Mara bar Serapion on the wise king of the Jews.

A Syriac letter from a man to his son.


One of the ancient pagan testimonia.

The date of the letter of Mara bar Serapion to his son is uncertain, but Peter Kirby lists the broad range of 73-200. The letter was written in Syriac, so I can offer only an English translation of the passage that apparently testifies to Jesus of Nazareth:

What are we to say when the wise are forcibly dragged by the hands of tyrants and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence without the opportunity of making a defence? They are not wholly to be pitied.

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 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; he lived on in the teaching of Plato. Pythagoras did not die; he lived on in the statue of Hera. Nor did the wise king die; he lived on in the teaching which he had given.

I do not recall whence I got that particular translation, but here is the Robertson-Donaldson translation from Early Christian Writings:

What are we to say, when the wise are dragged by force by the hands of tyrants, and their wisdom is deprived of its freedom by slander, and they are plundered for their superior intelligence, without the opportunity of making a defense? They are not wholly to be pitied. For what benefit did the Athenians obtain by putting Socrates to death, seeing that they received as retribution for it famine and pestilence? Or the people of Samos by the burning of Pythagoras, seeing that in one hour the whole of their country was covered with sand? Or the Jews by the murder of their wise king, seeing that from that very time their kingdom was driven away from them? For with justice did God grant a recompense to the wisdom of all three of them. For the Athenians died by famine; and the people of Samos were covered by the sea without remedy; and the Jews, brought to desolation and expelled from their kingdom, are driven away into every land. Nay, Socrates did not die, because of Plato; nor yet Pythagoras, because of the statue of Hera; nor yet the wise king, because of the new laws which he enacted.

The reader will note immediately that Jesus is nowhere mentioned by name, nor even by his usual title, Christ. Instead, Socrates and Pythagoras are placed alongside a nameless wise king. Is that wise king Jesus? Or is it someone else?

The six traits.

There are (at least) six things that Mara bar Serapion tells us about this wise king:

  1. He was Jewish (since he was their wise king).
  2. He was wise.
  3. He was a king.
  4. He enacted new laws (or was a teacher).
  5. He was killed by the Jews.
  6. The Jewish kingdom fell because of his death.

It is vital to keep in mind that we do not have to prove that Jesus, or whoever we wish to identify with the wise king, actually was all of those things. We need only find evidence that he was called or known as those things. For we are merely trying to determine whom Mara bar Serapion was describing, not that he was correct in every aspect of the description.

With that principle in mind, I offer the following traits of Jesus, paralleled point by point with the abovelisted traits of the wise king.

Jesus was a Jew.
Jesus was wise.
Jesus was a king.
Jesus enacted new laws.
Jesus was killed by the Jews.
Jerusalem fell.

Jesus was a Jew.

That Jesus was known to be Jewish scarcely requires proof. We have dozens of texts that attest to his Jewishness.

Jesus was wise.

Was Jesus known as a wise man? While wisdom was not his most frequently imputed trait, his contemporaries and near contemporaries did often enough call him wise.

Several times in the New Testament Jesus is associated with wisdom or called wise. In Matthew 13.54 = Mark 6.2 the people of his hometown wonder aloud whence Jesus has come by such wisdom (η σοφια). In Luke 2.40, 52 Jesus increases in and is filled with wisdom. Paul, playing off the rich Jewish tradition of personalizing wisdom (see Proverbs 9.1-6, for example, or Sirach 1.12-13), calls Jesus the wisdom of God himself in 1 Corinthians 1.24, 30 (refer also to 2.7). In Colossians 2.3 all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are said to be hidden in Christ.

In Thomas 13 Jesus asks his disciples to tell him what he is like. Matthew answers: You are like a wise philosopher (ΕΚΕΙΝΕ Ν̅ΟΥΡΩΜΕ Μ̅ΦΙΛΟCΟΦΟC Ν̅ΡΜ̅Ν̅ϨΗΤ).

