The Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion (Dated “After 73”)

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

What did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after his death that their kingdom was abolished.


The Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion

Dated “After 73”

Possibly the earliest known post-AD70 work to correlate the fall of Jerusalem to the death of Jesus.



 “The most probable historical setting is that of the fall of Samosata in A.D. 73, which would place the latter shortly afterwards, unless it is  pseudo-epigraphical or a rhetorical exercise.”


“What did the Athenians gain from putting Socrates to death? As judgment, plague and famine came upon them. What did the men of Samos gain from burning Pythagoras? Shortly after this, their land was covered with sand. What did the Jews gain from executing their wise King? It was just after his death that their kingdom was abolished.”

“God justly avenged these three wise men: the Athenians died of hunger; the Samians were covered by the sea; the Jews, without a homeland have been dispersed among the nations. 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 lives on in the teaching which he had given.”



Mara, son of Serapion, to Serapion, my son: peace.

When your master and guardian wrote me a letter, and informed me that you were very diligent in study, though so young in years, I blessed God that you, a little boy, and without a guide to direct you, had begun in good earnest; and to myself also this was a comfort — that I heard of you, little boy as you are, as displaying such greatness of mind and conscientiousness: a character which, in the case of many who have begun well, has shown no eagerness to continue.

On this account, lo, I have written for you this record, touching that which I have by careful observation discovered in the world. For the kind of life men lead has been carefully observed by me. I tread the path of learning, and from the study of Greek philosophy have I found out all these things, although they suffered shipwreck when the birth of life took place.

Be diligent, then, my son, in attention to those things which are becoming for the free, so as to devote yourself to learning, and to follow after wisdom; and endeavour thus to become confirmed in those habits with which you have begun. Call to mind also my precepts, as a quiet person who is fond of the pursuit of learning. And, even though such a life should seem to you very irksome, yet when you have made experience of it for a little while, it will become very pleasant to you: for to me also it so happened. When, moreover, a person has left his home, and is able still to preserve his previous character, and properly does that which it behooves him to do, he is that chosen man who is called the blessing of God, and one who does not find anything else to compare with his freedom. For, as for those persons who are called to the pursuit of learning, they are seeking to extricate themselves from the turmoils of time; and those who take hold upon wisdom, they are clinging to the hope of righteousness; and those who take their stand on truth, they are displaying the banner of their virtue; and those who cultivate philosophy, they are looking to escape from the vexations of the world. And thus do you too, my son, wisely behave yourself in regard to these things, as a wise person who seeks to spend a pure life; and beware lest the gain which many hunger after enervate you, and your mind turn to covet riches, which have no stability. For, when they are acquired by fraud, they do not continue; nor, even when justly obtained, do they last; and all those things which are seen by you in the world, as belonging to that which is only for a little time, are destined to depart like a dream: for they are but as the risings and settings of the seasons.

About the objects of that vainglory, too, of which the life of men is full, be not solicitous: seeing that from those things which give us joy there quickly comes to us harm. Most especially is this the case with the birth of beloved children. For in two respects it plainly brings us harm: in the case of the virtuous, our very affection for them torments us, and from their very excellence of character we suffer torture; and, in the case of the vicious, we are worried with their correction, and afflicted with their misconduct.

You have 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. Meet was it that that day should be called a day of lamentation, because one heavy grief possessed them all alike. For they wept as they remembered their fathers, and they thought of their mothers with sobs, and they were distressed for their brethren, and grieved for their betrothed whom they had left behind. And, although we had heard that their former companions were proceeding to Seleucia, we clandestinely set out, and proceeded on the way towards them, and united our own misery with theirs. Then was our grief exceedingly violent, and fitly did our weeping abound, by reason of our desperate plight, and our wailing gathered itself into a dense cloud, and our misery grew vaster than a mountain: for not one of us had the power to ward off the disasters that assailed him. For affection for the living was intense, as well as sorrow for the dead, and our miseries were driving us on without any way of escape. For we saw our brethren and our children captives, and we remembered our deceased companions, who were laid to rest in a foreign land. Each one of us, too, was anxious for himself, lest he should have disaster added to disaster, or lest another calamity should overtake that which went before it. What enjoyment could men have that were prisoners, and who experienced things like these?

But as for you, my beloved, be not distressed because in your loneliness you have been driven from place to place. For to these things men are born, since they are destined to meet with the accidents of time. But rather let your thought be this, that to wise men every place is alike, and that in every city the good have many fathers and mothers. Else, if you doubt it, take you a proof from what you have seen yourself. How many people who know you not love you as one of their own children; and what a host of women receive you as they would their own beloved ones! Verily, as a stranger you have been fortunate; verily, for your small love many people have conceived an ardent affection for you.

