Early Christianity According to Lucian

What Kind of People Were Earliest Christians?

As an avid reader of ancient Mediterranean literature, I have come to regard Lucian as one of my most cherished Greek writers. A penetrating satirist and cultural critic, Lucian left behind numerous works, most of which apparently composed in Samosata (Roman Northern Syria) in the latter half of the second century C.E. With Syria having served as the nascent cradle of primitive Christianity, Lucian will have had an up-close familiarity with the religion, its earliest peddlers, and cult leaders. Unlike his contemporary Celsus, Lucian never wrote any detailed treatise against the religion, despite his more general campaign to expose superstition and fraudulence. In that sense, his candid appraisal of eastern Mediterranean Christians and their leaders provides one of but a few truly unvarnished external looks at the movement. For your enrichment here, I offer my own translated excerpt taken from his Greek text De Morte Peregrini (Περὶ τῆς Περεγρίνου Τελευτῆς), that is, Concerning the Death of Peregrinus. While the work itself, an account of martyrdom-by-way-of-stunt, merits a subsequent article here at D.C., one that I have already begun to compose, the specific segment on the Christians deserves its own special showcase here.

Just to set this up, in the first sections of the work, Lucian provides background for his depiction of the historical martyrdom of Proteus Peregrinus at the Olympic games in Olympia (Peloponnese, Greece) c. 165 C.E. Here, Lucian describes Proteus as having been one of the top-most leaders of Christianity in Palestine, a teacher, and a writer of early Christian sacred texts. Eventually, however, Proteus had a falling out with the religion and (de)converted to become a leading Cynic philosopher. Lucian, not being a man who suffered fools, wastes little time in his satirical writeup of Proteus (De Morte Peregrini 1.11-13): 

…And during that period [Proteus] learned the marvelous wisdom of the Christians by associating with their priests and writers in Palestine. And why? In short order, he made them look like children, as he became their prophet, cult-leader, synagogue head, and everything else all in one; he interpreted and explained their books, even writing many himself! They venerated him as a god, regarded him as their lawgiver, and enlisted him as their chief, second only to that one whom they still worship, the one crucified in Palestine for introducing this new cult into the world.
At that time, Proteus was arrested and thrown in prison, which procured for him no small honor toward his future career, succeeding in bringing about his desire for tall tales and thirst for infamy. The Christians, making this out to be a tragedy, made every attempt to have him released. Then, seeing this was impossible, attended to him in every other way, and not in low priority, but most earnestly. From dawn, old widows and orphan children could be seen waiting directly outside the prison, while those who had bribed the guards had managed to sleep inside with him. They brought him extravagant meals and read him their sacred stories, and Most Excellent Peregrinus, for he was still called this, was then named by them the “New Socrates.” 
Some even came from the cities of Asia, dispatched by Christians at their common expense, to aid, to advocate for, and to encourage the man. They exhibit extraordinary speed whenever such public action is taken; for, without delay, they lavish all they have. And so it was with Peregrinus when so much money came from them occasioned by his incarceration, and he made off with no small revenue from this. For, the poor devils have come to believe they are going to be altogether immortal and are going to live on forever. For this reason, they disregard death and many willfully turn themselves over into custody. Thereupon, their first lawgiver [Jesus] got them thinking that they are all siblings of one another upon their rejection of the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and by practicing his laws. As a result, they disregard everything equally and regard them all as common property, and without any evidence receive such things on faith. If any occultist or trickster seeking to profit by the circumstance comes to them, such an individual in short order is able to obtain tremendous wealth by exploiting such idiotic people.

While one may observe much from this brief description, here I wish to flag three prominent items for discussion. First, notice the kind of individual who would rise to the heights of cultic leadership, the kind who would author their cultic legends and sacred writ, a carnival man who would defraud a credulous community, exploiting their irrational fidelity. Second, note also—and this relates to a subsequent installment that I am writing in parallel—the willfulness and provocation involved in early Christian “persecution.” As I shall point out later, such stuntmen not only made little effort to avoid civil attention from the authorities, they sought it out, even fetishizing their own incarcerations, punishments, and possible executions. Early Christian martyrdom was tactically provoked and deliberate in obstinance, and had nothing to do with fact-based historiological argumentation (regarding Jesus’ alleged resurrection or any other faith-claim). Third, notice the accurate, if disparaging, characterization of earliest Christians as gullible, irrational (non-evidence-driven), and given to any traveling charlatan.

Dr. Miller, author of Resurrection and Reception in Early Christianity (Routledge, 2015), is a humanistic critic of contemporary religion and a trans-disciplinary research scholar exploring the cultural and literary nexus between classical antiquity and the social origins of earliest Christianity. His published work focuses on the mythological roots of the New Testament Gospel portraitures of Jesus, the sacralized founding emblem of the Christian religion.