Perhaps most relevantly, in (the extant form of) the Testimonium Flavianum, in Antiquities 18.3.3 §63-64, Josephus calls Jesus a wise man (σοφος ανηρ). Possibly relevant as well is what Lucian of Samosata calls Jesus; in Death of Peregrinus 13 Lucian calls him that crucified sophist (ανεσκολοπισμενον εκεινον σοφιστην).

Jesus was a king.

Was Jesus known as a king? Indirectly, that Jesus was regarded as a king is virtually a consequence of his purported messianic office. In many streams of Jewish thought the messiah was supposed to be born of the royal line of David and set up the kingdom of God.

More directly, the gospels call Jesus a king numerous times. In Matthew 2.2 the magi ask where the king of the Jews (βασιλευς των Ιουδαιων) might be. In John 1.49 Jesus is called the king of Israel. In John 6.15 the crowd wishes to make Jesus a king. The triumphal entry in Matthew 21.1-9 = Mark 11.1-10 = Luke 19.29-38 (John 12.12-19) resounds with royalty, and all the evangelists but Mark actually label Jesus a king. In Matthew 25.34, 40 the son of man appears as a king.

But by far the most references to his kingship occur in the passion narratives:

  • Luke 23.2: The Jewish leaders accuse Jesus of claiming to be king.
  • Matthew 27.11 = Mark 15.2 = Luke 23.3 (John 18.33, 37): Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews.
  • Mark 15.9, 12 (John 18.39): Pilate asks if the crowd wishes to release the king of the Jews.
  • John 19.12-15: Pilate presents Jesus to the crowd as their king.
  • Matthew 27.29 = Mark 15.18 (John 19.3): The soldiers mock Jesus by hailing him as the king of the Jews.
  • Matthew 27.37 = Mark 15.26 = Luke 23.38 (John 19.19, 21): The titulus on the cross calls Jesus the king of the Jews.
  • Matthew 27.42 = Mark 15.32 = Luke 23.37: Passersby taunt Jesus as the king of Israel (Matthew and Mark) or the Jews (Luke).

In Acts 17.7 the Jews accuse Jason and some of the brethren of welcoming Paul and Silas, who have been proclaiming Jesus as king. In Hebrews 7.1-3 Jesus stands to be compared with Melchizedek, king (and priest) of Salem. In Revelation 17.14; 19.16 the lamb, a symbol of Jesus Christ, is called king of kings.

Jesus enacted new laws.

Was Jesus known as a lawgiver? Allowing for a bit of flexibility in some of the terminology, there is no doubt that he was. The entire sermon on the mount (in Matthew) or on the plain (in Luke) casts Jesus as a new Moses the legislator (this comparison is particularly clear in the Matthean version). In John 13.34; 15.12 Jesus gives a new commandment.

Paul writes of the law of faith (obviously based on Jesus Christ) in Romans 3.27-28, and even more relevantly of the law of Christ (τον νομον του Χριστου) in Galatians 6.2 (confer 1 Corinthians 9.21). He also writes of the command of the Lord in 1 Corinthians 14.27 (confer 2 Peter 3.2). James writes of the law of liberty in James 1.25; 2.12.

Most relevant of all is what Lucian of Samosata has to say about Jesus in Death of Peregrinus 13. Lucian calls Jesus the first lawmaker (ο νομοθετης ο πρωτος) of the Christians and says that Christians live according to his laws (κατα τους εκεινου νομους βιωσιν).

Jesus was killed by the Jews.

Nobody in antiquity seems particularly interested in evading the responsibility for having killed Jesus. When the Roman Tacitus describes the death of Jesus he affixes responsibility for the execution on Pontius Pilate, a Roman governor. When the Jewish Talmud describes the death of Jesus it affixes responsibility for the execution on those who accused Jesus of sorcery, presumably Jews.

The gospels may be the key to this split allocation of responsibility. They describe the execution of Jesus as a Roman reaction to Jewish actions. Both the Jewish leaders and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate are held actually responsible, though there may be a tendency to exonerate Pilate and heap blame upon the Jews. The passion narratives describe two sets of hearings, the first before the Jewish leaders in Matthew 26.59-66 = Mark 14.55-64 = Luke 22.61-71 (John 18.19-24), the second before the Roman authority, Pilate, in Matthew 27.11-26 = Mark 15.2-15 = Luke 23.2-5, 13-25 (John 18.29-19.15). Luke 23.6-12 adds a hearing before yet another Jewish leader, Herod the tetrarch.

