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The Atheist’s Bible

The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed

The Atheist’s Bible

The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed

A comprehensive biography of the Treatise of the Three Impostors, a controversial nonexistent medieval book.

Like a lot of good stories, this one begins with a rumor: in 1239, Pope Gregory IX accused Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, of heresy. Without disclosing evidence of any kind, Gregory announced that Frederick had written a supremely blasphemous book—De tribus impostoribus, or the Treatise of the Three Impostors—in which Frederick denounced Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad as impostors. Of course, Frederick denied the charge, and over the following centuries the story played out across Europe, with libertines, freethinkers, and other “strong minds” seeking a copy of the scandalous text. The fascination persisted until finally, in the eighteenth century, someone brought the purported work into actual existence—in not one but two versions, Latin and French.
Although historians have debated the origins and influences of this nonexistent book, there has not been a comprehensive biography of the Treatise of the Three Impostors. In The Atheist’s Bible, the eminent historian Georges Minois tracks the course of the book from its origins in 1239 to its most salient episodes in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, introducing readers to the colorful individuals obsessed with possessing the legendary work—and the equally obsessive passion of those who wanted to punish people who sought it. Minois’s compelling account sheds much-needed light on the power of atheism, the threat of blasphemy, and the persistence of free thought during a time when the outspoken risked being burned at the stake.          

264 pages | 1 halftone, 2 line drawings | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2012

History: European History, History of Ideas

Religion: Religion and Society


“I can’t speak enthusiastically enough for Minois’s excellent book. The Atheists’s Bible is more scholarly than Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve and less playful than the philological detective work that Robert K. Merton displayed in On the Shoulders of Giants, but it offers comparable intellectual pleasure. Lys Ann Weiss’s translation, moreover, reads beautifully.”

Michael Dirda | Bookforum

“Just as in Umberto Eco’s novel The Prague Cemetery, if you create false evidence in order to discredit your enemies—be they Jews or Jesuits, Carbonari or Bolsheviks, Masons or the Vatican—you will soon find people eager not only to believe you but also to serve the cause you have been trying to undermine. The text that is the object of Georges Minois’ study, the Treatise of the Three Impostors, provides a perfect illustration of this peculiar dynamics of deceit, credulity and paranoia."

Times Higher Education

“Georges Minois’s timely and elegant study The Atheist’s Bible is a landmark addition to both the history of ideas and the history of the book. The Treatise of the Three Impostors set a record for advance publicity—before it was finally published, intellectuals accused one another of writing it for nearly half a millennium. Its real author was not any single thinker but the cumulative, nervous imagination of the entire European intelligentsia. Like a Freudian id, it exposed the repressed, traumatic thought that all religion was a hoax: centuries before avowed atheism became possible, accusations that someone else had written the Treatise of the Three Impostors explored the particulars and possibilities of irreligion. Readers who are intrigued or scandalized by the diatribes of Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens will discover in The Atheist’s Bible that, as that other Bible says, there is nothing new under the sun.”

Walter Stephens, author of Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Beli

“The Treatise of the Three Impostors is a book that enjoyed centuries of notorious nonexistence until (as Voltaire would say) it became necessary to invent it. Georges Minois writes with empathy, erudition, and a novelist’s sense of buildup and timing, weaving in the parallel story of Europe’s courageous freethinkers. In the face of today’s social and even legal pressures against criticizing religion, it is good to see an honorable French tradition asserting itself.”—Joscelyn Godwin, author of The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance


Joscelyn Godwin, author of The Pagan Dream of the Renaissance

Table of Contents

Translator’s Note
Preface to the English-Language Edition (2011)
Preface (2009)

1. The Origin of a Mythical Theme: The Prehistory of the Three Impostors (Up to the Thirteenth Century)
 The First to Be Accused: Frederick II and Pierre des Vignes (1239)
 The Precursors of Imposture: Zalmoxis and Numa Pompilius
 Celsus: Moses the Impostor
 Celsus and the Talmud: Jesus the Impostor
 Mahomet the Impostor in Christian Literature (Ninth to Twelfth Century)
 Politico-Religious Imposture in the Middle Ages
 The Arabic Origins of the Theme of the Three Impostors (Tenth Century)
 The First Mention in Christianity (Twelfth Century)

2. The Hunt for the Author of a Mythical Treatise (Fourteenth to Sixteenth Century)
 A Culture of Imposture
 The Rumors of the Late Middle Ages
 The Renaissance: A Receptive Context for the Idea of Imposture
 Moses the Machiavellian
 Appeals to the Holy Union of Religions
 Italy and the Specter of the Three Impostors
 The Obsession Spreads
 Geneva, Birthplace of the Three Impostors?
 Three Impostors or Three Prophets? (Guillaume Postel)
 Who Actually Saw the Treatise?

3. The European Elites and Religious Imposture (Seventeenth Century)
 On the Trail of De tribus around the Baltic Sea
 Holland and England: Heterodox Contexts
 The French Trail: Learned Libertines and Religious Imposture

4. Debates on the Origin of Religions (Second Half of the Seventeenth Century)
 Hobbes and Spinoza
 Holland and the Birth of the Radical Enlightenment
 Rumors of the De tribus in England

5. From the De tribus to the Trois imposteurs: Discovery or Invention of the Treatise? (1680–1721)
 Sources of the De tribus: Kiel, 1688
 The Intervention of Leibniz and of Baron von Hohendorf
 The De tribus: A German Affair
 Preliminary Polemic: Does the Trois imposteurs Exist? (1715–1716)
 The Reference Edition: The Hague, 1719
 The Birth of L’Esprit de Spinoza and of the Trois imposteurs (1700–1721)
 A Franco-Dutch Commercial Imposture?
 Erroneous Attributions: Henri de Boulainvillier (1658–1722) and John Toland (1670–1722)

6. The Treatise of the Three Impostors: The Contents of a Blasphemy
 The De tribus: A Slapdash Work?
 The Atheism of the Traité
 The End of Religions
 The Soul and Demons: Subtle Chimeras
 Moses the Impostor: Magic and Persecution
 Jesus the Impostor: A Merchant of Absurd Dreams
 Mahomet the Impostor: The Senses and the Sword

Epilogue: The Three Impostors in the Antireligious Literature of the Eighteenth
Index of Names

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