devil, Newton began to dismiss the reality of demons from the 1680s. Yahuda MS 9, the same document in which Newton treats the devil as a symbol of the “spirit of error”, demonstrates this:
From this figure of putting serpents for spirits & spirits or Daemons for distempers of ye mind, came ye vulgar opinion of ye Jews & other eastern nations that mad men & lunaticks were possessed with evil spirits or Daemons. Whence Christ seems to have used this language not only as Prophet but also in compliance wth ye Jews way of speaking: so yt when he is said to cast out Devils it cannot be known by this phra those Devils may be nothing but diseases unles it can be proved by the circumstances that they are sp substantial spirits.
For Newton, therefore, demons were figures for disordered psychotic states. The cases of demon-possession in the Synoptic Gospels do not describe the activity of literal devils, but instead reflect the (mistaken) beliefs of first-century Jews.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002
On this basis, Newton thoroughly rejected all beliefs in witches and witchcraft:
‘Newton goes on to say that
to beleive that men or weomen can really divine, charm, inchant, bewitch or converse with spirits is a superstition of the same nature wth beleiving that the idols of the gentils were not vanities but had spirits really seated in them.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002
Like some other expositors, Newton understood demons in the Bible to refer simply to the false gods of the heathen, inventions of men which were mere idols, taking his definition directly from Scripture, and that the ‘orthodox’ understanding of demons was an early heresy imported from paganism:
‘For Newton belief in activity by evil spirits is equivalent to the conviction that the false gods or idols of the pagans were real, independent beings; both positions are equally untrue. There is no ambiguity in Newton’s position on the reality of idols; in one manuscript he declares flatly: “An Idol is nothing in the world, a vanity, +a lye, a fictitious power.” Newton shared with traditional exegesis the identification of the false gods of the Old Testament with demons. He departed radically from the traditional view in concluding that neither demons nor idols exist.’
‘Newton laid the blame for the rise of the pagan doctrines about demons in the Church at the door of his ecclesiastical nemesis Athanasius, whom he also saw as responsible for introducing Trinitarianism and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In his “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius”, Newton contends that Athanasius advanced the notion of a conscious existence of the soul in the intermediate state between death and resurrection.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 8-9, November 2002
Later than Muggleton, but earlier than Bekker, Newton came to the same conclusion as both of them – that the devil in Scripture was never the supernatural evil being of ‘orthodox’ theology, and that all temptation comes from the lust of the heart:
‘The logical corollary to Newton’s views on evil spirits is that those who claim to be tempted by a personal devil are deluded and provoked by their own fleshly imagination. Newton’s “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius,” an important manuscript held at the Clark Library dating from the early 1690s, makes this clear’
‘It is instructive that in these words, which he all but admits are laden with connotations of reflexivity, Newton tackles the problem of lust without any reference to a literal, external tempter. Newton well knew the source of sin from his own contests with the demons of his soul. It was not the devil who made him do it. Unlike the monks of old, Newton’s own battles with the devil were with himself.’
Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 10-11, November 2002