Ancient Christians, as depicted in Death of Peregrine

The Christian religion has enjoyed hegemony in the West for more than 15 centuries, so it is difficult for many in the modern world to imagine how dismissive many Pagans were of the Christians in the early centuries of Common Era, how ridiculous their beliefs sounded to almost everyone, and how often they were the butt of daily jokes. Their being fed to lions during the earliest centuries must serve as a testimony of how foreign their belief was to the average Roman citizen–for whom it was unthinkable that centuries later, the roles would reverse and the Christians would end up killing all dissidents, and eventually destroying and replacing whatever remained of classical civilization.

It was only through the persistent repetition of their strange beliefs among the people that their strangeness eventually faded. In the past, I discussed how the cult of Antinous was a legitimate competitor against Christianity in the second century of Common Era. During this same century lived the satirist Lucian of Samosata. Among his many wonderful works, we find Death of Peregrine–a biographical account of a “mystic” who enjoyed taking advantage of people’s credulity.

One of the most interesting passages in the work is Lucian’s depiction of the Christians, of their credulity, of how easily Peregrine took advantage of them, and of how they helped him escape jail for having previously strangled his own father.

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 favorite 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.

Lucian, in Death of Peregrine

In the end, even the Christians realized Peregrine was a fraud when they apparently caught him involved in some sexual indecency, and decided to take back some of the riches they had bestowed on him (the author simply mentions “property” being disputed), which required litigation in the ancient Roman courts.

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. He accordingly sent in a petition to the emperor, suing for its restitution. But as the people of Parium sent up a deputation to remonstrate, nothing came of it all; he was told that as he had been under no compulsion in making his dispositions, he must abide by them.

Lucian, in Death of Peregrine

The historical facts are as fascinating to me as the pity that Lucian took on the poor Christians and their “queer creed“. Of course, we can’t say that everyone took pity on them, but based on what we find in Death of Peregrine, and based on the fact that Lucian wrote for an audience that was at least educated enough to be able to read in Greek, we can at least say that this is one of the reactions that people of average intelligence in antiquity exhibited when presented with primitive Christians. He also praised them for how well they took care of their own–the queerness of their creed notwithstanding.

About hiramcrespo

Hiram Crespo is the author of 'Tending the Epicurean Garden' (Humanist Press, 2014) and 'How to Live a Good Life' (Penguin Random House, 2020), and founder of societyofepicurus.com. He's also written for The Humanist, Eidolon, Occupy, The New Humanism, The Secular Web, Europa Laica, AteístasPR, and many other outlets.
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