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Lucian of Samosata, generally just Lucian, (ca. 125 – after 180 CE) was a rhetorician and satirist with 70 known surviving works. He was best known for his dialogues ridiculing Greek mythology and philosophy. One notable work is True History, which contains space travel, aliens, and interplanetary war, making it the first known science fiction text.
Several apologists, looking for evidence for the existence of Jesus, have cited the following statement by Lucian (ca. 170 CE), recounting the words of a speaker in a town square after a man named Proteus had thrown himself into a fire:
It was then that he [Proteus] learned the wondrous lore of the Christians, by associating with their priests and scribes in Palestine. And—how else could it be?—in a trice he [Proteus] made them all look like children, for he was prophet, cult-leader, head of the synagogue, and everything, all by himself. He interpreted and explained some of their books and even composed many, and they revered him as a god, made use of him as a lawgiver, and set him down as a protector, next after that other, to be sure, whom11[note 1] they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world. Then at length Proteus was apprehended for this and thrown into prison[.] [...] [T]he Christians, regarding the incident as a calamity, left nothing undone in the effort to rescue him[.] [....] So it was then in the case of Peregrinus; much money came to him from them by reason of his imprisonment, and he procured not a little revenue from it. The poor wretches have convinced themselves, first and foremost, that they are going to be immortal and live for all time, in consequence of which they despise death and even willingly give themselves into custody; most of them. Furthermore, their first lawgiver12[note 2] persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another after they have transgressed once, for all by denying the Greek gods and by worshipping that crucified sophist himself and living under his laws. Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property, receiving such doctrines traditionally without any definite evidence. So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.
It should be noted that Lucian, while a satirist, separated fiction from fact. Lucian also attempted to act as an unbiased, serious, and accurate historian. While his depiction of the incident may be humorous, it was likely not fictional.
There are several issues with taking this as evidence of a historical Jesus.
- Time: Lucian's statement was written near 170 CE (about 140 years after the crucifixion), and Lucian himself was born in 125 CE (about 95 years after the crucifixion). It seems rather unlikely that Lucian was an eyewitness.
- Sources: Lucian never specified his sources on Jesus. Given that Christianity had been going on for over 100 years, it's easy to believe that Lucian used Christian sources, common knowledge, or even an earlier pagan reference (such as Tacitus). Yet Lucian can only count as evidence of Jesus' existence if he used independent and reliable sources; neither is known.
- Some have responded the Lucian disdained Christians, which makes it unlikely that he'd have used them for information. There are numerous issues: First, just because you think a religion is stupid, doesn't mean you necessarily question the believers on the origins of their religion -- namely, where the "Christ" of "Christian" comes from. (ie, even if you think Mormonism is stupid, you likely wouldn't question Mormons on the origins of the word "Mormon".) Second, there's no evidence that Christianity was significant at the time, making it unlikely that Lucian would have either cared enough to investigate or that other writers would have extensively investigated the issue.
- Lack of skepticism: Just as with Tacitus, it is plausible that Lucian would have accepted Christian claims that their founder had been crucified, etc. Further, there is no evidence that Lucian doubted the historicity of Jesus, or investigated it. His concern for accuracy is irrelevant if he had no reason to believe that his statements were inaccurate.
Further, if we accept that Lucian is accurate, then we must also believe that early Christians were gullible idiots, willing to give their money and power to any well-spoken newcomer. This suggests against ideas that early Christians would have been skeptical and wouldn't have "died for a lie", and suggests for ideas that Christians invented, heard, or extrapolated myths about Jesus, perhaps even inventing the man himself.
- Evidence for the historical existence of Jesus Christ
- Pliny the Younger
- "The sense of the un[a]mended text here is “protector; that great man, to be sure, they’ still worship,” etc."
- "From the wording of this sentence the allusion is so obviously to Christ himself that one is at a loss to understand why Paul, let alone Moses, should have been suggested. For the doctrine of brotherly love cf. Matthew 23:8."
- Grant 1995, p. 27.
- Grant 1995, p. 70.
- Grant 1995, pp. 81,94.
- Holding 2000