Mara bar Serapion's Testimony on Jesus
[Background Data] [Is It Jesus?] [Wrong Timeframe?] [Too Late?] [Alleged Errors] [Independent Testimony?] [Conclusions]

This letter contains the following passage:

What advantage did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? Famine and plague came upon them as a judgment for their crime. What advantage did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? In a moment their land was covered with sand. 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 teaching of Plato. Pythagoras 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.

This reference to Jesus is not particularly valuable. We have no idea what qualifications the writer of this letter held. We are not even sure when this letter was written, other than that it was after 73 AD, and very likely after 135 AD (which fits better the description of the Jews' dispersal), but also likely no later than 165 AD (because of the description suitable to the Parthian war) [VanV.JONT, 56]. At best, it offers us a special insight into how one particular pagan viewed the person of Jesus.

Jesus is not mentioned by name. "Wise King" probably does not refer to Jesus. There were many messianic pretenders at the time; Mara Bar-Serapion could be referring to one of them.

How do we know that the Serapion letter does not refer to one of those pretenders? The letter sets out seven distinct criteria describing this Wise King, and none of those pretenders filled all seven descriptions of a person who:

And so we may ask: Who else could Mara Bar-Serapion be referring to, if not Jesus?

One skeptic has suggested the Essene "Teacher of Righteousness" as a candidate. However, the actual identity of the "Teacher of Righteousness," who is referred to significantly in the Habakkuk Commentary (1QpHab), has never been ascertained, although specific guesses have included Onias III, Judah the Essene (who lived under John Hyrcanus) - and Jesus Himself! [Pfef.DSS 72-77] (It has also been supposed that the varied references, particularly outside the Habakkuk Commentary, actually refer to an office, not a specific person - Chars.JDSS, 39) Judah the Essene was the candidate of choice for the scholar Carmignac, but his choice is not considered viable. [ibid., 42n]

At any rate, the Teacher of Righteous fits no more than #2 and #6 of the criteria above with any certainty. As for the rest -

1.Was executed - Although attempts have been made by scholars such as Allegro and Dupont-Summer (and even recently, O'Neill) to show that the Teacher of Righteousness was martyred, perhaps even crucified, there is simply nothing in the Dead Sea Scrolls that refers to the Teacher suffering anything more than general persecution and harassment. Any suggestion to the contrary is "forced onto the texts" and "derives from contorted historiography and exegesis." (ibid., 33, 274) Of course, since the Teacher does not fit criteria #1, this also lets him out for #3-5. In particular:

4.Was executed before the Jews were dispersed;

Obviously, the farther back we reach, the less likely it is that this is who the Serapion writer is referring to, since "just after" this person died, the Jews' kingdom was abolished. (If we pick Onias III - who seems to be the strongest exemplar - then the abolition of the Jewish kingdom occurred about 240 years later; if Judah the Essene, about 170 years later.) Whoever this Teacher personage was, he died in the middle of the 2nd century BC, which places him quite a distance more than "just after" from the 70 AD abolition of the Jewish kingdom.

And of course, there is no qualification for #7 whatsoever - the Teacher of Righteousness is nowhere regarded as a king. He is clearly identifiable in the Qumran literature as "an anti-Hasmonean priest of Zadokite lineage" [ibid., 1] - not a king.

The historical time-frame of the characters Bar-Serapion identifies by name suggests that the Jews' "wise King" also lived about the same time as Pythagoras and Socrates.

Pythagoras and Socrates were barely contemporaries - Pythagoras was about 60 when Socrates was born, if he was alive then at all. To include Jesus in a list with these two would be no more odd than naming Newton, Einstein and Hawking in a list of great physics theorists.

This passage is late and therefore probably influenced by Christian tradition. Bar-Serapion blames 'the Jews' for 'executing their wise King'; and uses the title 'king of the Jews' itself, which indicates Christian influence.

It should be pointed out here that lateness is no indication, and offers no probability of, Christian influence - independent thinking was not invented yesterday! As for the specific charges, there is no reason why the terminology requires a late date. All four Gospels, written in the first century and no later than 70-100 AD by late-date standards, put partial blame on the Jews for the death of Jesus and use the title "king of the Jews" in their text. So these two factors permit a late first-century date for Serapion, though they do not require it.

The letter contains historical errors. Mara Bar-Serapion's information about Athens and Samos is inaccurate.

According to Bar-Serapion, the "men of Samos" had "burn[ed]" Pythagoras, an implication that he had been killed by his countrymen. In reality, Pythagoras left the island of Samos in 530 B. C. and emigrated to the Greek colony of Croton in Southern Italy. He later died what is now Metaponto, Italy. The men of Samos did not "burn" Pythagoras, so if Mara Bar-Serapion's letter was incorrect in such an important detail as this, it is asked, how can it be considered reliable proof of the historicity of anything, much less the existence of a person who wasn't even mentioned by name in the document?

Of course, these "errors" in the other references do not mean that the references to Jesus are wrong in themselves; this is arguing guilt by association. Nevertheless, I have yet to see a clear exposition of why these statements by Bar-Serapion are in error. Perhaps Pythagoras was indeed killed by burning, and our other histories are incorrect; more likely he was tortured by burning, and then left Samos and died of his injuries later on. The intolerance shown to other Greek philosophers such as Socrates does not render this an impossibility.

And what of the other events alluded to, of which we have no knowledge? The "statue of Hera" reference may mean that Pythagoras built or funded the building of a statue of Hera that still stood at the time of Serapion's letter, or that the statue became a meeting place for Pythagoras' students. The island of Samos may have been hit by a storm that carried dust with it. The famine and plague in Athens may have been mercifully brief and quickly recovered from.

At any rate, while many apologists are content to see these assertions by the Serapion author as "errors," they do so, I daresay, unwisely. Personally, I believe that we should remain open to the idea that these events did indeed happen as Mara Bar-Serapion records them, and that it is only our lack of understanding and knowledge that prevents us from saying so.

This reference either offers independent confirmation, or it doesn't. With the uncertainty of the date of the letter, the letter has no value as a witness to the historicity of Jesus.

Ultimately, it is correct that a source either does or doesn't provide these things; I would object, however, and characterize this position as extreme, because it takes uncertainty about the Serapion letter (historical inaccuracies, which may only be unconfirmed facts; the unknown date) and gives them the power of absolutes. A wiser commentator would withhhold judgment and not take the most extreme position. But clearly, in certain contexts and with certain skeptics, rhetoric is to be preferred over caution.

Mara's letter may not be independent -- but we have no absolute certainty that it is not, and some evidence that Mara was no slouch who uncritically accepted what he heard. That he was literate (or else, wealthy enough to hire a scribe), and that he appreciated the works and teachings of Socrates, Pythagoras, and Jesus, makes it likely that he was a person of some intellect and critical capability. He can't simply be dismissed "all or nothing" with the limited data we have.

What do we learn about Jesus and or Christianity from this historian/writer?

While we may agree that the Serapion letter is of marginal value, for it tells us little about the historical Jesus, it does suggest an evaluation of Jesus independent of Christian influence. No Christian would refer to Jesus only as a "wise king," nor say that He lived on in His teaching. [ChilEv.Stud, 450] It is also clear that the writer regarded Jesus as a "real" person like Socrates and Pythagoras - and not as a myth or an invention of Christianity, as the Christ-mythicists would argue.