Monday, 31 August 2020

Lucian's parody of the book of Revelation

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

Lucian, a 2nd century satirical essayist, wrote a very close parody of this episode from the New Testament book of Revelation. Historians of early Christianity tend not to notice this. Sometimes they even reject it out of hand when it’s pointed out: I’m not quite sure why.

Maybe it’s because when ancient pagan authors mention Christians, people start having arguments about the historical Jesus. With Lucian, though, that doesn’t have to be a problem: he wrote about contemporary Christians, not about Jesus himself.

Gustave Doré, ‘La nouvelle Jérusalem’ (1865)

Lucian was a Syrian who lived in Antioch, close to the border between modern Turkey and Syria. Greek wasn’t his first language, but he was perhaps the most brilliant prose writer in the entire history of classical Greek. No, wait, ‘prose writer’ isn’t enough: he was an artist. His unique wit holds up today whether he’s writing about letters of the alphabet bringing lawsuits against each other because of spelling changes, or Poseidon’s jaw dropping at the news that Zeus has given birth to Dionysus out of his leg, or when he satirises classic writers like Herodotus and Ctesias.

Scholars of early Christianity are familiar with his picture of ancient Christians in the essay The death of Peregrinus. Peregrinus — a joke name, from the Latin for ‘outsider, travelling visitor’ — was supposedly a free thinker who became a Christian for a while, got imprisoned for his beliefs, and embezzled the defence funds raised by his fellow Christians. Lucian comments that Christians are an easy target for cons:

These unfortunate (Christians) have totally convinced themselves that they’re going to be immortal and live for all time, and as a result they scorn death, and often devote themselves willingly. Plus, their first law-giver instructed them that they were all each other’s brothers, once they transgressed by rejecting the Greek gods and worshipping him — that sophist who was crucified — and by living under his laws. So they scorn everything indiscriminately, and treat property as common. They carry on these traditions without any reliable guarantee.

But even specialists tend to assume that Lucian’s knowledge of Christianity was only hearsay. Never mind that Antioch was the premier centre of Christian evangelism in the ancient Mediterranean. And never mind that in another piece, Lucian does a close parody of Revelation that shows great familiarity with the text.

Lucian’s True history and the new Jerusalem

Lucian’s famous True history is a hilarious novella about a crew of explorers who find their ship caught up in all sorts of Munchausenesque adventures, including an island of vine-women, a war between the Moon and the Sun over colonisation rights to Venus, a Sea of Milk, visits to the afterlife on the Island of the Blessed and the Island of the Damned, and so on. It’s this last episode that contains the parody. Lucian’s description of the city where the blessed dead live is in large part a rip-off of the new Jerusalem, coming down to earth out of heaven, described in Revelation chapters 21 and 22.

The ‘new Jerusalem’ is a trope in the ancient Judaeo-Christian tradition. For Revelation, it represented Christians being freed from the tyranny of Rome, referred to slyly as ‘Babylon’. In earlier examples it had different meanings. For the Qumran New Jerusalem text, from the Dead Sea scrolls (Vermes 2004: 607–610), the oppressor is Antiochus, who persecuted the Jews in the 2nd century BCE; for Ezekiel 40–48, in the Hebrew Bible, the oppressor is the real Babylon. In each case, the Judaeo-Christian god is enthroned in the new city and lives there with his people.

‘Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.’ Revelation 22.1–2. (Madrid, Biblioteca Nacional, MS Vit. 14.2, f. 254. Source:

Lucian’s parody doesn’t share this theological-historical background. He wasn’t interested in oppressors and liberation: his imitation focuses on isolated motifs, and exaggerating them for comic effect. Lucian scholars have sometimes noticed the parody, sometimes not. The most recent English-language commentary, by Georgiadou and Larmour, is non-committal on whether Lucian knew Revelation; Stengel dismisses it without discussion. Two other commentators mention the parody, Betz and von Moellendorff, but they don’t realise its full extent.

Note. Perhaps excusably, I missed a more recent commentary by Frank Redmond (2015): Redmond is entirely unaware of the parody. This is surprising given that even the Byzantine scholia draw attention to it.

Historians of early Christianity are prone to object that Lucian was probably satirising something else. Well, that isn’t impossible. But first, why assume that another target is more likely? Revelation is a core Christian text, Lucian lived in a city that had a core Christian community. Second, the only other potential targets that we know of are much more obscure, and aren’t remotely as close a match. You think Lucian was reading Ezekiel or the Qumran New Jerusalem text, and didn’t read Revelation? Hardly. A third candidate is the Coptic Acts of Peter and the twelve apostles from Nag Hammadi (NHC vi.1; Robinson 2000: iii.197–229), which has a city with some passing resemblances. That one’s probably later than Lucian. Sure, you can postulate some other lost text as Lucian’s target. But as we’ll see below, it’s hard to imagine a closer match.

First, let’s establish the elements where Revelation plays on the earlier Jewish texts. The main elements copied are:

None of these shared features reappears in Lucian. He was unfamiliar with the tradition: he only knew Revelation.

Lucian’s parody

In Revelation, some motifs get duplicated; Lucian condenses them into one spot. Only one motif is entirely out of sequence. So it’s easy to tabulate the parallels: just put the two texts side by side.

