A Possible Early Reference to Jesus: Mara bar Serapion
The letters of Paul of Tarsus contain the earliest surviving references to Jesus, including meeting with Jesus’ brother.1 With the four Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles, the latter written by the same author as gLuke, these letters were compiled into the Christian New Testament.
The clearest early non-Christian references to Jesus are in the Jewish historian Josephus’ Antiquities of the Jews (93 or 94 AD) and the Roman historian Tacitus’ Annals (c. 116 AD). Pliny the Younger, governor of an area in north-west Turkey on the Black Sea, clearly knows of Jesus as the founder of Christianity when he writes to the Emperor Trajan (r. 98-117) in 112 AD to ask what he should do with the Christians in his province. There is a more confused possible reference to Jesus in The Lives of the Twelve Caesars (121 AD) by Suetonius, another Roman historian.2 The Jewish Talmud is quite plain that Christianity began with the man Jesus and some of its traditions about Jesus might originate from the end of the first century.3
The reference to Jesus in a letter written by someone called Mara bar Serapion (Mara, son of Serapion), to his son, also called Serapion, is interesting because it is potentially earlier than the others, dating to just after 73 AD.4
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MARA BAR SERAPION’S LETTER
Nothing is known of Mara bar Serapion outside the contents of the letter attributed to him. Written in Syriac, the author is evidently a pagan, often identified as a Stoic, though this is open to question. The main clear thing in the letter is that Mara was from Samosata, a town on the Euphrates in what is now south-eastern Turkey.
Mara’s letter begins with a description of the Romans destroying his city and expelling large numbers of its residents. Mara is writing from prison, seemingly somewhere in Mesopotamia. Samosata and the broader surrounding region of Commagene were conquered in 73 AD and many historians date the letter to shortly after this.
The letter goes on to lament the oppression visited on Mara’s people. Mara spends a lot of time advising his son philosophically how to deal with the tribulations he is going through, particularly by pursuing wisdom. Mara is not opposed to Empire in general; he just feels that Empire done righteously would allow his people to return to their nation. It is in this context Mara writes that when the wise are oppressed, their wisdom will triumph in the end and the heavens will punish the oppressors—a notion clearly distinct from Christian concepts.
It is at this point that Mara writes the key passage:
What else can we say, when the wise are forcibly dragged off by tyrants, their wisdom is captured by insults, and their minds are oppressed and without defence? What advantage did the Athenians gain from murdering Socrates, for which they were repaid with famine and pestilence [or plague]? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, because their country was completely covered with sand in just one hour? Or the Jews [by killing] their wise King, because their Kingdom was taken away [or abolished] at that very time? God justly repaid [or avenged] the wisdom of these three men [or ‘these three wise men’]: the Athenians died of famine [or hunger]; the Samians were completely overwhelmed by the sea; and the Jews, desolate and driven from their own Kingdom, are scattered [or dispersed] through every nation. Socrates is not dead, because of Plato; neither is Pythagoras, because of the statue of Juno; nor is the wise King, because of the new laws he laid down.5 [emphasis added]
Mara concludes by talking about the “dismal state of ruin” mankind is in, where people pursue earthly riches rather than wisdom, and implores his son to put into practice the lessons contained in the letter.
THE REFERENCE TO JESUS
The challenges to Mara as a source for the historical Jesus are two. First and much less seriously, there is the fact Mara does not name Jesus.
The attempt to deny that the reference to “wise King” means Jesus is very flimsy: from a non-Christian perspective, this is exactly how one would expect Jesus to be referred to, since he had been executed by the Romans as a Royal pretender.
