Documents for the Study of the Gospels

By David R. Cartlidge; David L. Dungan | Go to book overview

Alexander the False Prophet
Lucian of Samosata

Introduction: Lucian’s portrait of Alexander is a parody that employs the bios genre to attack its subject. In fact, that is precisely why this writing is significant; it contains the basic Greco-Roman Savior image. Lucian has inverted this concept, however, and made it into a vehicle for satire.

Lucian of Samosata, the author of this writing, was a second-century B.C. precursor of H. L. Mencken. A prolific and popular writer, he looked at his world with sharp, satirical eyes. Very few elements of Greek society from bedroom to the marketplace to the philosophical academy escaped Lucian’s keen and debunking wit. However, most of his satires are not bitter in tone, such as this one is. One senses that this “Life of Alexander” was not entirely in fun; Lucian thoroughly despised Alexander and his kind.

There is not much question that this Alexander was an actual cult leader, whose religious charade survived his death for some time. Of course, as Lucian is virtually our only source of information about Alexander, it is not possible to evaluate the accuracy of his assessment very well. According to Lucian, Alexander was a pious fraud (goes) of a type not uncommon in the Hellenistic world, or any other time, for that matter. Lucian’s Alexander is an early Elmer Gantry.

Scathing as it is, Lucian’s story nevertheless employs the form of a Hellenistic biography (bios), such as we see in the accounts of Moses and Apollonios. As we have pointed out with regard to them, the subject is set forth as a model of moral perfection, so that the author emphasizes the achievements of the subject and often launders his shortcomings. Lucian does just the opposite: he makes everything about Alexander look as vile and despicable as possible. A bios contains an account of the unusual ancestry, birth, education, and exploits of the hero, ending with the hero’s exemplary death and ascension to Heaven. Lucian follows this whole format, but turns it inside out!

You, dear Celsus, probably think it a small and petty thing to ask me to set down for you in a book the life of Alexander, the charlatan (goes) of Abunoteichos, all his cleverness, boldness, and trickery. But if someone wished accurately to examine each item, it would not be less a job than to write the deeds of Philip’s son, Alexander. One was as great in evil as the other in excellence.

-284-

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