In Acts 2.23 Peter rebukes the Jews for having nailed Jesus to a cross. Refer also to Acts 3.13; 4.10. In 1 Thessalonians 2.14-16 Paul* blames the Jews, not only for killing the Lord Jesus, but also for killing the prophets driving out those Christians who would preach to the gentiles.

* Some consider this passage an interpolation, but the reasons seem insufficient to me.

At any rate, it is certainly the case that Jesus was regarded as having been killed by the Jews.

Jerusalem fell.

We now arrive at the most pointed item on the list: Did anybody ever blame the fall of Jerusalem on the execution of Jesus?

The synoptic gospels, John, and Thomas all attest that Jesus spoke against the temple in some way; refer to Matthew 26.61 = Mark 14.58; Matthew 27.39-40 = Mark 15.29-30; Luke 19.43-44; John 2.19-21; Acts 6.14; Thomas 71. The issues of what exactly he said and what exactly he meant by it are tangled, to say the least. The synoptics and John also unite in alleging that Jesus performed some symbolic act against either the temple itself or some aspect of its cult. The references are Matthew 21.12-17 = Mark 11.15-18 = Luke 19.45-48 (John 2.13-17). In John 11.48 the plot to kill Jesus is predicated at least in part upon the perception that, if he is allowed to continue in his ministry, he will provoke the Romans to come and destroy the nation.

So the destruction of the temple (implying the fall of Jerusalem) can in some sense be laid upon Jesus already. We can, however, find more intimate connections between the actual execution of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem.

In Matthew 21.33-46 = Mark 12.1-12 = Luke 20.9-18 Jesus relates the parable of the tenants. This parable is very easily taken as an allegory of the Jews killing first the prophets then the son of God himself; the enraged father now comes and destroys the tenants, a symbol easily located in the fall of Jerusalem. That the synoptists understood this parable in just such a way is suggested by the notice in Matthew 21.45 = Mark 12.12 that the Jewish leaders understood the parable as an indictment against them, or by their exclamation in Luke 20.16, may it never be, hinting at the same understanding.

(The parable of the wedding feast in Matthew 22.1-14 apparently imports this element of divine vengeance from the parable of the tenants; in 22.7 the king exacts vengeance by destroying the city of those who had mistreated his servants. In this parable, however, the son is not killed; his only apparent inconvenience is the shame of being the groom at an unpopular wedding feast.)

Surely, also, it is the destruction of Jerusalem that informs the chilling words placed on Jewish lips in Matthew 27.25: His blood be on us and on our children!

Later Christian authors did not let the connections between the execution of Jesus and the fall of Jerusalem go unexploited. Justin Martyr writes, for instance, in Apology 1.32.4b:

Εκ παντων γαρ γενων ανθρωπων προσδοκωσι τον εν Ιουδαια σταυρωθεντα, μεθ ον ευθυς δοριαλωτος υμιν η γη Ιουδαιων παρεδοθη.

For from all races of men there are some who look for him who was crucified in Judea, after which event the land of the Jews was straightway delivered over to you as spoil of war.

Justin Martyr was not alone in this assessment of the reason for the fall of Jerusalem. Nor, however, was his view unanimous amongst Christians of his century. Consider Hegesippus, who in a post hoc ergo propter hoc fashion blames the fall of Jerusalem on the execution, not of Jesus, but of James, brother of the Lord (Eusebius, History of the Church 2.23.18):

Και λαβων τις απ αυτων, εις των κναφεων, το ξυλον εν ω απεπιεζε τα ιματια, ηνεγκε κατα της κεφαλης του δικαιου. και ουτως εμαρτυρησε και εθαψαν αυτον επι τω τοπω παρα τω ναω, και ετι αυτου η στηλη μενει παρα τω ναω. μαρτυς ουτος αληθης Ιουδαιοις τε και Ελλησι γεγενηται, οτι Ιησους ο Χριστος εστι. και ευθυς Ουεσπασιανος πολιορκει αυτους.

