Treatise of the Three Impostors
The Treatise of the Three Impostors (Latin: De Tribus Impostoribus) was a supposed book denying all three Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. The three "impostors" of the title were Jesus, Moses, and Muhammad. The existence of such a book was rumoured from the 13th to the late 17th centuries. Hoaxes then supplied texts. Authorship of such a book is also laid at the door of various Jewish and Muslim writers.
Timeline of the myth
|10th century||Abu Tahir al-Jannabi uses a "three impostors" slogan for political ends.|
|1239||Pope Gregory IX in an encyclical ascribes a view of the Abrahamic religions as founded by "three impostors" to Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor. Through Pietro della Vigna, the excommunicated Emperor denies heresy, explicitly saying that the three impostors theory has not passed his lips.|
|Later in the 13th century||Thomas de Cantimpré ascribes such views to Simon of Tournai (c. 1130–1201).|
|14th century||Opponents of Averroism father on Averroes the "three impostors" view.|
|c. 1350||The Decameron by Boccaccio alludes to the "three impostors" motif in terms of religious relativism.|
|1643||Thomas Browne ascribes authorship of such a work to Bernardino Ochino.|
|1656||Henry Oldenburg reports that at Oxford a politicised "three impostors" theory is current.|
|1669||John Evelyn publishes a work under a "three impostors" title, aimed at Sabbatai Zevi. The others named were Padre Ottomano, and Mahomed Bei, pseudonym of the adventurer Joannes Michael Cigala.|
|1680||As De tribus impostoribus magnis, Christian Kortholt the elder publishes an attack on Edward Herbert of Cherbury, Thomas Hobbes and Benedict Spinoza.|
|1680s?||De imposturis religionum was an anonymous attack on Christianity that surfaced late in the 17th century. Internal evidence makes it unlikely that the work was completed before 1680. It became known at the auction in 1716 of the library of the Greifswald theologian Johann Friedrich Mayer. This work is attributed to the jurist Johannes Joachim Müller (1661–1733).|
|1680s||Likely initial composition of the Traité sur les trois imposteurs, in association with Spinozan publicists. See below for its adaptation and promotion from the Netherlands.|
|1693||Bernard de la Monnoye writes to Pierre Bayle, claiming that no "three impostors" tract exists.|
|1709||John Bagford in a letter comments on the deist John Toland's efforts to pass off Spaccio by Giordano Bruno as the Treatise of the Three Impostors; and says he knows of no such genuine Treatise.|
|1712||De la Monnoye's letter to Bayle is reprinted, as part of his edition Menagiana, an -iana from the works of Gilles Ménage. After reprinting again, in Paris and Amsterdam, it met with an anonymous Réponse in 1716, that has been attributed to Rousset de Missy. With that, the events leading to the publication of a hoax "Treatise" had begun.|
Traité sur les trois imposteurs, from 1719
The work that came to be known by this name was published in the early eighteenth century. There were eight published editions, from 1719 to 1793. There was also clandestine circulation. The Traité sur les trois imposteurs has been reckoned the most important example of the underground literature in French of the period.
The work purported to be a text handed down from generation to generation. It can be traced to the circle around Prosper Marchand, who included Jean Aymon and Jean Rousset de Missy. It detailed how the three major figures of Biblical religion in fact misrepresented what had happened to them.
According to 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. The creators of the book have been identified by documentary evidence as Jean Rousset de Missy and the bookseller Charles Levier. The author of the book may have been a young Dutch diplomat called Jan Vroesen or Vroese. Another candidate, to whom Levier attributed the work, is Jean-Maximilien Lucas. Israel places its composition in the 1680s.
The content of the Traité has been traced primarily to Spinoza, but with subsequent additions drawn from the ideas of Pierre Charron, Thomas Hobbes, François de La Mothe Le Vayer, Gabriel Naudé and Lucilio Vanini. The reconstruction of the group of authors, given the original text, goes as far as Levier and others such as Aymon and Rousset de Missy. An account based on the testimony of the brother of the publisher Caspar Fritsch, an associate of Marchand, has Levier in 1711 borrowing the original text from Benjamin Furly.
Events from 1719
|1765||Archibald Maclaine, in an annotation to his translation of Johann Lorenz Mosheim's Institutes, gives a history of the Traité based on Prosper Marchand's, and attributes the content to the Spaccio of Bruno, and the Spirit of Spinoza, as worked over by compilers.|
|1770||Voltaire publishes Épître à l'Auteur du Livre des Trois Imposteurs, a response to the hoax. It contains his remark "If God didn't exist, it would be necessary to invent Him."|
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- Mosheim, Johann Lorenz (1878). Mosheim's Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, Ancient and Modern: A New and Literal Translation from the Original Latin, with Copious Additional Notes, Original and Selected. W. Tegg and Company. p. 437 note 3.
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- 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