Sunday, September 13, 2009

Lucian of Samosata: A Warning for Christians from an Early Non-Christian

Lucian of Samosata lived from around 120 CE to 190 CE. He wrote many dialogues in which he satirizes humanity as well as various philosophies circulating during his time. Lucian was not a Christian. In fact, in his work The Death of Peregrine Lucian writes about the devotion of “the Christians” to “a man” who “was crucified” because of the “novel rites” which the “crucified” man is said to have introduced (Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11). Lucian can therefore be said to have provided one of the earliest non-Christian references to the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, the only “man” historically identified with “the Christians” and who was also said to have been “crucified” or put to death by the Romans in the first century.—See the New Testament record of Luke 3:1 and 23:24-25, 33.

However, Lucian does more than simply refer to “the Christians” and to “the man” to whom Christians of the mid- to late-second century CE were devoted. In The Death of Peregrine Lucian writes about a historical figure of his time (also called “Proteus”) whose background and whose interests are of the worst kind. Unfortunately, Peregrine is credited with “the corruption of a handsome boy” and then with buying off his (poor) parents so he is not ‘brought before the Governor’ (9). Peregrine is also said to have hanged his sixty-plus-year-old father (10). But, and this is where Christians must be alert, Lucian also speaks about how Peregrine pretended to be interested in Christianity for his own selfish gain, not just once, but for quite some time and to a rather astonishing degree.

Consider how Lucian presents Peregrine’s actions in this regard (with my bracketed words added for clarity). Keep in mind, Lucian is likely not an expert on Christianity, and to him the whole matter is amusingly tragic, according to his satirical style of writing:

It was now that he [Peregrine] came across the priests and scribes of the Christians, in Palestine, and picked up their queer creed. I can tell you, he pretty soon convinced them of his superiority; prophet, elder, ruler of the Synagogue—he was everything at once; expounded their books, commented on them, wrote books himself. They [the Christians of this time] took him [Peregrine] for a God, accepted his laws, and declared him their president. The Christians, you know [as Lucian writes about this matter to a man named Cronius], worship a man [Jesus of Nazareth] to this day,—the distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account. Well, the end of it was that Proteus [Peregrine] was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his [favorite] arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man [because he had deceived the Christians into believing he was sincere]. The Christians took it all very seriously: he was no sooner in prison, than they began trying every means to get him out again,—but without success. Everything else that could be done for him they most devoutly did. They thought of nothing else. Orphans and ancient widows might be seen hanging about the prison from break of day. Their officials bribed the [jailers] to let them sleep inside with him. Elegant dinners were conveyed in; their sacred writings were read; and our old friend Peregrine (as he was still called in those days) became for them “the modern Socrates.” In some of the Asiatic cities, too, the Christian communities put themselves to the expense of sending deputations, with offers of sympathy, assistance, and legal advice.—Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 11-13 (As translated by .W. Fowler and F.G. Fowler, in The Works of Lucian of Samosata, vol. 4 [Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1905], pages 82-83).

Lucian goes on to explain why the Christians of this time were seemingly so accepting of Peregrine, and so willing to help him to the extents he describes above. In what follows I will continue to add bracketed words to help with the reading of the text, and I will also underline just two sentences at the end. For in these the problem for us ‘trusting’ Christians will be manifest:

The activity of these people [the Christians], in dealing with any matter that affects their community, is something extraordinary; they spare no trouble, no expense. Peregrine, all this time, was making quite an income on the strength of his bondage; money came pouring in. You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver [Jesus of Nazareth] that they are all brothers [compare Matthew 23:8], from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage [Jesus of Nazareth], and live after his laws. All this they take quite on trust, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property. Now an adroit, unscrupulous fellow, who has seen the world, has only to get among these simple souls, and his fortune is pretty soon made; he plays with them.

If the trust, or faith, which Christians have in Jesus of Nazareth and in those with whom we associate as “brothers” was so easily manipulated in the mid-second century CE, there is little to keep this same thing from happening today. Indeed, all too often we hear of men who sneak in and who live among us and who then do some of the very things Peregrine is said to have done: molest young boys and cause those with true faith to give of their possessions, to those who are not deserving, when we should instead use them to take care of ourselves, our families, and others who are truly in need. If Peregrine was so fit as to work as hard as he did in misleading Christians of his time, he should have been made to work in ways that were in imitation of those Christians who set a truly righteous example for all of us to follow:

2 Thessalonians 3:7-15 (NRSV)

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone’s bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat. For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right. Take note of those who do not obey what we say in this letter; have nothing to do with them, so that they may be ashamed. Do not regard them as enemies, but warn them as believers.

So, do not be so quick to accept even those who appear to show great zeal for what is good. If they do truly love what is right, then they would not continue to have you or anyone else bear their burdens. Of course, there are many who need help, such as ‘orphans and widows,’ as well as persons with infirmities and those of our family who are elderly and without much (Matthew 8:1-3; 1 Timothy 5:3-10; James 1:27). But we must be “cautious” (Matthew 10:16) and try hard never to allow the wicked one to find his place among us, as he has done with so many persons and Christians groups before, and today (Matthew 13:37-39; 2 Thessalonians 3:3). “Put those to the test who say they are apostles” (Revelation 2:2), such as those who show by their burdening of others that they are claiming superiority to Paul who, in spite of ‘having the right’ chose to instead work “night and day” so as not to burden anyone, “but in order to give you an example to imitate.”—2 Thessalonians 3:9.

Finally, learn from the Christians of Lucian’s time. They had a chance to investigate just why Peregrine was being imprisoned, and to do something about it before giving him any more of their time, support, and material things. Fortunately, as Lucian tells us, they did eventually see Peregrine for who he was:

The Christians were meat and drink to him; under their protection he [Peregrine] lacked nothing, and this luxurious state of things went on for some time. At last he got into trouble even with them; I suppose they caught him partaking of some of their forbidden meats. They would have nothing more to do with him ... .—Lucian, The Death of Peregrine, 15-16.

But at what cost, after paying what price to one who cared nothing for the one whose teachings Peregrine falsely claimed so zealously to have embraced? Let us be resolved, then, to do all that we can to keep the Peregrines of our time away from us, and to instead do what we can to expose those who lie and who cheat and who steal from others in the name of Jesus of Nazareth. We can do so by trusting in Jesus himself, and by praying to his God, our God, Jah, to cause those who misuse their names to see their faces every time they come near us. We can also evaluate ourselves and each other, where and when appropriate, by comparing what we do and what others claim to be with the writings and with the witness of those whom we have come to trust, whose writings we have come to accept as having good reasons to believe.Among these are Paul and John, Peter and James, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, for in these we see the one after whom we have been called “Christians” (Acts 11:26) those who bear witness to what is true about Jesus of Nazareth, the Bible, and about the God Jah, whom one day all living things will “praise”!—Psalm 102:18; 106:48; 150:6; Revelation 19:1, 3, 4, 6.