And one of them, who was a fuller, took the club with which he beat out clothes and struck the just man on the head. And thus he suffered martyrdom. And they buried him on the spot, by the temple, and his monument still remains by the temple. He became a true witness, both to Jews and Greeks, that Jesus is the Christ. And immediately Vespasian besieged them.

But in the next century Origen, who I suspect has confused the Jewish historian Josephus with the Christian author Hegesippus, in Against Celsus 1.47 states that, while Josephus blamed the fall of Jerusalem on the execution of James, he ought to have blamed it on the execution of Jesus:

Εβουλομην δ αν Κελσω, προσωποποιησαντι τον Ιουδαιον παραδεξαμενον πως Ιωαννην ως βαπτιστην βαπτιζοντα τον Ιησουν, ειπειν οτι το Ιωαννην γεγονεναι βαπτιστην, εις αφεσιν αμαρτηματων βαπτιζοντα, ανεγραψε τις των μετ ου πολυ του Ιωαννου και του Ιησου γεγενημενων. εν γαρ τω οκτωκαιδεκατω της Ιουδαικης αρχαιολογιας ο Ιωσηπος μαρτυρει τω Ιωαννη ως βαπτιστη γεγενημενω και καθαρσιον τοις βαπτισαμενοις επαγγελλομενω. ο δ αυτος, καιτοι γε απιστων τω Ιησου ως Χριστω, ζητων την αιτιαν της των Ιεροσολυμων πτωσεως και της του ναου καθαιρεσεως, δεον αυτον ειπειν οτι η κατα του Ιησου επιβουλη τουτων αιτια γεγονε τω λαω, επει απεκτειναν τον προφητευομενον Χριστον ο δε και ωσπερ ακων ου μακραν της αληθειας γενομενος φησι ταυτα συμβεβηκεναι τοις Ιουδαιοις κατ εκδικησιν Ιακωβου του δικαιου, ος ην αδελφος Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου, επειδηπερ δικαιοτατον αυτον οντα απεκτειναν. τον δε Ιακωβον τουτον ο Ιησου γνησιος μαθητης Παυλος φησιν εωρακεναι ως αδελφον του κυριου, ου τοσουτον δια το προς αιματος συγγενες η την κοινην αυτων ανατροφην οσον δια το ηθος και τον λογον. ειπερ ουν δια Ιακωβον λεγει συμβεβηκεναι τοις Ιουδαιοις τα κατα την ερημωσιν της Ιερουσαλημ, πως ουχι ευλογωτερον δια Ιησουν τον Χριστον τουτο φασκειν γεγονεναι, ου της θειοτητος μαρτυρες αι τοσαυται των μεταβαλοντων απο της χυσεως των κακων εκκλησιαι και ηρτημενων του δημιουργου και παντ αναφεροντων επι την προς εκεινον αρεσκειαν;

I would like to say to Celsus, who represents the Jew as accepting somehow John as a baptist, who baptized Jesus, that the existence of John the baptist, baptizing for the remission of sins, is related by one who lived no great length of time after John and Jesus. For in the eighteenth book of his Antiquities of the Jews, Josephus bears witness to John as having been a Baptist, and as promising purification to those who underwent the rite. Now this writer, although not believing in Jesus as the Christ, in seeking after the cause of the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple, whereas he ought to have said that the conspiracy against Jesus was the cause of these calamities befalling the people, since they put to death Christ, who was a prophet, says nevertheless (being, although against his will, not far from the truth) that these disasters happened to the Jews as a punishment for the death of James the just, who was a brother of Jesus called Christ, the Jews having put him to death, although he was a man most distinguished for his justice. Paul, a genuine disciple of Jesus, says that he regarded this James as a brother of the Lord, not so much on account of their relationship by blood, or of their being brought up together, as on account of his virtue and doctrine. If, then, he says that it was on account of James that the desolation of Jerusalem was made to overtake the Jews, how should it not be more in accordance with reason to say that it happened on account (of the death) of Jesus Christ, of whose divinity so many churches are witnesses, composed of those who have been convened from a flood of sins, and who have joined themselves to the creator, and who refer all their actions to his good pleasure?

