Mara bar Serapion

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Mara Bar Serapion

Mara bar Serapion (Classical Syriac: ܡܪܐ ܒܪ ܣܪܦܝܘܢ), or "Mara son of Serapion", was a Syriac Stoic philosopher in the Roman province of Syria. He is only known from a letter he wrote in Syriac to his son, who was named Serapion,[1][2] which refers to the execution of "the wise king of the Jews" and may be an early non-Christian reference to Jesus of Nazareth.

The letter indicates that Mara's homeland was Samosata, i.e. modern-day Samsat, Turkey (on the west bank of the Euphrates), but his captivity appears to have been in Seleucia, in modern-day Iraq (on the west bank of the Tigris River).[3]

Mara's captivity took place after the AD 72 annexation of Samosata by the Romans, but before the third century.[4] Most scholars date it to shortly after AD 73 during the first century.[5]

The letter to his son[edit]

Mara's letter to his son begins with: "Mara, son of Serapion, to Serapion, my son: peace." The letter was composed sometime between 73 AD and the 3rd century.[5] There were three cases when captives were taken from Samosata, in 72 AD by the Romans, in 161/162 by Parthians and in 256 by Sasanians and various scholars have presented arguments for each date.[3] Robert Van Voorst (who himself thinks the letter was composed in the second century) states that most scholars date the letter to shortly after AD 73 during the first century.[5]

The letter is preserved in a 6th- or 7th-century manuscript (BL Add. 14658) held by the British Library.[1] Nineteenth-century records state that the manuscript containing this text was one of several manuscripts obtained by Henry Tattam from the monastery of St. Mary Deipara in the Nitrian Desert of Egypt and acquired by the Library in 1843.[6]

Mara's religion[edit]

A number of scholars such as Sebastian Brock, Fergus Millar, Ute Possekel and Craig A. Evans, among others, state that Mara was a pagan.[2][7][8][9] Gerd Theissen states that Mara's reference to "our gods" indicates that he was neither a Jew, nor a Christian, the letter stating:[10][11]

Thou hast heard, moreover, concerning our companions, that, when they were leaving Samosata, they were distressed about it, and, as if complaining of the time in which their lot was cast, said thus: "We are now far removed from our home, and we cannot return again to our city, or behold our people, or offer to our gods the greeting of praise."

Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough state that Mara could hardly have been a Christian".[12] Robert E. Van Voorst on the other hand states that the reference to "our gods" is a single reference, which was while quoting his fellow captives, and Mara may have been a monotheist.[5] Van Voorst adds two factors that indicate Mara was not a Christian, the first being his failure to mention the terms Jesus or Christ.[5] The second factor (also supported by Chilton and Evans) is that Mara's statement that Jesus lives on based on the wisdom of his teachings, in contrast to the Christian concept that Jesus continues to live through his resurrection, indicates that he was not a Christian.[5][13]

Chilton and Evans also state that the use of the term "wise king" to refer to Jesus (rather than a religious designation) indicates that Mara's perception of the events had been formed by non-Christian sources.[13] They state that the term "king of the Jews" has never been seen in the Christian literature of antiquity as a title for Jesus.[13]

Mara's philosophical stance[edit]

The letter draws on Greek learning.[14]

The last paragraph of Mara's letter states:

One of his friends asked Mara, son of Serapion, when in bonds at his side: “Nay, by thy life, Mara, tell me what cause of laughter thou hast seen, that thou laughest.” “I am laughing,” said Mara, “at Time: inasmuch as, although he has not borrowed any evil from me, he is paying me back.”

Ilaria Ramelli, who holds that Mara lived towards the end of the first century, states that his letter has strong stoic elements.[15]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament by Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum 2009 ISBN 978-0805443653 p. 110
  2. ^ a b Evidence of Greek Philosophical Concepts in the Writings of Ephrem the Syrian by Ute Possekel 1999 ISBN 9042907592 pp. 29–30
  3. ^ a b The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature edited by Frances Young, Lewis Ayres, Andrew Louth ISBN 0521460832 p. 168
  4. ^ The Middle East under Rome by Maurice Sartre, Catherine Porter and Elizabeth Rawlings (2005) ISBN 0674016831 p. 293
  5. ^ a b c d e f Van Voorst, Robert E (2000). Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 0802843689 pp. 53–56
  6. ^ Wright, W. (1872). Catalogue of the Syriac Manuscripts in the British Museum Acquired since the Year 1838, Volume III. Longmans & Company (printed by order of the Trustees of the British Museum). pp. xiii, 1159. "The manuscripts arrived at the British Museum on the first of March 1843, and this portion of the collection is now numbered Add. 14,425–14,739." BL Add. 14,658 is included among these manuscripts.
  7. ^ Sebastian Brock in The Cambridge Ancient History Volume 13 edited by Averil Cameron and Peter Garnsey (1998) ISBN 0521302005 p. 709
  8. ^ The Roman Near East, 31 B.C.–A.D. 337 by Fergus Millar ISBN 0674778863 p. 507
  9. ^ Craig A. Evans "Pagan sources" in Jesus and Philosophy: New Essays edited by Paul K. Moser (2008) ISBN 0521873363 Cambridge Univ Press pp. 51–52
  10. ^ Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide by Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz (1998) ISBN 0800631226 p. 78
  11. ^ Christianity and the Roman Empire: background texts by Ralph Martin Novak 2001 ISBN 1563383470 p. 38
  12. ^ Readings from the First-Century World by Walter A. Elwell and Robert W. Yarbrough (1998) ISBN 080102157X
  13. ^ a b c Studying the Historical Jesus: Evaluations of the State of Current Research edited by Bruce Chilton, Craig A. Evans 1998 ISBN 9004111425 pp. 455–457
  14. ^ Roman Syria and the Near East by Kevin Butcher (2004) ISBN 0892367156 p. 286
  15. ^ Hierocles the Stoic: Elements of Ethics, Fragments, and Excerpts by Ilaria Ramelli (2009) ISBN 1589834186 pp. xx–xxii

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