Lucian's Testimony on Jesus
[Background Data] [Lucian: A Reliable Source] [Too Late?] [Reference to Priests] [An Independent Witness?] [Conclusions]

From this satirist and playwright of the second century, we have two quotes from a play entitled "The Passing of Peregrinus." The hero of the tale, Peregrinus, was a Cynic philosopher who became a Christian, rose in prominence in the Christian community, then returned to Cynicism. Lucian's attack is not so much on Christianity, but on the person of Peregrinus, who took advantage of the Christians' simplicity and gullibility. [Alli.Luc, 99]

The first quotes tells of Peregrinus, who learned "the wondrous lore of the Christians," became one of their leaders and was revered as a god, lawgiver, and protector, "next after that other, to be sure, whom they (the Christians) still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult to the world." [Harm.Luc, 13]

The second quote, regarding these same Christians: "Then, too, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers...after they have thrown over and denied the gods of Greece and have done reverence to that crucifed sophist himself and live according to his laws."

Obviously Jesus is not mentioned by name in these citations, but there is no doubt that it is Jesus to whom Lucian is referring here. No one else was ever worshipped by the Christians! I will also throw my own view in the mix: I believe, contrary to majority opinion, that in referring to "their first lawgiver," Lucian is referring not to Jesus, but to Paul or some other apostolic leader. I say this because the teachings referred to (to deny the gods, and do reverence to Jesus) fit far better with what was done by Paul than by Jesus.

Is this historian/writer a reliable source? Is there good reason to trust what they say?

We are of the opinion that this reference, like the Thallus reference, has been seriously undervalued. There is good reason to accept Lucian's testimony as solid evidence for the existence of Jesus and for historical data about Jesus' life.

One of Lucian's lesser-known works is a letter-formatted treatise entitled "The Way to Write History," addressed to Lucian's friend, Philo. Using this work, we can answer an important question about Lucian that significantly increase the value of his reference to Jesus: Was Lucian concerned with historical accuracy?

The answer from "The Way to Write History" is - absolutely yes! Lucian was very concerned with historical accuracy! Consider these quotes from that same work [Fowl.LucSam, 126, 128] :

History...abhors the intrusion of any least scruple of falsehood; it is like the windpipe, which the doctors tell us will not tolerate a morsel of stray food.
The historian's one task is to tell the thing as it happened.
(The historian) must sacrifice to no God but Truth; he must neglect all else; his sole rule and unerring guide is this - to think not of those who are listening to him now, but of the yet unborn who shall seek his converse.

On the other hand, Lucian also clearly disdains those who do not write good history, or who filled in the gaps of their histories with invented material. Consider one subject of his satire, Thucydides, who, following the ancient historical practice of "speech-in-character," (i.e., creating appropriate words for someone to say on a certain occassion, not knowing what it is that they actually said), formulated a funeral oratory for a centurion named Afranius. Of that oratory, Lucian writes (ibid., 122):

...the flood of rhetoric which follows is so copious and remarkable that it drew tears from me - ye Graces! - tears of laughter; most of all where the elegant Afranius, drawing to a close, makes mention, with weeping and distressful moans, of all those costly dinners and toasts. But he is a very Ajax in his conclusion. He draws his sword, gallantly as an Afranius should, and in sight of all cuts his throat over the grave - and God knows it was high time for an execution, if oratory can be a felony.

Lucian, then, clearly held historical accuracy in high esteem. This leads to our second point: Considering that Lucian:

  1. noted Christians for their simplicity and gullibility;
  2. valued historical accuracy; and,
  3. was well-educated, well-traveled, and a major figure in a literary movement of his time,

- there is good reason to believe that he would not acknowledge the existence of Jesus if there were any doubt in his mind that Jesus actually existed. He would certainly have satirized Christian belief in a fictional or historically doubtful personage mercilessly, if any such arguments existed at the time.

Finally, he was in a good position to have known of such issues, being that he moved in the most educated of circles and very likely corresponded and consulted with leading figures of his day.

In short, Lucian was a person who was "in a position to know" whether or not Jesus had genuine historical roots, and was exactly the sort who would raise any relevant doubts in order to enhance the impact of his satire.

This passage is very late and probably was informed by Christian sources. Lucian could just be copying their errors, and even if he were not, this testimony is too late to be useful.

However, the "lateness" of this reference is more than made up for by Lucian's critical capabilities. Lateness therefore cannot be used to devalue this passage.

And what of relying on Christians for this information? Given Lucian's disdain for Christians, it is doubtful that he would have relied on them solely for information, assuming he actually consulted them at all. Other views:

The evidence thus points towards derivation of this knowledge from a non-Christian source.

Just because someone has "disdain" for Christians does not mean they are skeptical of literally everything they say. For example, we can take the Mormon explanation for the origin of the term "Mormon" at face value without beliving their other claims.

Since Christian origins are so inextricably tied to a public historical event of great significance (as opposed to the origin of the term "Mormon," which is at best a trivial sidebar related to events known only by revelation to Joseph Smith and otherwise unlinked to recorded history), the analogy here fails. Christian claims were far more significant that this Mormon claim, and correspondingly Lucian's disdain for the Christians (and his concern for accuracy) makes it all the more likely that he would not rely solely on them as sources for a historical point.

A Misused Term?

Robert Van Voorst [VanV.JONT, 60ff] implies that Lucian is in error in saying that Christians have "priests"; though he says that the term was used among Christians, words like "presbyter" were "much more common."

One is pressed to see how this amounts to an inaccuracy by Lucian, since Christians clearly did use the term; moreover, Lucian is writing to a pagan audience who would know the term "priest" far better (as well as the other terms that Van Voorst accuses Lucian of misusing).

Van Voorst also wonders of Lucian's use of the term "scribes", because of its negative association in the Gospels. He thinks Lucian has ascribed the title anachronistically from Judaism, but one wonders why this has to be seen as a title rather than as a profession.

There is no evidence that Lucian's sources were independent. Lucian never specifies his sources, so your conjecture is nothing but speculation.

As, likewise, is the opposing contention, but my speculation is at least grounded in firm evidence: Lucian's concern for accuracy. In contrast, this speculation is grounded in a pre-conceived argument and a desire to beg an exception to a known and established "rule."

What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?

  1. Jesus is clearly regarded as the founder of Christianity. Cynic-sage theorists please note: Though a self-declared Cynic, Lucian did NOT claim Jesus as one of his own! He identifies Jesus as being associated with the teachings of Christianity - not with Cynicism!
  2. Lucian also confirms the method and place of Jesus' execution.
  3. Most of all, we learn a great deal about the attitudes and practices of Christians in Lucian's time, and about the corresponding attitude of pagans like Lucian towards Jesus and the Christians. Jesus is recognized as a sage and a teacher of some worth; yet Christian belief is generally regarded as absurd.

We therefore conclude that Lucian's citation it is a more valuable testimony than has been generally recognized.