In the practice of historical research, one is prepared for the fact that some evidence - no matter how important - may be lost for ever. Even in recent times, archives have been dispersed, historical monuments destroyed, books and letters burned. It is perhaps more difficult to accept the notion that documents which have occupied an important place in the collective imagination of past generations may never have existed in the first place, or may turn out to be deliberate fabrications.
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. We first hear about it in 1239, when Pope Gregory IX accused the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, together with the jurist entrusted with his defence, of being the authors of a blasphemous work in which Moses, Christ and Muhammad were jointly denounced as tricksters who had gained power over the credulous masses using fake miracles and prodigies.
The episode is interesting for two reasons. The first is that the alleged offence concerned equally the prophets of the three major religions: until then such accusations had been directed against one or other of them by religious competitors, while here all three were lumped together as similarly deceitful. The second is that, although no supporting evidence could be produced, the Pope's allegations reinforced popular belief in the Treatise's existence. Indeed, the fact that it could not be found was taken as proof that its content must be truly monstrous, if its secrecy was so carefully protected.
For centuries after that, the phantom treatise - still impossible to locate in any library or archive - would haunt the imagination of dissident intellectuals all around Europe. From the mid-16th century, the growth of the Reformation and the outburst of religious conflict within Christianity once again offered the opportunity to use the Treatise as a weapon against those accused of heresy, although once again no such text could be produced at their trials. At the same time, the horrors of war and persecution gave new appeal to the view that monotheistic religions, by their nature exclusive and intolerant, were a menace to civil peace.
By the beginning of the 18th century, with scepticism gaining ground in European philosophical circles, the Treatise was finally ready to make its appearance. Not, however, as a single work, but as a variety of texts, drafted in different languages and presumably by different authors: the two original sources identified by Minois appeared respectively in Latin at Kiel and in French at The Hague. Soon, these versions became part of the large stream of semi-clandestine anti-religious publications that characterised what has been called the "radical" Enlightenment. Predictably, these incarnate versions of the Treatise were far less blasphemous and offensive than had been suggested, and consisted mostly of classical philosophical arguments against the existence of God.
Minois concludes by pointing to a 1990 international conference devoted to the Treatise and held in Leiden as proof that the text has become an established classic. Meanwhile, recent violent events suggest that even today, real or presumed offences against prophets are far from a purely academic matter.
The Atheist's Bible: The Most Dangerous Book that Never Existed
By Georges Minois
Translated by Lys Ann Weiss
University of Chicago Press
Published 12 October 2012