Revelation 21–22 (NRSV translation) Lucian, True history 2.11–13 (translated by A. M. Harmon)
21.10 ... the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God. 11 It has the glory of God and a radiance like a very rare jewel, like jasper, clear as crystal.
(18 the city is pure gold, clear as glass. ...)
(21 ... and the street of the city is pure gold, transparent as glass.)
11 The city itself is all of gold
12 It has a great, high wall and the wall around it of emerald.
with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, and on the gates are inscribed the names of the twelve tribes of the Israelites; 13 on the east three gates, on the north three gates, on the south three gates, and on the west three gates. ...
(21 And the twelve gates are twelve pearls, each of the gates is a single pearl ...)
It has seven gates, all of single planks of cinnamon.
And the wall of the city has twelve foundations, and on them are the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb. ... The foundations of the city and the ground within its walls
19 The foundations of the wall of the city are adorned with every jewel; the first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, 20 the fifth onyx, the sixth cornelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. ... are ivory.
22 I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. There are temples of all the gods, built of beryl, and in them great monolithic altars of amethyst, on which they make their great burnt-offerings.
27 But nothing unclean will enter it, nor anyone who practises abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. 22.1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb 2 through the middle of the street of the city. Around the city runs a river of the finest myrrh, a hundred royal cubits wide and five deep, so that one can swim in it comfortably. For baths they have large houses of glass, warmed by burning cinnamon; instead of water there is hot dew in the tubs. 12 For clothing they use delicate purple spider-webs. As for themselves, they have no bodies, but are intangible and fleshless, with only shape and figure. ... Nobody grows old, but stays the same age as on coming there.
(out of sequence) 21.23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. ... 25 Its gates will never be shut by day — and there will be no night there.
(22.5 And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign for ever and ever)
Again, it is neither night among them nor yet very bright day, but the light which is on the country is like the gray morning toward dawn, when the sun has not yet risen.
(return to sequence) 22.2 On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Moreover, they are acquainted with only one season of the year, for it is always spring there and the only wind that blows there is Zephyr. 13 The country abounds in flowers and plants of all kinds, cultivated and otherwise. The grape-vines yield twelve vintages a year, bearing every month; the pomegranates, apples and other fruit-trees were said to bear thirteen times a year, for in one month, their Minoan, they bear twice. Instead of wheat-ears, loaves of bread all baked grow on the tops of the halms, so that they look like mushrooms.

Lucian is a satirist, not a slavish copyist. He freely adds and removes elements. Where Revelation gives measurements for the city’s dimensions, Lucian measures only the river. The new Jerusalem has a river of the water of life; Lucian has a river of myrrh. The new Jerusalem has no temple; Lucian has temples of all the gods. Some of the substitutions are just for humour. The gates are each made of a single pearl in Revelation, a single plank of cinnamon in Lucian. At the end of his description Lucian adds an element that isn’t borrowed from Revelation: 365 fresh water springs near the city, 365 springs of honey, and 500 of myrrh ... but these ones are much smaller!

Adding pointless, extravagant details for laughs is very typical for Lucian. Targetting a relatively marginal text like Revelation is also completely in character. Seamlessly darting from one allusion to another is a way of marking himself as a pepaideumenos, a member of the educated hellenised elite. Sophistication and education were central to the construction of a Greek-speaking identity, while the empire was still ruled from Rome — especially for people who weren’t ethnically Greek.

Albrecht Dürer, the heavenly Jerusalem and the chaining of the dragon ... with Jerusalem represented as Dürer’s Nürnberg (1498)

Probably the funniest bit is something that Lucian didn’t even include in his parody. Lucian’s novella is called the True history: the title calls attention to its falseness. It flavours everything with ludicrousness. As Lucian puts it in his introduction,

... πολὺ τῶν ἄλλων εὐγνωμονέστερον· κἂν ἓν γὰρ δὴ τοῦτο ἀληθεύσω λέγων ὅτι ψεύδομαι.

my lying is far more honest than (other people’s), for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar.

So when we turn to Revelation, and see how it finishes off its description of the new Jerusalem, it’s hard not to burst out laughing at Lucian’s sublime twist on the allusion:

καὶ εἶπέν μοι· οὗτοι οἱ λόγοι πιστοὶ καὶ ἀληθινοί.

And (the angel) said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true.’


  • Robinson, J. M. 2000. The Coptic gnostic library. A complete edition of the Nag Hammadi codices, 5 volumes (reprint of editions published piecemeal 1975–1995). Brill.
  • Vermes, Geza 2004. The complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Revised edition of the 4th edition (1st edition 1962). Penguin.
Note. This is a more focused and expanded version of a comparison I drew in a 2011 article: ‘Satire and the marginal text: Lucian parodies Diktys (VH 2.26–26)’, Hermes 139: 97–105.


  1. Thank you so much for sharing this! This is truly fascinating! I've read both the Book of Revelation and Lucian's True History many times, but I never noticed this parallel.

    I guess that, before I even picked up Lucian's book, I had already incorrectly assumed that, since he wasn't a Christian, he wouldn't have any particular familiarity with early Christian writings. The evidence you've presented here is hard to argue with, though.

    1. That seems to be the common starting point! Once you get to the 3rd century and Iamblichus, it's impossible to argue that pagans were unfamiliar with Christian texts, but for the 2nd century there isn't much to go on, so it's assumed that everything is hearsay. But Lucian, living out in the far east, in Antioch, is the ideal candidate for knowledge of Christian writings!

      I wonder if anyone's ever done a phrase-search of Josephus for phrases that appear in Christian or DSS writings. It'd be interesting to know if he read any of their texts. It doesn't seem likely, but you never know.

    2. I suppose that, on some level, I realized that there were at least some non-Christians in the second century who were reading Christian texts, since it's fairly obvious that Kelsos, the author of On the True Word, who most likely lived in the late second century, was familiar with Christian writings, but it never occurred to me that Lucian would have read the Book of Revelation.