Saturday, October 15, 2016

Lucian on Christians and Their Books (165 CE)

Lucian (125-180 CE) was a Syrian satirist and author who wrote his works in Greek and was from the Roman city of Samosata on the banks of the Euphrates river. In one particular work, Lucian wrote about a Cynic philosopher named Peregrinus who had converted over to Christianity in his early years and was imprisoned for his beliefs. In his older years, Peregrinus converted back over to Cynicism and later cremated himself at the Olympic games in 165 CE. Lucian's work is of interest as it is one of the earliest references to Christians by a Roman author. One especially interesting and lengthy description reads;
"It was then that he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be ?—in a trice he made them all look like children; for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. Then at length [Peregrinus] Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison, which itself gave him no little reputation as an asset for his future career and the charlatanism and notoriety-seeking that he was enamoured of. Well, when he had been imprisoned, the Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him. Then, as this was impossible, every other form of attention was shown him, not in any casual way but with assiduity; and from the very break of day aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison, while their officials even slept inside with him after bribing the guards. Then elaborate meals were brought in, and sacred books of theirs were read aloud, and excellent Peregrinus—for he still went by that name—was called by them 'the new Socrates.'" (Peregr. 11-12)
Of course, Lucian is most likely exaggerating or caricaturing some of the more prominent features of the Christian communities known to him. Even so, Lucian expects his readers to pick up on these salient aspects of Christians in order for the satirical humor to be effective. These features are;
  • The community leaders are the priests, scribes, prophets and interpreters of their sacred books.
  • Christians were meeting in a particular location; referenced as a "synagogue" by Lucian.
  • The centrality of the Christian's worship of the crucified Jesus.
  • The imprisonment and persecution of Christians for their beliefs.
  • Orphans and widows were a large component of the Christian community.
  • Christians visited prisoners and were doing all they could to help them.
One interesting feature of Lucian's description, however, is the prominence given to sacred writings and books. At one point Lucian draws attention to Peregrinus' facility in composing religious writings; no doubt a reference to the prolific output of Christian writings in the first and second centuries. Lucian also highlights the reading-out of sacred books in their community gatherings around Peregrinus while he was imprisoned. Overall, Christians of the second century were recognized by the importance they placed upon their sacred books; studying and interpreting them as well as publicly reading them in their worship gatherings.
Portrait of Lucian from an Early Translation of his Writings

Lucian, The Passing of Peregrinus. A. M. Harmon (trans.). Vol. V. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962.


  1. I've seem Lucian's tale mentioned many times—I've never seen that particular point drawn out that I can recall. Good work! It almost makes me want to be come an archeologist and go discover some of those 2nd century works. (Though preferable not the ones actually produced by those of the ilk of Peregrinus himself).

    I would note that the story also points to the need of the church at all times for faithful intellectuals so as to avoid the constant danger of charlatans whose only desire is to fleece the flock.

    1. Thank you Peter, an excellent observation on the importance of the Church community's need of faithful leaders/learned scholars. I find it interesting that Lucian was caricaturing the Christian's willingness to sacrificially help others. To the point of being easily taken advantage of.
      Your comment on the need for faithful intellectuals was intriguing in light of Lucian's comments; "he learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine." It seems then that these learned scribes and scholars were not always available to Christians everywhere. Peregrinus was able to learn from these Christian scholars, but those Christians in Syria (?) of whom Peregrinus took advantage, must not have had access to these same people for some reason (?). Either that or the Christians in Syria were unwilling to follow their teaching (?). Of course, we cannot assume to much from Lucian's cryptic descriptions.