No, Mara bar Serapion Isn’t Proof of Jesus

Today we are going to discuss why Mara Bar Serapion is bad evidence for a historical Christ . 

What exactly did Serapion say? When did he say it? Was he possibly influenced by Christian sources or is he truly independent? All of these questions will be answered in detail.

In a nutshell, Mara Bar Serapion was influenced by already existing Christian beliefs that were in circulation while he was writing. This makes Serapion a non-independent source. This means he cannot be used to verify that Jesus actually existed in history.

Who He Is And What Did He Say

Mara Bar Serapion was a Stoic philosopher from Syria, when it was under Roman control. A letter he wrote is often used  as evidence by historical apologists. In the letter, Serapion is talking to his son about 3 figures who were unjustly treated: Socrates, Pythagoras, and a Jewish King who were all killed. He writes:

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.

When it was written

Scholars have dated this letter as early as 73 AD and as late as the 3rd century but it was most likely written in the second century based on some of the issues he described having with the Romans and it fitting in with situations at that time.

Possible Influence

I’d like to start by pointing out that this letter, at the earliest possible dating, was 40 years after the supposed crucifixion. Based on other determinations, over 200 years later. Also, the Gospel of Mark was written at the end of the first century which means it would most likely have been written prior to Serapion’s letter. This is an important fact to keep in mind because it means that Mara Bar Serapion could have easily been influenced by existing theology.

Evidence of Influence

There are a few reasons to believe that Jewish-Christian theology  potentially influenced Serapion’s writing. First, he links the destruction of the Jewish temple to the death of a “Wise King.” In the Gospel of Mark, the wise king’s death is symbolically connected to Jesus establishing a new covenant. Jesus’s death brings the destruction of the old covenant. One common interpretation of Mark’s story about the destruction of the temple, is that God was punishing the Jews for rejecting Jesus. This interpretation is supported by the Synoptic Gospels.

Jesus’ Wrongful Death

Another link we have to Jewish-Christian or Jesus-based theology is that Serapion blames the Jews for Jesus’s wrongful death. In Christian theology, the Jewish Sanhedrin was pushing for Jesus’s death, not the Romans. In fact, Pontius Pilate was reluctantly persuaded to execute Jesus by the Jewish Sanhedrin. By blaming the Jews, Serapion shows that he has at least some knowledge of Jewish-Christian theological  teaching. This is obvious because blaming the Sanhedrin only comes from Christian theology. This theology is not found in any non-Christian sources.

Simply Not Independent

It would be hard to explain these connections without some influence from Christians. Since he was clearly informed by Jewish-Christians about their theology he is not an independent source.

Is This Supported By Existing Evidence

Based on these factors, I believe that Mara Bar Serapion was simply regurgitating what Christians were already claiming about their faith. This explains why he thinks that the Jews are responsible for the “king’s” death. The time between the dates Jesus supposedly lived and when Serapion wrote his letter aligns with early Christian theological writing, which further indicates that he could have  easily been influenced by Jewish-Christians theology. At the very least, the Gospel of Mark would have been written, likely Matthew’s Gospel as well. Paul is another possible influence, which dates in the 50s.

Depending on when the letter was actually written, he possibly had access to most of the New Testament as well. The fact that Mara bar Serapion referenced Jesus as the Jews’ “Wise King” further strengthens the connection between his account and the Synoptic Gospels. This supports the idea that he was influenced by Christian theology. He simply isn’t an independent source. So anyone that claims that Serapion is an independent, non-Christian source witness for Jesus are just wrong. Serapion violates all three of our criteria for determining the validity of historical sources: time, independence, and explanatory power.

Serapion also gets other historical citations wrong like Pythagoras being killed by his countrymen. In fact, there are conflicting stories about Pythagoras’s death. In one account, he fled to Metapontum and starved himself to death. In another, he was killed by an angry mob in a conflict (neither side of which were his countrymen).

Conclusion

Either way, Serapions account is wrong.

Mara bar Serapion is yet another example of a supposed historical source that merely repeats commonly held beliefs of Christians at the time and thus does not prove that Jesus existed.

 

References:

  1. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament, Ch. 2 Mara Bar Serapion: The Wise Jewish King, location 824
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