Mara Bar Serapion on Jesus

20 Sep

[#3 in a Series on Non-Biblical References to Jesus]
Read #1, on Josephus, here

#2, on Tacitus, here

 Mara Bar Serapion’s prison letter to his son was written after 73 AD and no later than the early third century. The exact date is uncertain but it appears no scholar dates it later than the early third century. Josef Blinzler, along with many other experts, argues for a date soon after 73 AD [The Trial of Jesus (Cork: Mercier Press, 1959), 35-36]. Its textual attestation is meager; we only posses one 6th/7th century manuscript.  This letter is preserved in the British Museum (another issue is the letter contains some incorrect information in other places). Nonetheless, here is the pertinent portion:MaraBar

“What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after that their kingdom was abolished. God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were overwhelmed by the sea; the Jews, ruined and driven from their land, live in complete dispersion. But Socrates did not die for good; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.” (Syriac MS Additional 14,658)

British New Testament scholar Richard France comments on Mara’s identity:

“…derogatory references to ‘the Jews’ suggest that he [Mara] was not a Jew, and a Christian would have hardly put Jesus (if it is Jesus he refers to) on a par with Socrates and Pythagoras, nor would he have talked of his ‘living on in the teaching which he had been given’ (rather than in his resurrection). Mara is, in fact, clearly an adherent of Stoic philosophy, and refers at one point to ‘our gods,’ hardly a Jewish or Christian phrase!” [R.T. France, The Evidence for Jesus (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 23-24].

The letter plainly states that the Jews in Palestine at the time were wrong to crucify Jesus: “What advantage did the Jews gain from executing their wise King?” Perhaps Mara sees the destruction of Israel as vengeance from their God for this act? When Mara says, “nor did the wise King die for good; he lived on in the teaching which he had given”, some people think the descriptive of Jesus as “king” may be a reference to the wording of the titulus above Jesus on the cross: Jesus Nazarenus Rex Iudeorum [cf. Matt 27:37; Mk 15:26; Lk 23:38; Jn 19:19].

Mara places Jesus in a tradition of wise men, as if he was another sage in a long line of sages, such as Socrates and Pythagoras. However, Jesus the Sage is not the same as Jesus the Christ, especially if he did not rise from the dead. Mara implicitly denies the resurrection by saying the teaching of Jesus – not the person of Jesus – is what lived on. This backhanded sort of compliment is tame compared to other pagan criticism of Jesus, but still a denial of his Lordship.


Vocab Malone is an urban apologist and slam poet. Vocab holds a Master’s Degree from Phoenix Seminary and is pursuing   further education at Talbot.


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