Peregrinus Proteus was a Greek philosopher who lived from 95CE to 165CE. The only real surviving text about him that was roughly contemporary to the time he lived was The Death of Peregrine, written by Greek satirist Lucian of Samasota.
To someone who abides by the traditional Christian narrative that Jesus preached in the early 30s, Paul proseltyzed for 30 years after, and (someone named) John wrote Revelation and a gospel at the tail end of the 1st century, Peregrinus is not too special or interesting.
But if you’re like me, and you just can’t get yourself to believe Jesus ever existed as a single person who grew up with Mary and Joseph, and who died under Pontius Pilate after his ministries, then Peregrinus Proteus becomes a person of intrigue, in part because one of the logical speculations a person can make if they approach Christian history skeptically is that the Christian timeline is false – conservatively, it’s about 55 years too early.
What’s known about Peregrinus Proteus is from a hostile source, so one has to be careful about how much of it they assume to be true, but there are intriguing details that might fill in gaps about how Christianity moved Northward during the mid-2nd century, specifically between Jerusalem and Syria.
Peregrinus Proteus is associated with Greek Cynicism, which was a philosophical doctrine focused on ethics and “living in agreement with nature”; like Christianity, Cynicism drew influences from the Pythagoreans, and was roughly contemporary with an emerging Platonism. It was also characterized by rejection of money, sex, and other worldly desires – it’s easy to see how Cynicism found symbiosis with Christianity, whose earliest tenets were focused on similar concerns.
One of the first Cynics was Diogenes, who like my favorite heretic, Marcion, was from Sinope, a city in North-central Turkey. My point in referencing this detail is that, from what I’ve seen in so many cases, I think people were invented, or had their personalities altered, to reflect favorite “comic book characters” of the time. The most obvious example is Paul being borrowed from Apollonius of Tyana (Tyana was in South-central Turkey).
The quasi-biography of Peregrinus Proteus was written by Greek satirist Lucian. Lucian was from Samasota in Southern Turkey, 250-300 miles East of Tyana, where Apollonius was from.
Lucian characterized Peregrinus Proteus as a wandering pilgrim of sorts, travelling from city-to-city, collecting disciples, and espousing remarkable self-importance.
The detail that piqued my interest was that Peregrinus fell in with a group of Christians in Palestine. Gilbert Bagnani, in his reconstruction of Peregrinus’ life, puts this event at 120. I’ve run across several analyses that put this event in Pella, which is dubious, because I cannot find any indication in the text that Peregrinus’ sect was in Pella – Specifically, the text says:
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
I can’t figure out why Peregrinus’ geography was put specifically at Pella for his meet-up with local Christians in Palestine…my guess is that this event is put in Pella because of Eusebius’ characterization of the Christian emigration around the time of the 1st Jewish-Roman war around 70; but with this presumption, history has created another (one of its many) begging-the-question error by assuming this event was in Pella. In any event, the Christian community in Palestine around 120 might very well have looked Ebionite…this ties in to my presumption that it was between Samaria and Jerusalem where Marcion’s Christianity fizzled because of Jewish pushback against rejection of the law.
Could it be that Peregrinus saw an existing power dynamic in the locals’ reverence to Marcion, and saw an opportunity for a power grab? Or could it be that the early Ebionites were uncomfortable with some of Marcion’s tenets, and Peregrinus exacerbated this rift (perhaps assisting in writing the Gospel of Matthew)? This is a speculation, but it fits in well, in terms of my derived Christian timeline.
Around 140, Peregrinus (according to modern terminology) was “ex-communicated” by the Ebionites. The text does not make reference to this word; rather, it says
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…
According to Lucian, Peregrinus’ ex-communication was related to meat. The most obvious violation Peregrinus might have committed was that he ate meat – the Ebionites abstained from meat, despite the fact that there is no obvious mandate in the bible for such behavior; it might have been, in part, an anti-Marcionite response, as 1 Corinthians 9 makes reference to Oxen.
Another possibility for Peregrinus’ ex-communication was that Peregrinus ate meat that was previously sacrificed at the altar to some other idol; “Paul” makes reference to this, again in 1 Corinthians, when he discusses this practice, concluding “we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat”. Either way, I propose that the Ebionites who came to reject Peregrinus were behaving according to their anti-Marcionism.
The compelling detail here, at least in my mind, is that in Peregrinus Proteus, we have a dynamic, charismatic leader-type, who interacted with a sect of Christians, and in the process attempted to contribute a synthesis (eating meat, despite the Ebionites’ anti-Marcion position on it). This is happening at the exact same time and the exact same place where similar syntheses are happening just to the north in Syria.
In my estimation, Syria must have taken influence from the Marcionites, if you presume Valentinus was from Syria; Valentinus, of course, used the Paul letters in his “canon” (of course, I also presume the Paul letters originated in the Marcionite community; even if you don’t presume that, the Paul letters have a strong Syrian tradition).
But at this time, the Syrian community were also becoming more accepting of James, the Ebionite figurehead…a synthesis in itself, to be sure.
This makes me wonder if we’ve captured the moment in time where all this was happening, and the moment where the fighting between the Syrians, Marcionites, and Johannines really started picking up.
In previous posts, I’ve presumed that Polycarp was the Johannine leader, while Ignatius, his contemporary and “theological sibling” (both having learned from the Apostle John) was the Syrian leader.
What kept occurring to me as I was reading about Peregrinus Proteus was that his story looked an awful lot like Ignatius’s – they were both martyrs imprisoned and persecuted by Rome, were both south of the Johannines and Marcionites, both were prolific writers, and can both be linked to the Syrian community.
I thought I was so clever in this assumption that Peregrinus might actually be the historical root for the Ignatius invention, until I discovered that Stephan Huller and Roger Parvus both noticed this similarity years ago. Once again, I’m late to the party.
One of the details that originally tripped me up (6-8 months ago) about Ignatius is the conventional dating of him. Many Christian scholars put him much earlier than he could have come – the mid-to-late 1st century.
But one has to wonder why such an important “apostolic father” would not have been noticed by Irenaeus who was very particular about what characters he put into his Christian historical narrative in order to build his own apostolic authority. Eusebius appears to have been the first historian to mention Ignatius, although there is a surviving epistle, purportedly written by Ignatius, addressed to Polycarp. In this light, however, I’m inclined to suspect all of the Ignatius letters were later forgeries, written perhaps by Peregrinus or one of his successors.
Whether Peregrinus is a depiction of Ignatius or not, he gives some potential compelling insight to the place and time I think are most interesting in the development of early Christianity – my interest mostly centers around the early 2nd century interactions between the Johannines, the Marcionites, the Syrians, and the Ebionites, and the story of Peregrinus gives a very nuanced picture that Christians would probably rather ignore, because Peregrinus exposes a detail that I think was quite common in early Christianity: some early leaders exploited Christians in order to gain money and power.
A frustrating detail about holding the Christ-myth theory is that it’s very hard to prove. The reason for this difficulty is because, in my estimation, just about everything in Christian history before 180 is a fabrication. Lies and damned lies, invented by Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and a handful of other power-mongers for the sake of advancing Christianity’s role (and perhaps their own) in the Roman empire.
Every time you apply any level of skepticism to early Christianity, the whole thing falls apart because of the profound historical, secular silence around it. What’s more, when secular evidence does manage to give insight into early Christianity, the story makes much more sense when you place Christianity’s origins later in history.
Once again, I come to the conclusion that the reason no one noticed Christianity until the 2nd century is because it didn’t really exist in the way it is claimed to have existed.