Is there anything worse than being unoriginal? Our culture has been cultivating the image of the ultimate free spirit over many decades now: the rugged individuals, taking on the world by themselves. The mavericks. The influencers.
Who recalls the famous scene from Good Will Hunting where Will Hunting, played by Matt Damon, must defend the honor of his best friend against a Harvard know-it-all who regurgitates memorized facts from a book as if they were his own. Will points out that the man is not at all brilliant but merely a parrot. The man responds back, “Yeah, but I’ll have a degree. And you’ll be serving my kids fries at a drive-thru on our way to a skiing trip.”
“Yeah, maybe,” Will says, laughing. “But at least I won’t be unoriginal.”
Will was right in that case: It is better to have original thoughts than to plagiarize someone else’s thoughts and pass them off as your own in order to build up your own mystique. No one likes a self-aggrandizing plagiarist, someone pretending to be original when they are anything but.
However, this is essentially what many critical scholars allege is true of Jesus. For a few decades near the turn of the 20th century, some believed that the story of Jesus was an amalgamation of ancient pagan myths that include stories of dying and rising-from-the-dead deities. Some questioned whether Jesus was a real, historical person at all. This hyper-critical view has been thoroughly debunked and tossed into the dustbin of bad scholarship by the vast majority of scholars in relevant fields, though it does persist through conspiratorial internet communities. Sober historians—Christian and non-Christian alike—admit that Jesus was a real person.
Now, the best way to discredit Jesus is by calling his biographers plagiarists, suggesting that while Jesus was a real person, the facts of his life are mere copies of ancient stories, but the charge simply does not stick. At the root of these attempts to explain away the uniqueness of Jesus is a desire to to lessen his appeal and usher others into a new age of “enlightenment,” away from the religious bigotry and tribalism some believe characterizes Christianity and religion in general. And what better way to do so than to bring back the plagiarism charge? How does one do this? Just claim his life story as told in the gospels is based on other human sages, prophets, messianic figures, etc. The charge is not so much that his biographers were blatant plagiarizers, but that they were so incredibly unoriginal, and their story so commonplace, that they were accidental plagiarizers whose real crime is their unoriginality.
Peregrinus, sacrificial sham
This is essentially the move Bart Ehrman attempts in his book How Jesus Became God with a discussion of the life of Peregrinus. There is an incredible response to Ehrman’s book by renowned New Testament scholars Michael Bird, Craig Evans, Simon Gathercole, Charles Hill, and Chris Tilling entitled How Jesus Became God: The Real Origins of Belief in Jesus’ Divine Nature. I highly recommend you read this volume. Though it is exhaustive, there were naturally a few claims Ehrman makes that they couldn’t quite cover in the book. This is one of those claims.
In this book, Ehrman tries to debunk the idea that early Christians had a “high Christology” (a belief that God became man) by instead positing that they had a “low Christology” (that a man had been divinized in some sense, whether that meant becoming God or just a higher spiritual form). One way in which he attempts to make his case is by pointing to similar accounts in other ancient literature to suggest that the idea of a human becoming divine in some way was commonplace. Sometimes, he tacks on other attributes for good measure, such as self-sacrifice. Clearly, he suggests, Christians were just copying this notion of divinized human beings that was popular in their cultural setting.
As an example, Ehrman tells us that Lucian of Samosata, a second-century Greek satirist, wrote about the death of Peregrinus, a person whom Lucian clearly loathed. In Ehrman’s telling, this narrative portrays Peregrinus as a Cynic philosopher who professed to be the embodiment of the god Proteus, abstained from all worldly pleasure, and attempted to prove the point “by voluntarily undergoing a violent and painful death, so as to show how he thought that people should in fact live.”[i]
Ehrman’s use of Peregrinus to prove Jesus’s unoriginality is deeply flawed, with parts of the text omitted that leads to the exclusion of important details. While he does mention that the author of The Life of Peregrinus, the aforementioned Lucian of Samosata, was alive in the second century, he fails to highlight both that this example comes after Christ and that Lucian was a critic of Christians. Lucian’s account even includes Christians, as Christianity already existed, but Ehrman makes no mention of this.
Another thing Ehrman strangely omits about Peregrinus is that while he was a Cynic,[ii] he was also either a Christian apostate or a manipulator of well-meaning Christians. Peregrinus was attempting mimicry, re-enacting certain aspects of Jesus’s life for his own benefit, apparently pontificating on the Law, interpreting scriptures, and being wrongly imprisoned, the latter being a particularly grievous call to action for Christians. It is Peregrinus and the gullible Christians Lucian has in mind when he writes, “So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.[iii]
Furthermore, yes, Peregrinus did sacrifice himself as Ehrman points out, but Lucian writes that he did not want or intend to. Rather, Peregrinus died because his self-sacrificial bluff had been called. And as we see in all examples of parallelomania (where someone sees allegedly causal similarities and parallels between Jesus and other figures with the same rapidity and attention to detail that the people of Salem, Massachusetts saw witches), the parallels are not quite the same. Jesus went to an execution willingly for the joy set before him (Hebrews 12:2). Peregrinus jumped into fire reluctantly. One was murder, the other suicide.