The reference to the “new laws” is also a telling allusion to Christianity, especially in this period. Saint Paul’s mission to the gentiles had been bitterly contested within the early Jesus Sect by the other leaders, including by Jesus’ brother, James.6 Whether the Gospel of Mark was written in the conventional dating period, c. 65-70 AD, or c. 40 AD as some have argued, it would have been completed by the time Mara wrote his letter. It is possible that the Gospel of Matthew had been written: gMatthew is usually dated to c. 70-80 AD, but if the earlier date of gMark is correct then perhaps gMatthew dates from nearer 60 AD. Mark’s Gospel is very distinctly Jewish in its frame of reference and gMatthew’s whole premise is to stress Jesus as the saviour of the Jews—and their rejection of him.7 It is in gMatthew (5:17) that Jesus is quoted saying: “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” What both of the first two Synoptic Gospels bear witness to is that the Jesus Sect in the late first century is still not clearly distinct even within itself from Ioudaismos, and, for an outsider like Mara looking in, the distinction between ideologically divergent groups of Jews would have been essentially impossible to perceive. The key thing most pagans knew about Judean distinctiveness was their Law (halakha), which in fundamental ways remained in place within the Jesus Sect, even if some of the practices this led to, like circumcision (not an easy thing for an outsider to detect), were beginning to be set aside.8
The potential reasons for not naming Jesus directly are numerous. An obvious possibility is Mara trying not to offend the Romans by drawing attention to their responsibility for killing Jesus. The letter is very firm in framing Jesus’ death as something the Jews did. Since the Romans are ruling over Mara’s people and have taken him captive, his disinclination to provoke them further would be understandable. The other problem for Mara is that he has cast the sack of Jerusalem as punishment from the gods and that was carried out by the Romans: too explicitly classifying the Romans as instruments of divine vengeance undercuts his argument that they should not have devastated his homeland. Another possibility is that Mara is trying to ensure that Jesus is not given the same exalted status he awards to Socrates and Pythagoras. Those two figures are much more ancient—which in the Classical world always axiomatically made something or someone more worthy—and earlier Mara had listed Socrates and Pythagoras as men whose “praises and virtues continue forever”. The earlier list notably did not include Jesus, and not naming Jesus in his later list of victims whose oppressors came to grief maintains the thematic integrity.9
DATING THE LETTER
The second and more serious challenge to the letter as a source for the historical Jesus is the uncertainty of the date. Many scholars have read the letter as originating shortly after the conquest of Commagene in 73 AD, and at the latest some time before the end of the first century. If that is so, it would add Mara to the non-Christian sources that mention Jesus and his crucifixion relatively soon after it occurred. There are arguments that put the letter later, however.
The arguments pushing for a much later date, in the third or even fourth century, seem quite wilful. But the possibility of the mid- or late second century date are more plausible—and would effectively discount Mara as evidence for the historical Jesus.
There are three suggested pieces of evidence that point to a late second century date.10
One: It is argued that, rather than the Roman assault on Samosata in the 70s AD, the reference is to the events of the 160s, when towns along the Euphrates and the Tigris were incited to rebellion by the Persian King Vologases IV (r. 147-91) during the Romans’ war with the Parthians, and were met with unmerciful repression by the Romans. While the references to the sack of Jerusalem in Mara’s letter seem to point to it as a recent event, there is no way to be absolutely sure he is not writing about the Roman-Parthian War.
Two: Mara’s presentation of the Jewish predicament—being scattered throughout the Empire after their Kingdom has been taken from them—can be argued to better describe the situation after the second Judean revolt,11 led by Simon Bar Kokhba, in the 130s, which had ended with the Emperor Hadrian (r. 117-38) entirely dismantling the Judean polity and expelling the Jews from Jerusalem. This is uncertain because the language Mara uses perfectly well fits the aftermath of the first Judean revolt, too.
Three: More tenuously, the connection Mara draws between the Jews executing Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem as divine retribution is an interpretation of events that gains currency among Christians, made explicit by Justin Martyr (d. 165) in Apology (c. 155-57) and Dialogue (c. 155-61).12 The argument that it would take some time for this idea to break out of Christian circles is plausible, and that line of reasoning—even if it is assumed Mara picked it up in oral form, before Justin’s writings—would push the date of Mara’s letter into at least the early second century and probably later.
If Mara’s letter is from the 70s or 80s AD, it would add a small piece to the pile of evidence for the historical Jesus, though it makes little difference one way or the other. As the late Maurice Casey put it in his final book before his death in 2014, “the whole idea that Jesus of Nazareth did not exist as a historical figure is verifiably false” and trying to reason with the atheists who believe in Jesus Mythicism is largely pointless: “[The idea mostly] belongs in the fantasy lives of people who used to be fundamentalist Christians. They did not believe in critical scholarship then, and they do not do so now.”13
The historical importance of Mara’s letter is limited by the fact that we do not know where he got his information from. Mara was not an eyewitness to Jesus’ ministry, obviously, and it seems likely he found out about Jesus from Christians.14 That said, especially if this is from c. 73 AD, it is important in showing that the Christians whom Mara was speaking to identified Jesus the man—a figure within their living memory, or the memory of people they knew—as the origin point of their creed, exploding the elaborate Mythicist ideas that Jesus is a fabricated back-projection, perhaps by Paul.15 All the same, “Mara’s letter says more about Christianity than about Christ”.16
Mara’s letter, even with the earlier date, is mostly interesting because it is a “Stoic writer, from an area outside the Roman Empire, [viewing] Christianity in a positive light … [It is the] earliest non-Christian philosophical reference to Christianity that we have, … show[ing] the appeal that Christianity could have for some educated people”,17 and thus sheds some light on how it was that this tiny, persecuted sect spread throughout the Roman world.