Refer also to Against Celsus 2.13:

Και ουδαμως τοτε ην στρατοπεδα περι την Ιερουσαλημ κυκλουντα αυτην και περιεχοντα και πολιορκουντα. τουτο γαρ ηρξατο μεν ετι Νερωνος βασιλευοντος παρετεινε δε εως της Ουεσπασιανου ηγεμονιας ου ο υιος Τιτος καθειλε την Ιερουσαλημ, ως μεν Ιωσηπος γραφει, δια Ιακωβον τον δικαιον, τον αδελφον Ιησου του λεγομενου Χριστου, ως δε η αληθεια παριστησι, δια Ιησουν τον Χριστον του θεου.

But at that time there were no armies around Jerusalem, encompassing and enclosing and besieging it; for the siege began in the reign of Nero and lasted till the government of Vespasian, whose son Titus destroyed Jerusalem on account, as Josephus says, of James the just, the brother of Jesus who was called Christ, but, as the truth makes dear, really on account of Jesus the Christ of God.

The connection is now crystal clear. Jerusalem fell because the Jews had killed Jesus. Josephus himself had never connected either the execution of James or that of Jesus with the fall of the holy city (Origen was confused on that point), but in War 6.5.3 §288-299 he had recorded some strange signs that preceded the destruction of the temple in 70. Some later Christian authors went so far as to confuse these signs with the signs that the canonical gospels associate with the death of Jesus in circa 30.

In the History of the Passion of the Lord, folio 65 recto, for example, we read both that the lintel of the temple broke (a detail from the death of Jesus in gospel of the Nazaraeans) and that voices were heard in the sanctuary of the temple (a detail from before the destruction of the temple in Josephus). We find this same mistake in Christian of Stavelot and Petrus Comestor; all these references may be found on my page of Jewish-Christian gospels.

The Matthean connection.

Of our six descriptors, then, as we find them in Mara bar Serapion...:

  1. He was Jewish (since he was their wise king).
  2. He was wise.
  3. He was a king.
  4. He enacted new laws (or was a teacher).
  5. He was killed by the Jews.
  6. The Jewish kingdom fell because of his death.

...all were used as early as New Testament times to describe Jesus. Four of them are attested in pagan or Jewish authors (numbers 1, 2, 4, and 5). The other two, however, are attested only in Christian authors as far as I know so far (numbers 3 and 6). The question presses: Could a pagan like bar Serapion have thought enough in Christian terms to suppose that Jesus was the rightful king of the Jews and that it was his execution that brought on the destruction of Jerusalem?

It would seem that, if the wise king is supposed to be Jesus, Mara bar Serapion was influenced by Christianity to a certain extent, perhaps even to the point of having read some Christian literature.

While I think that pagan sympathizers with Christianity were probably somewhat rare in antiquity, I also think that some probably existed. The Christian apologists were not always bucking for converts; many times they just wanted a bit of respect with their pagan neighbors.

Assuming for the moment, then, that a pagan like bar Serapion could hypothetically have sympathized with Christianity enough to adopt its interpretations of messianic kingship and the fall of Jerusalem, it would be interesting to trace what kind of Christianity had so influenced him. To return to our six traits, we are looking for a strain of Christianity that emphasizes the Jewishness of Jesus, his wisdom, his kingship, his laws, Jewish responsibility for his death, and his execution as cause for the fall of Jerusalem. Is there a kind of Christianity that emphasizes those six things? More testably, is there a Christian text that emphasizes them?

I think that the gospel of Matthew fits the bill almost perfectly.

Matthew is sometimes called the most Jewish of the gospels, and at any rate it is Matthew who, for example, pointedly limits the mission of the twelve to the house of Israel in Matthew 10.5-6.

