Christian History Project. This site contains the text of 12 volumes on the history of mankind over the last 2,000 years written from a 'collectively-denominational' Christian perspective.

Peregrinus |
Devout believer or ancient con man?

Peregrinus is drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 202, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

Despite a criminal past, Peregrinus became a Christian hero, then bilked the brethren–Was he a total phony? The historians still can't decide

Peregrinus - Devout believer or ancient con man?

Peregrinus - Devout believer or ancient con man?

His unflattering nickname was “Proteus,” after a mythological sea god given to assuming various shapes, just as Proteus kept changing his religion. But his real name, Peregrinus, means “wanderer.” Down through the centuries, those who have examined the life of Peregrinus Proteus have asked several questions: Was he sincere but misguided? Or was he a self-promoting sham, a second-century forerunner of the twentieth-century religious con man, warming the hearts of the faithful while emptying their pockets? And whatever he was, why did he suicidally set fire to himself after the Olympic games?

The case for Peregrinus as a fraud is laid out by the skeptical satirist Lucian of Samosata in a detailed account of Peregrinus’s life. Lucian wrote fiction, but Peregrinus was not one of his invented characters, since he’s mentioned by other contemporary writers, including Tatian, Athenagoras, Tertullian, Maximus Tyrias, and Eusebius.

Born to a wealthy family at Parium on the Hellespont, the straits known to later history as the Dardanelles at the northeast corner of the Aegean, he first ran afoul of authority by committing adultery. He then “corrupted a handsome boy,” and managed to escape the consequences by paying off the boy’s impoverished parents. Those misdeeds might have been passed off as youthful indiscretions, but Lucian also reports that Peregrinus’s criminal activity rapidly expanded. He strangled his father to death “and bought his way out of justice by deeding his property to the city.”

No longer welcome at home, he began roaming from one country to another. When he discovered the community of Christians in Palestine, he quickly joined, learning everything he could about their beliefs. “In a trice he made them all look like children,” Lucian writes, “for he was prophet, cult-leader, and head of the synagogue. . . . He interpreted and explained some of their books, and even composed many.”

After being seized and imprisoned for his participation in the new faith, he received “every form of attention” from the Christians whom he had dazzled. “From the very break of day, aged widows and orphan children could be seen waiting near the prison,” Lucian writes. “Elaborate meals were brought in for him, and sacred books were read aloud. . . . Indeed, people came even from the cities in Asia, sent by the Christians at their common expense, to succor and defend and encourage the hero. They show incredible speed whenever any such public action is taken; for in no time, they lavish their all.”

Adds the skeptical Lucian: “The poor [Christian] wretches, their first lawgiver persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another, after they have transgressed once. . . . So if any charlatan and trickster, able to profit by occasions, comes among them, he quickly acquires sudden wealth by imposing upon simple folk.”

Having impressed the Syrian governor with his philosophies, Peregrinus was freed and began again “to roam about, possessing an ample source of funds from the Christians, through whose ministrations he lived in unalloyed prosperity.”

Eventually, however, he slipped up. He was seen sneaking food that the Christians forbade, and he was ejected from their company. After trying unsuccessfully to recover his property from the city where his father was slain, he dabbled in Yoga and Brahmanism, taking up residence in Rome as a Cynic philosopher until he was expelled for publicly mocking the emperor. So off he went to Greece, where he “libeled a man outstanding in literary attainments and position” and barely escaped a mob bent on stoning him to death.

“At last, he was disregarded by all, and no longer so admired,” Lucian writes, “for all his stuff was stale, and he could not turn out any further novelty.” Still craving acclaim, he announced that after the end of the Olympic games in 165, he would burn himself to death in public. He seemed confident that the crowd would “cling to him and not give him over to the fire, but retain him in life–against his will, naturally.”

So he arranged for a pit full of wood to be set ablaze outside the city of Olympia. However, instead of begging him to save himself, the crowd began chanting, “Carry out your purpose!” After exclaiming, “Spirits of my mother and my father, receive me with favor,” he jumped into the flames, which consumed him.

“I could not control my laughter,” says Lucian, at the thought of Peregrinus invoking the spirit of the father whom he had murdered. In the end, Lucian sums him up as a “poor wretch” who “never fixed his gaze on the verities, but always did and said everything with a view to glory and the praise of the multitude.” By some accounts, Peregrinus had a cult following for a brief time after his death, and a statue was erected in his memory.

His story reveals important details about Christianity in the mid-second century. There were food laws (which he broke); worship still took place in a synagogue (which he for a time led); and there was extensive communication between communities separated by hundreds of miles (which sent emissaries to feed and comfort him in prison).

The classical scholar A. M. Harmon in his translation of Lucian observes that many critics see Peregrinus not as a fake, but as “an earnest seeker after truth.” However, Harmon writes, such events as his attempting to get back the inheritance he renounced after murdering his father “make it impossible to see in him an ‘earnest and steadfast man’.”

This is the end of the Peregrinus category article drawn from Chapter Seven, beginning on page 202, of Volume Two, A Pinch of Incense. To continue reading more about Peregrinus from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at