Treatise of the Three Impostors
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The Treatise of the Three Impostors (Latin: De Tribus Impostoribus) is a book denying all three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Although some versions describe Numa Pompilius, founder of the Roman civil religion, as a fourth impostor, the three "impostors" of the title were Jesus, Moses, and Muhammad. The existence of such a book, and the attribution of its authorship to various heretics and political enemies, was a running theme from the 11th to the 18th centuries, when hoaxes in Germany and France produced two physical books.
The myth of the Treatise of the Three Impostors
- 1239 Gregory IX ascribes such a work to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor.
- c.1250 Thomas de Cantimpré ascribes such a work to Simon of Tournai (c. 1130–1201).
- 1643 Thomas Browne ascribes authorship of such a work to Bernardino Ochino.
Authorship of such a book is also laid at the door of various Jewish and Muslim writers.
De imposturis religionum
De imposturis religionum was an anonymous attack, possibly Jewish or Muslim, on Christianity published in 1598, but dated earlier by G. Bartsch. It became known in the auctioning in 1716 of the library of the Greifswald theologian Johann Friedrich Mayer. To this text the Jurist Johannes Joachim Müller (1661–1733) wrote the two missing parts — against Moses and Muhammed — and the finished work appeared in 1753 as De Tribus Impostoribus with the date 1598.
Traité sur les trois imposteurs
The first printing of Traité sur les trois imposteurs was credited to the printer M. M. Rey, but may have existed in manuscript form for some time before it was published. The first trace we have of it as a manuscript comes from a letter to Prosper Marchand from his old friend, Fritsch. He reminds Marchand about how another friend, Charles Levier, got the manuscript of the treatise from the library of Benjamin Furly in 1711. This gives a clue as to the provenance of the manuscript, now all but confirmed, as the work of the Irish satirist and freethinker John Toland (Seán Ó Tuathaláin 1670–1722). Even if it is not by Toland, it is certainly from the early eighteenth century and traceable to Marchand's circle that included Jean Aymon and Jean Rousset de Missy and these may have edited Toland's hoax manuscript. It is unlikely to have been around since the time of Frederick II which was part of the mythology of the manuscript. According to historian Silvia Berti, the book was originally published as La Vie et L'Esprit de Spinosa (The Life and Spirit of Spinoza), containing both a biography of Benedict Spinoza and the anti-religious essay, and was later republished under the title Traité sur les trois imposteurs. It is believed the author of the book may have been a young Dutch diplomat called Jan Vroesen.
The document purported to be a text handed down from generation to generation detailing how the three major figures of Biblical religion: Muhammad, Jesus and Moses were in fact misrepresenting what had happened to them. At the time, this novel approach was used to allow thinkers to conceptualize a world where explanation ruled over mere "mystery", a term used for the miraculous intervention on earth by God. It was useful to both Deists and atheists in legitimizing their world view and being a common source of intellectual reference.
The book was republished in Cleveland in 1904 by an anonymous publisher under the pseudonym "Alcofribas Nasier the Later" (using an anagram of François Rabelais, minus the cedilla on the c, which Rabelais used to publish Pantagruel).
Answer of Voltaire
In 1770, the great Enlightenment satirist Voltaire published a response to the hoax treatise entitled Épître à l'Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs, which contains one of his best-known quotations, "If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." This was responded to a century later by Mikhail Bakunin, the anarchist political philosopher and activist, with "If God did exist it would be necessary to abolish him".
- Full Text of Müller's De Tribus Impostoribus provided by infidels.org
- Müller's Tribus Impostoribus in the original Latin, provided by Bibliotheca Augustana (archive)
- Bio on Friedrick II -- subheading "Struggle with the papacy." (3/5ths of the way down the page) from the Encyclopædia Britannica
- Minois, Georges (2012). The Atheist's Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed. Chicago, London: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-53029-1.
- Andersen, Abraham (1997). The Treatise of the Three Imposters and the Problem of the Enlightenment. A New Translation of the Traité des Trois Imposteurs (1777 Edition). Lenham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476-8430-X.
- Presser, Jacob (1926). Das Buch "De Tribus Impostoribus" (Von den drei Betrügern). Amsterdam, The Netherlands: H. J. Paris (Doctoral dissertation, University of Amsterdam, with the highest distinction, written and published in German); 169 p.