As for wisdom, Matthew is on about even footing with the other gospels (refer to Matthew 11.19b = Luke 7.35; Matthew 12.42 = Luke 11.31; Matthew 13.54 = Mark 6.2; Luke 11.49). Yet it may not be entirely coincidental that in Thomas 13 it is Matthew who says that Jesus is like a wise philosopher.

As for kingship, Matthew shares the usual king and kingdom motifs that the other gospels have, but Matthew also goes out of his way to further emphasize the kingship of Jesus. Matthew 13.41 has no parallels in the other gospels, and it speaks to the kingdom of the son of man. Matthew 16.28 is paralleled in Mark 9.1 = Luke 9.27, but only Matthew points out that the kingdom belongs to the son of man. Matthew 20.21 finds a parallel in Mark 10.37, but, where Mark writes of the glory of Jesus, Matthew writes of his kingdom. Matthew 25.31-46 is the parable of the sheep and the goats, unparalleled in the other gospels, in which the son of man appears as a king enthroned. Matthew 27, the passion narrative, shares with the other gospels the repeated mentions of Jesus as king. And it is Matthew who uses the phrase son of David, the paradigmatic Jewish king, nine times in his gospel, compared to three each for Mark and Luke and none for John.

As for legislation, it is Matthew who paints Jesus in Mosaic colors in the sermon on the mount. Jesus appears there as a new lawgiver, standing (like Moses) on a mountain (Matthew 5.1; Luke 6.17 has Jesus come down to a plain to deliver his sermon), authoritatively either repealing or reinterpreting the Mosaic laws and traditions (Matthew 5.21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43).

All the gospels agree that the Jews were responsible for the execution of Jesus. But it is Matthew who plays that card to its fullest effect. In Matthew 27.24-25 Pilate washes his hands of the blood of Jesus and the Jews take it upon themselves: His blood shall be upon us and on our children. No other Christian text outdoes this gesture when it comes to placing the blame on the Jews.

Finally, it is Matthew who most pointedly connects the execution of Jesus with the fall of Jerusalem. In the parable of the wedding feast (Matthew 22.1-14), right after the parable of the tenants (21.33-44), Matthew has the offended king destroying a city (22.7), a clear reference to the events of 70. Refer also to Matthew 21.43, unparalleled in the other gospels, where Jesus most explicitly removes the kingdom of God from the Jews because of their killing of the son in the parable of the tenants. And, again, there is the Jewish fate foretold in Matthew 27.24-25: His blood shall be upon us and on our children.

Mara bar Serapion, then, if he was indeed influenced by some form of Christianity, was probably influenced by Matthean Christianity. If the wise king is Jesus, he may have actually read Matthew, though it is unnecessary to suppose that he did. It would be enough that the emphases in Matthew reflect the emphases in the kind of Christianity preached and practiced where Matthew was written or had currency. This Matthean connection actually becomes another argument for the wise king being Jesus, then, due to the peculiar circumstance that Matthew is thought to have been written in Syria, the same locale whence Mara bar Serapion is writing his letter. Even the gospel of Thomas, whose thirteenth saying I have referred to in connection with wisdom, is usually assigned to Syrian Christianity. It would be quite a coincidence, I think, if bar Serapion was referring someone other than Jesus, yet his portrait of the wise king happened to align so nicely with the kind of Christianity current in his own locale.

This line of argumentation should be easy to falsify, I think, if indeed bar Serapion meant someone other than Jesus. His failure to actually name the wise king implies that the person in question was famous enough for those six traits of his to be recognized without a name. In other words, he was probably not referring to somebody who would be unknown to us. How many Jews, after all, could there be who were considered wise lawmaking kings whom the Jews slew and thus brought on their own destruction? Until such time as a better candidate is put forward, then, I contend that Mara bar Serapion, without actually naming him, was writing about Jesus Christ when he described the wise king of the Jews.

This identification is, in my estimation, so strong on its own merits that we are entitled to turn it around and use it to shed light on pagan attitudes toward Christianity. While pagan sympathizers must have been relatively rare, they must also have existed. Interestingly, it is again Matthew who calls our attention to the possibility of their existence when he has pagan magi (Matthew 2.1-12) come to render homage to the infant Jesus, precisely as the king of the Jews.