Monday, July 26, 2010

Lucian's description of 2nd-century Christians

Lucian was a satirist who lived in the Roman Empire in the 2nd century AD.  Today, he is most well-known for writing The Death of Peregrinus, a satirical biography of a man named Peregrinus Proteus.  The book is well-known mainly because it is one of the earliest accounts we have today of the pagan perception of this new religious group called "Christians."  Below are the excerpts from Lucian's book that talk about the protagonist's time spent living with Christians.  You'll quickly notice that Lucian does not have a very high view of the Christians.  And yet, many of the traits that Lucian pokes fun of are seen today as badges of honor for Christians; things like their selflessness, sense of community, charity, and generosity.  You'll also notice that Lucian's descriptions of the Christians seem to reference specific Jewish practices.  He refers to the synagogue, and mentions "forbidden meats", seemingly a reference to Jewish dietary restrictions that by the 2nd century were not found in many Christian circles (it is possible, however, that Lucian is referring to the eating of meat that had been dedicated to a Roman god or the emperor...eating this was tantamount to idolatry to some Christians).  But enough chit-chat.  Check out the text for yourself.

"It was now that he 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 took him for a God, accepted his laws, and declared him their president. The Christians, you know, worship a man 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 was arrested and thrown into prison. This was the very thing to lend an air to his favourite arts of clap-trap and wonder-working; he was now a made man. 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 gaolers 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. The activity of these people, 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 that they are all brothers, from the moment that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, 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.

...Proteus now set out again on his wanderings. The Christians were meat and drink to him; under their protection he 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, and he thought the best way out of his difficulties would be, to change his mind about that property, and try and get it back."