What, again, are we to say concerning the delusion which has taken up its abode in the world? Both by reason of toil painful is the journey through it, and by its agitations are we, like a reed by the force of the wind, bent now in this direction, now in that. For I have been amazed at many who cast away their children, and I have been astonished at others who bring up those that are not theirs. There are persons who acquire riches in the world, and I have also been astonished at others who inherit that which is not of their own acquisition. Thus may you understand and see that we are walking under the guidance of delusion.

Begin and tell us, O wisest of men, on which of his possessions a man can place reliance, or concerning what things he can say that they are such as abide. Will you say so of abundance of riches? They are snatched away. Of fortresses? They are spoiled. Of cities? They are laid waste. Of greatness? It is brought down. Of magnificence? It is overthrown. Of beauty? It withers. Or of laws? They pass away. Or of poverty? It is despised. Or of children? They die. Or of friends? They prove false. Or of the praises of men? jealousy goes before them.

Let a man, therefore, rejoice in his empire, like Darius; or in his good fortune, like Polycrates; or in his bravery, like Achilles; or in his wife, like Agamemnon; or in his offspring, like Priam; or in his skill, like Archimedes; or in his wisdom, like Socrates; or in his learning, like Pythagoras; or in his ingenuity, like Palamedes;— the life of men, my son, departs from the world, but their praises and their virtues abide forever.

Choose, then, my little son, that which fades not away. For those who occupy themselves with these things are called modest, and are beloved, and lovers of a good name.

When, moreover, anything untoward befalls you, do not lay the blame on man, nor be angry against God, nor fulminate against the time you live in.

If you shall continue in this mind, your gift is not small which you have received from God, which has no need of riches, and is never reduced to poverty. For without fear shall you pass your life, and with rejoicing. For fear and apologies for one’s nature belong not to the wise, but to such as walk contrary to law. For no man has even been deprived of his wisdom, as of his property.

Follow diligently learning rather than riches. For the greater are one’s possessions, the greater is the evil attendant upon them. For I have myself observed that, where a man’s goods are many, so also are the tribulations which happen to him; and, where luxuries are accumulated, there also do sorrows congregate; and, where riches are abundant, there is stored up the bitterness of many a year.

If, therefore, you shall behave with understanding, and shall diligently watch over your conduct, God will not refrain from helping you, nor men from loving you.

Let that which you are able to acquire suffice you; and if, moreover, you are able to do without property, you shall be called blessed, and no man whatsoever shall be jealous of you.

And remember also this, that nothing will disturb your life very greatly, except it be the love of gain; and that no man after his death is called an owner of property: because it is by the desire of this that weak men are led captive, and they know not that a man dwells among his possessions only in the manner of a chance-comer, and they are haunted with fear because these possessions are not secured to them: for they abandoned that which is their own, and seek that which is not theirs.

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.

Moreover I, my son, have attentively observed mankind, in what a dismal state of ruin they are. And I have been amazed that they are not utterly prostrated by the calamities which surround them, and that even their wars are not enough for them, nor the pains they endure, nor the diseases, nor the death, nor the poverty; but that, like savage beasts, they must needs rush upon one another in their enmity, trying which of them shall inflict the greater mischief on his fellow. For they have broken away from the bounds of truth, and transgress all honest laws, because they are bent on fulfilling their selfish desires; for, whenever a man is eagerly set on obtaining that which he desires, how is it possible that he should fitly do that which it behooves him to do? and they acknowledge no restraint, and but seldom stretch out their hands towards truth and goodness, but in their manner of life behave like the deaf and the blind. Moreover, the wicked rejoice, and the righteous are disquieted. He that has, denies that he has; and he that has not, struggles to acquire. The poor seek help, and the rich hide their wealth, and every man laughs at his fellow. Those that are drunken are stupefied, and those that have recovered themselves are ashamed. Some weep, and some sing; and some laugh, and others are a prey to care. They rejoice in things evil, and a man that speaks the truth they despise.

Should a man, then, be surprised when the world is seeking to wither him with its scorn, seeing that they and he have not one and the same manner of life? These are the things for which they care. One of them is looking forward to the time when in battle he shall obtain the renown of victory; yet the valiant perceive not by how many foolish objects of desire a man is led captive in the world. But would that for a little while self-repentance visited them! For, while victorious by their bravery, they are overcome by the power of covetousness. For I have made trial of men, and with this result: that the one thing on which they are intent, is abundance of riches. Therefore also it is that they have no settled purpose; but, through the instability of their minds, a man is of a sudden cast down from his elation of spirit to be swallowed up with sadness. They look not at the vast wealth of eternity, nor consider that every visitation of trouble is conducting us all alike to the same final period. For they are devoted to the majesty of the belly, that huge blot on the character of the vicious.