Suetonius refers to a riot by Jews in Rome during the reign of Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 AD), which occurred “at the instigation of Chrestus”, and led to the deportation of Jews from the city. The event is also mentioned in the Book of Acts (18:2). What appears to have happened is that those Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah reacted violently against the Jews who accepted him. The passage clearly cannot mean Jesus the man brought the city to turmoil, since he had been dead for twenty years. It is possible that Suetonius is saying that the legacy of Christ created the mayhem. There is another possibility. The Latin for “Christ” is Christus, and though a misspelling such as “Chrestus” was common enough in Roman literature, some argue that this is not an error and a more exact translation of Suetonius is that the riot occurred “because of the instigator Chrestus”. In other words, “Chrestus” is not a reference to Jesus; it is the name of another Jew who was at the centre of these disturbances under Claudius. Either way, the reference—while potentially useful on the ethno-religious composition of the city of Rome and the spread of the Jesus Sect—is not much use in the quest for the historical Jesus. See: Bart Ehrman (2012), Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth, pp. 53-54; and, Robert Van Voorst (2000), Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence, pp. 30-33.
Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 120-21.
The very earliest non-Christian literary reference to Jesus—written before the Gospels (assuming gMark was written in the traditional dating period)—is thought by some to be Thallos in c. 50-55. The surviving passage is a refutation of the idea that the sky went dark at the time of Jesus’ crucifixion for divine reasons (a tradition present in all three Synoptic Gospels). The problems with this, however, are numerous: the dating is difficult because Thallos’ writing is available only as fragments quoted by Christian authors, it is unclear who Thallos is, and the context Thallos is writing in likely means he was not an eyewitness, but acquired such information as he had from Christians. See: Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 20-23.
Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 54.
Saint Paul mentions his meeting and conflict with James in Galatians 1:18-19 and Galatians 2. Acts 21:18 records the meeting, too. Josephus mentions James as the victim of an illegal execution that convulsed the politics of Jerusalem around 62 AD. See also: Did Jesus Exist?, pp. 148-49.
It is also in gMatthew (27:25) that it is written that after Pilate washed his hands of responsibility for killing Christ, “Then answered all the [Jewish] people, and said, ‘His blood be on us, and on our children’,” the central warrant for antisemitism ever-afterwards.
Paula Fredriksen (2018), When Christians Were Jews: The First Generation, pp. 188-89.
Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 55-56.
Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 56-58.
The Bar Kokhba revolt was the second revolt in Judea itself, but was the third by the Judeans/Jews: in 115 AD, a revolt erupted in Cyrenaica (eastern Libya), led by a messianic claimant, Lukuas, calling himself the “King of the Jews” and his followers set about destroying all the pagan temples and idols, notably Pompey the Great’s tomb. The rebellion spilled over into Egypt and Cyprus before Trajan mobilised the Roman legions and put it down within two years in what is called “the Kitos War”.
Origen (d. c. 253) later read the idea that God had worked through the Romans to punish the Jews for killing Christ by having Jerusalem sacked into Josephus’ Antiquities. Other than providing evidence that this tradition continued among Christian exegetes into the third century, this is not so remarkable. What is most interesting is that Origen explicitly chides Josephus for refusing to recognise Jesus as the Messiah. On the one hand, this is as close as it gets to proof that the so-called “Testimonium Flavianum”—one of the two passages in Antiquities that mentions Jesus—was interpolated by Christians (not that this was ever really in doubt: no Jew would refer to Jesus as Messiah and the text breaks distinctly from Josephus’ style). On the other hand, it is very strong evidence that the “Testimonium Flavianum” is not a wholesale interpolation; there was some mention of Jesus the man and “the tribe of Christians” named after him in the original that Christians later padded out with references to Jesus’ divine status and miracles.
Maurice Casey (2014), Jesus: Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths, p. 243.
It is possible Mara got his information from Judeans, since Jewish tradition at that time and for some time afterwards held that the Sanhedrin was responsible for Jesus’ death and they were quite right to do it. What suggests strongly that Mara got it from Christians is his negative perception of the execution as an illegal act. See: Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 57. (As to the actual facts, whether the Sanhedrin had the formal right to sentence people to death is unclear. The formulation in Josephus is that “Pilate, because of an accusation made by the leading men among us, condemned [Jesus] to the cross”. This seems the most likely set-up: the Romans worked through the Jewish priestly class to maintain order in Judea and thus generally acted in accordance with the priests’ views, but the final decision rested with Pilate. In Pilate’s case, he seems to have somewhat “gone native”, as we would once have said: his recall as Prefect in 36 AD related to his violent repression of Samaritans, a people one may describe as “Jew-ish” (whether or not their claim of descent from three of the twelve ancient Israelite tribes is true), who were for “narcissism of small differences” reasons seen by Jews as their main rivals.)
The Mythicist attacks on the historical sources are the most plausible-sounding aspect of their case, at least to those new to the material and with little knowledge of the context. Where Mythicism singularly falls down, even on its own terms, is explaining how Christianity started, if not with the crucifixion and perceived resurrection of Jesus. Mythicists often simply elide this point and the results are no better when they do not. For example, Robert Price is one of the most prominent Mythicists at the present time and watching the contortions he goes through on this point is painful.
Jesus Outside the New Testament, p. 57.
Jesus Outside the New Testament, pp. 57-58.