May 9, 2009

Mara bar Serapion on JESUS

Another little letter we will cover is that of the Syrian Mara bar Serapion. Although the exact date is uncertain, J. Blinzler argues for a date soon after 73 AD [Josef Blinzler, The Trial of Jesus (Cork: Mercier Press, 1959), 35-36. ]. I know of no scholar who dates it any later than the late second or early third century.

Its textual attestation is meager indeed, for we only posses one manuscript, which dates from the 7th Century and is housed in the British Museum. Another issue is that it contains some incorrect information in other places of the letter. Nonetheless, here is the pertinent portion:

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 letter from jail to his son Serapion,

“…derogatory references to ‘the Jews’ suggest that he 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.]

Some even 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]

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