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Primary Source Saturday: Lucian of Samosata

Who: Lucian of Samosata was a satirist writing during the “Second Sophisitc” born around 125 CE and died circa 180 CE.  A.M. Harmon, the translator of most of the Loeb volumes concerned with Lucian describes him in this manner:

Rightly to understand and appreciate Lucian, one must recognise that he was not a philosopher nor even a moralist, but a rhetorician, that his mission in life was not to reform society nor to chastise it, but simply to amuse it. He himself admits on every page that he is serious only in his desire to please[.]

What: The bulk of his work is comprised of satirical dialogues. My favorite, “Philosophies for Sale”, has been quoted on the blog before. In addition to these satirical dialogues, he has written the  novel “A True Story” that is widely believed to be the first science-fiction novel ever written. He also wrote essays addressing popular figures of his day and dealing in an amusing way with contemporary issues.

Why: So, why should a New Testament/Early Christianity person read Lucian? There are a couple of good reasons. First, some of Lucian’s pieces shed an incredible amount of light on second century Greco-Roman culture. As an example, consider his essay called “On Salaried Posts in Great Houses.” Lucian humorously exposes the difficulties that face rhetoricians seeking to gain from the patronage of the wealthy. In the process, he reveals a great deal about the duties of clients to their patrons, the nature of feasts, and generally provides an interesting window into the politics of patronage. More directly relevant is a hilarious narrative called “The Passing of Peregrinus” that tells the true story (no pun intended) of a philosophical wanderer who tried on various lifestyles, including Christianity, before settling on Cynicism and committing suicide in spectacular fashion on a great pyre just after the Olympics. The story is interesting because Peregrinus’ Christian years bear a startling resemblance to the imprisonment and martyrdom of Ignatius. The parallels are so interesting, that Lightfoot even argued some sort of literary dependence on the letters of Ignatius. While Lightfoot certainly demands of the text more than it has to offer, it is striking that Peregrinus is arrested in Asia Minor for civil unrest related to his Christianity, transported to Rome for trial, and ministered to by delegations from churches in Asia Minor. Ultimately, Peregrinus renounces Christianity and is spared the mill that would make him into the wheat of God. While no thought of a literary relationship can be defended, the “Passing of Peregrinus” does demonstrate that the situation of Ignatius was common enough or at least well-known enough to function as a literary trope. Lucian explicitly declares that the sending of delegations and the ministry to those imprisoned was the common custom of the Christians. It is also interesting because Lucian implies that Peregrinus’ rise to leadership was somehow tied to his arrest. This could support the theory that the government, which engaged in no widespread persecution until Decius in 250 CE, had a policy of targeting leaders. That does appear to be the case with Ignatius, since the movements of his coreligionists seem to be unimpeded. All in all, Lucian’s “Passing of Peregrinus” offers a fascinating window into both philosophical conversion and the practice of the Church in the case of imprisonment. The text can be read for free by downloading the relevant Loeb volume here. (N.B. While Lucian provides interesting information about the customs of the church, it is clear he is completely unreliable as a source of its doctrine.)

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  1. […] Like Lucian, who was discussed last week, Martial is an important source of information on the social engagements of the Greco-Roman world. […]

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