Everyone from President Obama to Angela Jolie has made a pronouncement on Pastor Terry Jones’ proposed September 11th Quran burning—publicity Paul of Tarsus , a man who knew how to stage an event, might well have envied. Paul presided over the first public burning of books by Christians. In Ephesus, recent converts burned their scrolls on magic (presumably voluntarily) as a symbolic act of penitence as well as a literal act of destruction. Knowledge was more vulnerable in those days of hand-copied scrolls. Though the content of the Quran cannot be destroyed in this proposed fire, burning the Quran is a literal as well as symbolic assault on the Islamic faithful. In both cases, the book burnings are an aggressive assertion of the absolute supremacy of one religion through the demonizing of another.
Below is a fictional rendition (edited for brevity) of the book burning at Ephesus from my novel Bright Dark Madonna (Monkfish, 2009 used by permission). The narrative point of view belongs to Maeve, the feisty Celtic Mary Magdalen who is nobody’s disciple:
Intent on my own thoughts, I did not at first notice a larger than usual crowd gathering in the center of the square, until a hush fell, and a voice I could never forget rang out.
“Brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus, whether Jews or Gentiles, you are now one in the baptism of the Holy Spirit and heirs through Christ to eternal life. I, Paul, called from the womb to be apostle to Christ Jesus, adjure you to come forward with the emblems of your old reliance on sorcery and magic, from the time before you knew Christ Jesus, when you relied on charms and potions to work your own sinful will and satisfy your selfish desires.”
No one could ignore the strident, commanding voice of Paul of Tarsus. I was curious. Wrapping my widow’s shawl around me as a cloak of invisibility, I discovered that I still had my youthful talent for weaving my way through a crowd. No one paid much attention to me. They were all too intent on the public spectacle Paul was creating. And a spectacle it was. There, in front of Paul was a growing pile of scrolls, what were then called books, of all sizes and quality but every one of them costly in days when all writing was by hand. The equivalent of fifty thousand silver pieces was piled up in the square.
“Come forward and confess to your brothers and sisters in the Lord how you have used spells and practiced magic and how you now renounce all such foolishness and wickedness, having been redeemed by Christ Jesus through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.”
With their basic script provided for them, the new believers began to step forward and give details, sometimes lurid but mostly mundane, of their dabbling in magic and sorcery—to conceive children (or abort them as one brave woman admitted, before her husband yanked her off stage) to divine the future, to heal from sickness, to clinch business deals, to triumph over enemies, or get revenge. All the things people have always tried to control, whether through spells or appeals to gods and, yes, saints. Some people were enjoying their moment center stage while others looked bullied and shamed. Either way, there was something about the whole display that was getting on my nerves.
“What has any of this got to do with the teachings of Jesus?” A woman’s voice suddenly rang out over the din. “What does renouncing magic have to do with loving your neighbor as yourself—loving your enemy?”
To my astonishment the voice was mine and, moreover, I had stepped forward, my shawl falling away. Paul paled as he recognized me and looked for a moment as though he was going to be sick. Then he recovered and glared at me.
“Who is this woman, Apostle?” asked a man. “I do not recognize her. Is she a believer? Has she been baptized by the Holy Spirit?”
Paul was in a pickle, since he had baptized me himself, albeit against my will.
“Who has given this woman authority to speak?” people shouted. “Who has authority over her?”
“No one has authority over me!” I laughed. “I am a widow, as you see. As for who my husband was, I will tell you—”
“Aquila! Quick, a torch!” shouted Paul. “We will make a bonfire for Christ Jesus, a bonfire of our vanities, a bonfire of our unbelief. Christ Jesus is Lord. He is our head. Only he has authority. Only he can save us from death and sin.”
As he spoke, Aquila lit the pile of scrolls on fire, the flames caught and spread rapidly, the scrolls crackling impressively, and the first recorded book burning by Christians was underway. The crowd quickly lost interest in me. An outspoken, possibly crazy, widow was no competition for a holy blaze consuming costly wicked books.