To say that Jesus was unoriginal because of the example of Peregrinus is like saying Elvis was unoriginal because of Austin Butler’s starring performance in the 2022 film Elvis.
Interestingly, though Ehrman is a critical scholar (and he is especially critical of biblical writings that are in too much agreement with later established Christian orthodoxy), he is in no way critical of Lucian’s humiliating account of the whole affair, overlooking the fact that Lucian was a vociferous critic of Cynics like Peregrinus and Christianity. We are taught to be cautious when we get details about some group by that same group’s enemies. But, for some reason, Lucian is given a pass.
We have good reason to doubt Lucian’s account of the events in question. Assuming the Christians he discussed were connected to the apostolic tradition, they would not have understood Peregrinus as a god, as Lucian accuses. He writes that Peregrinus learned the “wondrous lore of the Christians” and, after earning their trust rather easily, “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, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.”[iv] Yet Christians were already firmly aware that there was only one God, and yet the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were all this one God in three persons. They didn’t have quite this terminology yet, but the ideas were there, and membership in the Godhead was closed.
Even accounting for the early Christian view of theosis, or deification,does not account for Lucian’s claim that the Christians “revered him as a god.” Theosiswas essentially about a close union with God in which the human remained human, though fully glorified and in loving, eternal relationship with God. The idea of theosis never crosses the creator-creature divide. And no one of that mind ever said, “This person became a god!” In Lucian’s account, what those Christians would have been affirming was not theosis, but apotheosis, in which a human does not merely become a “partaker of divine nature,” as St. Peter wrote (2 Peter 1:4), but that they literally become divine, a capital-G God like God. This is what people claimed of emperors, and it was rejected by early Christians. Though both Greek terms—theosis and apotheosis—are translated into English by the term deification, they are lightyears apart in meaning.
Of course, we could always listen to the Christians themselves. Lucian goes on to unconsciously contradict himself by describing a striking example of how ungodlike the Christians considered Peregrinus: they rejected his fellowship when he was seen eating forbidden foods! Later, while he may have been mimicking the self-sacrifice he learned from Jesus and hoping to win back the support of Christians by doing so, there is no explicit mention of Christians at the “self-sacrifice” of Peregrinus. This is not a case of Christians fleeing the death of their founder, like Jesus denied by Peter. Rather, this is more a case of Christians not caring to be at the “self-sacrifice” of their apostates, like Judas.
Moreover, whatever Lucian was doing—manipulating the truth, massaging the truth, misunderstanding the facts, blatantly lying, etc.—he seems to have only a passing familiarity with Christian beliefs. But one who was very familiar with Christian beliefs was Tertullian, second- and early third-century Christian apologist from Carthage—and a contemporary of Lucian. He knew of Peregrinus and wrote about him, not as a god but as a philosopher who, along with other philosophers and scholars from other disciplines, willingly faced severe punishment for one reason or another. Tertullian writes,
The philosophers have been outstripped—for instance, Heraclitus, who, smeared with cow dung, burned himself; and Empedocles, who leapt down into the fires of Aetna; and Peregrinus, who not long ago threw himself on the funeral pile.[v]
Tertullian does not say this to exalt the example of Peregrinus, either. Rather, he is trying to encourage Christians to endure their own persecution and potential execution. As a way of helping them face the extreme brutality coming their way, Tertullian simply gives a list of people (not Christians) who had willfully died similarly brutal deaths. To sum it up, he is telling them that he hopes they won’t be called upon to die for their faith, but if they are, they will have enough strength to do so because even these mere philosophers could do it. In one sense, it isn’t a compliment to the philosophers at all. He is saying that if they can do it, you Christians can surely do it too, for you have Christ with you and the promise of eternity ahead of you. Notice also that Tertullian says Peregrinus “threw himself.” In contrast Ehrman’s retelling of Lucian’s text, there is no illusion that he died a sacrificial death or that he is perceived as a god in Tertullian’s account.