Moreover, as regards this letter which it has come into my mind to write to you, it is not enough to read it, but the best thing is that it be put in practice. For I know for myself, that when you shall have made experiment of this mode of life, it will be very pleasant to you, and you will be free from sore vexation; because it is only on account of children that we tolerate riches.

Put, therefore, sadness away from you, O most beloved of mankind — a thing which never in anywise benefits a man; and drive care away from you, which brings with it no advantage whatsoever. For we have no resource or skill that can avail us— nothing but a great mind able to cope with the disasters and to endure the tribulations which we are always receiving at the hands of the times. For at these things does it behoove us to look, and not only at those which are fraught with rejoicing and good repute.

Devote yourself to wisdom, the fount of all things good, the treasure that fails not. There shall you lay your head, and be at ease. For this shall be to you father and mother, and a good companion for your life.

Enter into closest intimacy with fortitude and patience, those virtues which are able successfully to encounter the tribulations that befall feeble men. For so great is their strength, that they are adequate to sustain hunger, and can endure thirst, and mitigate every trouble. With toil, moreover, yea even with dissolution, they make right merry.

To these things give diligent attention, and you shall lead an untroubled life, and I also shall have comfort, and you shall be called the delight of his parents.

For in that time of yore, when our city was standing in her greatness, you may be aware that against many persons among us abominable words were uttered; but for ourselves, we acknowledged long ago that we received love, no less than honour, to the fullest extent from the multitude of her people: it was the state of the times only that forbade our completing those things which we had resolved on doing. And here also in the prison-house we give thanks to God that we have received the love of many: for we are striving to our utmost to maintain a life of sobriety and cheerfulness; and, if anyone drive us by force, he will but be bearing public testimony against himself, that he is estranged from all things good, and he will receive disgrace and shame from the foul mark of shame that is upon him. For we have shown our truth— that truth which in our now ruined kingdom we possessed not. But, if the Romans shall permit us to go back to our own country, as called upon by justice and righteousness to do, they will be acting like humane men, and will earn the name of good and righteous, and at the same time will have a peaceful country in which to dwell: for they will exhibit their greatness when they shall leave us free men, and we shall be obedient to the sovereign power which the time has allotted to us. But let them not like tyrants, drive us as though we were slaves. Yet, if it has been already determined what shall be done, we shall receive nothing more dreadful than the peaceful death which is in store for us.

But you, my little son, if you resolve diligently to acquaint yourself with these things, first of all put a check on appetite, and set limits to that in which you are indulging. Seek the power to refrain from being angry; and, instead of yielding to outbursts of passion, listen to the promptings of kindness.

For myself, what I am henceforth solicitous about is this — that, so far as I have recollections of the past, I may leave behind me a book containing them, and with a prudent mind finish the journey which I am appointed to take, and depart without suffering out of the sad afflictions of the world. For my prayer is, that I may receive my dismissal; and by what kind of death concerns me not. But, if any one should be troubled or anxious about this, I have no counsel to give him: for yonder, in the dwelling-place of all the world, will he find us before him.

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

Here ends the letter of Mara, son of Serapion.

Sebastian Brock
“The early date and the pagan authorship of the Letter have, however, been convincingly challenged,on the grounds that the linking of the death of  Jesus with the destruction of Jerusalem is an essentially Christian motif, and one that only came into currency in the post-Constantinian period.* Accordingly the Letter should be seen as the work of a Christian posing as a pagan; this in itself is interesting, for it points to the existence of a phenomenon not hitherto known from early Syriac writings, but familiar from Greek Christian ones.” (The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, p. 169)

* (Justin Martyr’s reference, 1 Thess. 2:14-16, the synoptics at Matthew 21.33-46 / Mark 12.1-12 / Luke 20.9-18, and other gospel details might argue to the contrary; Ben C. Smith collects these references in his own page on Mara bar-Serapion.

F.F. Bruce
“But the writings of Thallus have disappeared; we know them only in fragments cited by later writers. Apart from him, no certain reference is made to Christianity in any extant non-Christian Gentile writing of the first century. There is, indeed, in the British Museum an interesting manuscript preserving the text of a letter written some time later than AD 73, but how much later we cannot be sure. This letter was sent by a Syrian named Mara BarSerapion to his son Serapion. Mara Bar-Serapion was in prison at the time, but he wrote to encourage his son in the pursuit of wisdom, and pointed out that those who persecuted wise men were overtaken by misfortune. He instances the deaths of Socrates, ‘Pythagoras and Christ:

‘What advantage did the Athenian, 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 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.’

This writer can scarcely have been a Christian, or he would have said that Christ lived on by being raised from the dead. He was more probably a Gentile philosopher, who led the way in what later became a commonplace-the placing of Christ on a comparable footing with the great sages of antiquity.”

