Sep 282013


Previously I knew that this letter has been dated variously from the first to the third century, but just today I read that some scholars recently judge that it is most likely a Christian composition dating to the fourth century.

While the Syriac letter of Mara bar-Serapion frequently comes up when discussing non-Christian references to Jesus, there is precious little recent scholarly interpretation of the letter and its context online. (A little searching does, however, turn up a conference report from 2009, a webpage produced prior to that conference, and a brief exchange on Crosstalk from 2000.) The dating of the letter to 73 AD (or “later than 73 AD”) is widely cited, but most writers online either don’t know why it’s dated then or just choose not to discuss the reasoning.

The reasoning isn’t hard to follow, on the view that the letter is genuine:

Mara is portrayed as being from Samosata by origin, but at the time of writing he appears to be a captive in Seleucia; … It is known that captives were taken from Samosata by the Parthians in 72 and 161/2, and by the Sasanians in 256, and the Letter has been associated with each of these by modern scholars. (The Cambridge History of Early Christian Literature, p. 168)

On the other hand, as Sebastian P. Brock continues:

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)

He provides this footnote but doesn’t say whether the opinion belongs to McVey or to Brock alone:

On this Letter see especially K. E. McVey, ‘A Fresh Look at the Letter of Mara bar Sarapion to His Son’, V Symposium Syriacum (Orientalia Christiana Analecta 236) (Rome: Pontificio Istituto Orientale, 1990), 257–72.

I will have to see if I can get an interlibrary loan for this. I can already see the outline of the argument, with references to the statement of Hegesippus on James (temporal connection of the fall of Jerusalem to James), the statement of Origen on James (causal connection between the fall of Jerusalem and James), and lastly to Eusebius, in the fourth century, where the connection is with Jesus. (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.)

What else might there be to argue for a later dating? Ken Olson, in the discussion from Crosstalk, explains why the language and perspective seems odd at 73 AD. (Please forgive me if this no longer represents your view, Ken, written 13 years ago on a discussion forum! I quote it because I think the argument is interesting.)

An author writing in the fourth century might see events separated by 30 or 40 years as virtually simultaneous (as, indeed, Eusebius does), but I find it hard to believe that a first-century author would do so. Also, the letter implies that the Jewish diaspora began with the Jewish War and that the Kingdom of Judea had been abolished (which didn’t happen until after Herod Agrippa II’s death c. 100). A similar confusion of events occurs in the description of Socrates, where the “famine and pestilence” (presumably those of the Pelopennesian War, 431-404 B.C.E.) are made the result of the later execution of Socrates (399 B.C.E.)

I admit I am unfamiliar with this text in its original language. Theissen and Mertz’s translation says, “their kingdom was taken away from them from that time on.” Pompey abolished the Jewish kingdom in 63 B.CE., it was re-established under Herod, broken up at his death, re-established again under Herod Agrippa I, and abolished again after Herod Agrippa II’s death c. 100. Doesn’t the phrase “from that time on” (if it is original to the text) suggest that a considerable time has passed since all of these events?

Meanwhile, the author of the 2009 conference summary seems to regard the second and third century dates as inferior explanations of the implied situation of the letter than the first century one. (For reasons that must have been elaborated in conference papers, “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 not [sic] pseudo-epigraphical or a rhetorical exercise.”) A fourth century pseudepigraph would solve both problems.

Apparently the opinion represents a trend in Syriac scholarship. Quoting again from the 2009 conference summary:

Van der Horst proposes an inspiring comparison between Mara’s letter and Boethius’ Consolatio, both read as consolation works written in prison, and advocates a dating of Mara’s letter to the third-fourth century. He is also inclined to see Mara as a Christian—mainly for his interpretation of the destruction of Jerusalem as a punishment for the killing of Jesus—and to play down his philosophical standing, which is evaluated more positively by Merz and Tieleman.

Pieter W. van der Horst’s contribution is in The letter of Mara bar Sarapion in context : proceedings of the symposium held at Utrecht University, 10-12 December 2009, eds. Annette Merz and Tuen Tieleman (Leiden ; Boston : Brill, 2012).

I do have to wonder whether McVey supports the thesis at all. Another reference from Han J. W. Drijvers footnotes McVey after an entirely different opinion:

The Letter of Mara bar Serapion to his Son and the Oration of Meliton the Philosopher before Antoninus Caesar, both of which were preserved in a Syriac version that might represent the original language, belong to the same Christian philosophical tradition and were probably written during the second half of the second century. [footnote:] W. Cureton, Spicilegium Syriacum, London 1855, published both writings and translated them into English; cf. K.E. McVey, ‘A Fresh Look at the Letter of Mara bar Sarapion to his Son’, OCA 236, 1990, pp. 257-272 [from “Early Syriac Christianity: Some Recent Publications,” in Vigiliae Christianae, Vol. 50, No. 2, p. 173]

I wonder if there is any way to read essays such as these two (by van der Horst and McVey) easier than possessing the book. I know not everything gets digitized, but maybe everything ought to be, even if it’s behind a paywall.

  5 Responses to “Mara bar-Serapion: a product of the fourth century?”

  1. […] Peter Kirby – Mara bar-Serapion: a product of the fourth century? […]

  2. Hi Peter,

    I’m delighted to see you blogging on Christian origins again. On the Mara Letter: I still hold that the chronological perspective of the author seems to belong to a much later period (actually I’d forgotten the point about Socrates). Also, I had a semester of Syriac with Luk van Rompay since I first wrote that and know a little more about the subject. If the Letter were indeed originally written in Syriac c. 73, it would be the oldest known work of Syriac literature.

    Catherine Chin has argued that the letter is not a later forgery per se, but a rhetorical exercise (and her paper is available online):.

    I’ve also heard that K. McVey has a new paper on the subject coming out.

    • Hey Ken,

      Thank you! I’m glad to be doing it too. It’s fun. 🙂

      Very handy references, thanks. (So nice when it’s online for everyone to read!)

      It answers my question about McVey’s position: “McVey argues further that the writer of the letter can nonetheless be identified as a Christian writer of the fourth century, on the strength of two passages: one that apparently connects the dispersion of the Jews to the death of their ‘wise king,’ and another that describes people as ‘casting out’ their children, a passage that McVey takes to be a reference to (and condemnation of) the exposure of infants.”

      The hypothesis of a rhetorical exercise (chreia elaboration) given here strikes me as a parsimonious explanation of the data. If so, as noted, the text may be later than the fourth century.

  3. […] If there is one impression that we can gather from the references to Christians in our non-Christian sources, one common theme that that runs through Tacitus, Suetonius, Pliny the Younger, Epictetus, Lucian, Marcus Aurelius, Galen, Celsus, and Philostratus, it is the inherent oddity they ascribe to the group. The only real exception in the literature of the era that stands out is that attributed to Mara Bar-Serapion. […]

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