Lucian of Samosata was a popular second-century wandering speaker, poet, wit and prose machine. Over 80 works are attributed to him (some of which, as is true with most ancient writers, he surely did not write). And he’s remembered today for a fascinating little aside on the earliest Christians slipped into a short biography of a cynic philosopher named Peregrinus, who set himself on fire after the closing ceremonies of the Olympic Games of 165 A.D.
Lucian was a professional rhetorician who toured the Mediterranean giving improvised lectures on the art of legal persuasion, the good life, human psychology, and so on. Somehow, he became affluent and well-known.
His second-best known work is a proto-novel call “A True Story,” which was not true and has some fantastical elements like interplanetary warfare. It may be the first science fiction story ever.
Now, Lucian was not a Christian, nor was he known to be particularly religious. He was of a type we recognize in the West today: a weary, cynical, well-educated jaw-boner who didn’t believe in much but got real joy from being the center of attention. Like a 2,000 year old prequel to Conan O’Brien.
But he did live in the earliest centuries of the small and growing cult of Christ. His observations in “The Passing of Peregrinus” are among the earliest non-Christian impressions of the cult that exist, written within a century of Paul’s lifetime. Precious words.
Lucian’s impressions of Peregrinus are cold. He thought of the dead man as an extra-crispy phony: “After turning into everything for a sake of notoriety . . . here at last he has turned into fire.” Sizzle.
“They [i.e., Christians] scorn all possessions without distinction and treat them as community property. They accept such things on faith alone, without any evidence. So if a fraudulent and cunning person who knows how to take advantage of a situation comes among them, he can make himself rich in a short time.”
But he granted them a touching, if childish, freedom from fear and loneliness:
“Having convinced themselves that they are immortal and will live forever, the poor wretches despise death and most willingly give themselves to it. Moreover, that first lawgiver of theirs [i.e., Jesus] persuaded them that they are all brothers the moment they transgress and deny the Greek gods and begin worshiping that crucified sophist and living by his laws.”
Peregrinus himself was a pagan who converted to Christianity and then back. Lucian considered him a glory-seeking no-talent, an ancient version of some schmuck on MTV’s “Jersey Shore.” A more sympathetic picture, unearthed recently by Roger Pearse in his blog, appears in a work by Aulus Gellius:
“[Peregrinus was] a man of dignity and fortitude, living in a hut outside the city [i.e., Athens] …. I heard him say many things that were in truth helpful and noble.”