 

Ralph Cureton
“We have no information respecting this author beyond what is supplied in the letter itself addressed to his son. Mara, or as Assemaniwrites it in Latin, Maras, is not an uncommon appellation amongst the Syrians, and there have been many who have borne the name of Serapion2.

The author speaks of himself as one whose city had been ruined, and himself also taken and detained as prisoner in bonds by the Romans, together with others whom the victors treated in a tyrannical manner, as distrustful of their fidelity to the Roman government. He describes the misery of his friends and companions belonging to the city of Samosata, and the distresses which he and they suffered when they joined themselves together on the road to Seleucia. He alludes to the destruction of Jerusalem and the dispersion of the Jews as an act of divine vengeance for their having murdered Jesus; but he makes no direct mention of the name of Christ, and only designates him as the “wise king,” who, although put to death, still lived in the “wise laws which he promulgated.”

From these facts it is evident that the author wrote at a time when the Romans not long before had been making fresh conquests, or repressing rebellion in the parts of Syria about Samosata and Seleucia, and probably at a period when, on account of the persecution of the Christians, it would not have been prudent or safe to have spoken in more direct terms of Christ. Comagena and its capital Samosata were taken by the Romans in the reign of Vespasian, A.d. 72, or two years after the capture

1 See Bill. ‘Orient, vol. i. p. 643.

2 Fabricius, Bill. Greec. vol. viii. p. 192.

of Jerusalem by Titus.1 About twenty-three years later the persecution under Domitian began, A.d. 95.2 There would be nothing therefore incongruous in assigning, from its internal evidence, the date of this Epistle to the close of the first century. Nor would the allusion to the catastrophe of Samos at all militate against this, if it be referred to the earthquake in the reign of Augustus, from which several of the neighbouring islands also suffered.3

The mention, however, of that island having been covered with sand, as a punishment for the burning of Pythagoras, seems to me to have a direct reference to the Sibylline verses “4

I cannot therefore, in my own mind, come to any other conclusion than that this Epistle ought to be assigned to a period when the Sibylline verses were frequently cited, the age of Justin Martyr, Meliton, and Tertullian. This date, too, will perhaps otherwise coincide quite as well with what is read in the letter as the former. The troubles to which the writer alludes as having befallen himself and his city will apply to those inflicted by the Romans upon the countries about the Tigris and Euphrates which had been excited to rebel against them

1 See Tillemont, Hist, des Empereurs, vol. ii. p. 30.

2 Ibid. p.;i21.

3 See Gale, Sibyll. Orac. p. 406.

4 Ibid. p. 405.

5 Lactantius alludes to this line: “Et vero cum caput illud orbis occideret, et pv/xr; esse cceperit, quod Sibyllas fore aiunt,” &c. Inst. Div. b. vii. p. 2T».

by Vologeses, in the Parthian war under the command of Lucius Verus, A.d. 162—165.1 I have not found the name of Samosata especially mentioned as having suffered more than other cities in this war; but it is stated that Seleucia was sacked and burned by the Romans, and five or six thousand slain.2 The persecution under Marcus Antoninus followed very close upon this war, and as these facts equally agree with the allusions made in this Epistle of Mara, it may perhaps be nearer the truth to assign its date to the latter half of the second century rather than to the close of the first.

If indeed such be the period at which this Letter was written, there is no improbability in supposing, that the Serapion, to whom it is addressed, may be the same as he who succeeded Maximinus3 as eighth Bishop of Antioch, about the year 190, and who himself also wrote short epistles, similar to this in purpose and tendency, for which indeed his father’s might have set him a pattern.4

1 See Tillemont, Hist, des Emp. vol. ii. p. 385.

2 Ibid. p. 389.

3 See Eusebius, Hist. Eccl. b. v. c. 19; and Cave’s Histor. Litter.

4 See Jerome, De Viris lllus. c. xii. “Leguntur et sparsim ejus breves Epistolse auctoris sui anctj(rei et vitse congruentes.” Dr. Routh has given all the remains of Serapion in his Meliq. Sacr. vol. i. p. 449.


June 27, 2015 at 1:39 pm

Maybe I´m wrong, but… Why is this source not discussed in preterist circles?
About 73-100 AD Stoic Mara talks about 3 wise ancient men, that will live forever in their teachings: Plato, Pythagoras,the murdered wise King of the Jews (Jesus!?). He is sure: Jerusalem was destroyed AD 70 because God punished the Jews for rejecting the new laws he had given-

This is an early proof that even pagan philosophers thought, that the Fall of Jerusalem and the Jews “driven from their kingdom” was a consequence of rejecting their messiah, who had brought a “new law” for them!?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.