Mara bar Serapion

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Mara bar Serapion (Syriac: ܡܪܐ ܒܪ ܣܪܦܝܘܢ) was an imprisoned Syrian with an unknown lifespan whose sole remaining work is a letter, written an unknown time after 73 CE and before 200 CE.

In Christian apologetics[edit]

In a letter to his son, Mara bar Serapion made the following statement:[1][2][3]

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.

There are several problems with interpreting this as evidence of Jesus's existence:[4]

  • Time: It is unknown when Mara bar Serapion lived, whether he could have been an eyewitness to Jesus, or when he wrote this letter. At minimum, he wrote about 43 years after the supposed crucifixion, and it is possible that he could not have witnessed it. From this alone, this is weak evidence. Even conservative scholar F.F. Bruce states the letter was "written some time later than A.D. 73, but how much later we cannot be sure",[5] and Archibald Robertson -- who accepted the historicity of Jesus -- reported that "such authorities as Cureton and M'Lean date it in the second or even third" century.[6]
  • "Wise King": It is possible (although admittedly unlikely) that "wise King" did not reference Jesus. Given that the other mentioned characters lived long before Jesus, Farrell Till argues that "[m]essianic pretenders in Judea were a dime a dozen" and that the 'wise King' could have been the "Teacher of Righteousness" mentioned in the Dead Sea Scrolls.[7]
  • Romans, not Jews: Given that Jesus was crucified by the Romans, not the Jews, Mara bar Serapion's choice of words is inexplicable unless we assume that he received his information about this 'wise King' from Christians. (Early Christians held the Jews at least partially responsible for Jesus' crucifixion.) However, if Mara bar Serapion received his information from Christians, two conclusions follow. First, it is highly likely that the 'wise King' was Jesus.[8] Second, Mara bar Serapion does not provide independent confirmation of the historicity of Jesus, but is merely parroting Christians.
  • Athens vs Samos: Mara bar Serapion's letter includes other errors. Till notes that the letter implies that Pythagoras had been killed by his countrymen, yet "Pythagoras left the island of Samos in 530 B. C. and emigrated to the Greek colony of Croton in Southern Italy. He later died in Metapontum, which is now Metaponto, Italy."[9] Even apologists McDowell and Wilson admit that Mara bar Serapion's "information about Athens and Samos is inaccurate."[10]

Even apologist Holding is forced to admit that "[t]his reference to Jesus is not particularly valuable."[11]

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion,
  2. Quoted by F.F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1972), p. 114.
  3. Mara bar Serapion's Testimony on Jesus,
  4. Jeffery Jay Lowder, Josh McDowell's "Evidence" for Jesus, Is It Reliable?, 15 May 2000.
  5. Bruce 1972, p. 114, quoted by McDowell in McDowell 1979, p. 84.
  6. Archibald Robertson, Jesus: Myth or History? (Second edition, London: Watts & Co, 1949), p. 87.
  7. Farrell Till, The 'Testimony' of Mara Bar-Serapion. The Skeptical Review 1995 (4), p. ??. France 1986, p. 23 also questions whether 'wise King' refers to Jesus.
  8. Cf. France 1986, p. 24.
  9. Till 1995. — However, MetapontumWikipedia was another Greek colony of Magna Graecia,Wikipedia so if "fellow countrymen" referred to Greeks (as opposed to "barbarians"Wikipedia) this would be more of a problem of vagueness than an outright factual error.
  10. McDowell and Wilson 1988, p. 54.
  11. Holding n.d.