Furthermore, we have evidence from the Syrian Christian apologist Tatian, another contemporary, that Peregrinus and other Cynics like him were far from being considered noble heroes by the early Christians. Tatian writes,
[Cynics] say they want nothing, yet like Proteus [i.e., Peregrinus, who claimed to be Proteus], they need a currier for their wallet, and a weaver for their mantle, and a woodcutter for their staff, and the rich, and a cook also for their gluttony.[vi]
To both Tatian and Tertullian, the only known contemporaneous Christians discussing Peregrinus, he was merely a man and not one they admired. There is little reason to doubt that there was a group of Christians who came to the aid of someone they felt was unjustly imprisoned, even if he wasn’t (indeed, Jesus had told his followers explicitly to visit prisoners as if they were visiting him; cf. Matthew 25:31-46). There is little reason to doubt that a group of well-meaning people could be taken advantage of by a swindler. But there are many reasons to doubt the hyperbolic description Lucian gives of their care and devotion toward Peregrinus.
A Better Option
Lucian could perhaps be correct in thinking that some Christians took up Peregrinus’s cause after he was imprisoned, and it may be that Peregrinus was a charlatan playing on the gullibility of a particular set of Christians. Perhaps Lucian despised how they rallied around a man he disliked. Maybe they were drawn to Peregrinus because they felt he was unjustly imprisoned, and their Savior, himself unjustly executed, had instructed them that to visit and care for the prisoner was like visiting and caring for himself.[vii]
But it doesn’t seem Lucian took the time to really understand what they were doing, perhaps because he despised the early Christians’ renunciation of extreme pleasure, one part of their Cynic-like simple lifestyle. Perhaps he disliked Christians because they had believed in a truly divine man, and Lucian, like many others, found the idea of the divine in material a repulsive and volatile catalyst for superstition.
Whatever the case may be, Lucian is not a reliable source regarding what Christians believed about Peregrinus. And Peregrinus’s story, even if some Christians did mistakenly believe in his divinity (which is highly dubious), would be little evidence for anything concerning Jesus. And lastly, it is quite plain to see that Peregrinus was himself a thief of goodwill and archetypes he could use for his own advantage, which he most likely did in the case of Jesus to gain the patronage of Christians. These facts Ehrman somehow overlooks, skipping over them for parts of the narrative that he construes to suggest that Jesus’s biographers are nothing more than, at best, accidental plagiarists of common cultural tropes. But in the end, we see that it is Peregrinus who is a copycat of the original. It is highly doubtful that the early Christians thought of him as a god or a savior. For that, they already had a better option.
[i] Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 37.
[ii] A school of thought founded by Antisthenes (c. 446 – c. 366 BC) that championed ascetic lifestyles and virtuous living as the goal of the good life, rather than pleasure. One could say they were cynical of the transitory pleasures that life could offer, along with being cynical about the rat race of achievement, wealth, and status. The word “Cynic” may be derived from the Greek word for “dog,” which is perhaps a comment on the way they lived or how they were viewed by many cultural elites. For a helpful comparison of modern forms of cynicism with the ancient, see Arthur C. Brooks’ sympathetic take, “Live Like the Ancient Cynics,” at The Atlantic athttps://www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2022/01/cynicism-modern-ancient-true-meaning/621314/. To understand why Christians and Cynics had a love-hate relationship, given what appears to be much commonality, see Marie-Odile Goulet-Cazé’s Cynicism and Christianity in Antiquity from Eerdmans Publishing (2019).
[iii] Lucian of Samosata, The Passing of Peregrinus, available at https://www.tertullian.org/rpearse/lucian/peregrinus.htm.
[iv] Lucian makes several highly dubious claims about the success of Peregrinus that are unverified in his own time and up to our own. For full context, he writes, “It was then that [Peregrinus] 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 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, whom they still worship, the man who was crucified in Palestine because he introduced this new cult into the world.” These claims are dubious on a number of grounds, of while I’ll list only three. First, as will be shown in the rest of this article, there is no evidence that Christians worshipped Peregrinus or any man other than Jesus as a “god.” Second, it is also highly doubtful that a known Cynic would easily be able to gain control of a synagogue (unless the translation is missing something, it appears to be saying Peregrinus gained charge over a Jewish house of worship). Third, given that Jews and Christians had already begun to split from one another, and that the latter were no longer welcomed in the synagogues, it becomes more likely that these two claims together—that Peregrinus was both a Jewish leader and a Christian leader—are impossible, for one would disqualify the other.
[v] Tertullian, Ad Martyras 4, trans. Rev. S. Thelwall, in Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 3 (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1885), 695.
[vi] Tatian, Address of Tatian to the Greeks 25, trans. J. E. Ryland, in Rev. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (eds.), Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2 (Buffalo, NY: The Christian Literature Company, 1885), 75.
[vii] That is not the same thing as saying each prisoner is a savior like Jesus or is, in fact, Jesus. Early Christians would have found that sort of quantum leap body-swapping as unrealistic as we do today.