In our modern age of enlightenment, the fact that no indisputable testimony to the life of Jesus can be found outside of the New Testament and apocryphal documents (all of which were penned by obviously biased writers) continues to trouble Christian apologists, possibly more so than at any time in church history. In their frustration, they have resorted to some rather imaginative efforts to find Jesus of Nazareth in ancient secular records. One such effort has focused on a letter that may have been written toward the end of the first century.
The writer, Mara Bar-Serapion, was in prison at the time, and he wrote the letter to exhort his son to seek wisdom. The following quotation from the letter is sometimes cited as evidence that Jesus of Nazareth was mentioned in contemporary secular documents:
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 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 (quoted by F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? Eerdmans Publishing Co., Fifth Revised Edition, p. 114).Bruce, an often-quoted Christian apologist, noted that this letter was "written some time later than A. D. 73, but how much later we cannot be sure" (Ibid.). He, of course, wants to see this letter as proof of the historicity of Jesus, but by his own admission, the document was written at least 40 years after the time that Jesus allegedly lived and possibly even later. Since Bar-Serapion made no claim in his letter that he had personally witnessed the execution of the "wise king" or had ever even seen him, his statement cannot in any sense be considered firsthand testimony of the historicity of Jesus, as Bruce and other apologists would like us to believe that it is.
We can't even be sure that Bar-Serapion was referring to Jesus. He didn't identify the "wise king" by name, as he did in the case of both Socrates and Pythagoras, so one merely speculates when he says that this is a first-century secular reference to Jesus. How does one make that determination? Messianic pretenders in Judea were a dime a dozen during the era of foreign domination. Josephus referred to some of them, and even the New Testament mentioned two of them in Gamaliel's speech to the Jewish council ( Acts 5:35-36). In Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (Harper & Row, 1985), authors Richard Horsley and John Hanson tell of several Messianic prophets of this period besides Theudas and Judas of Galilee, whom Gamaliel mentioned in his speech. Some of these Messiahs were even named Jesus, and most of them came to ignominious ends at the hands ofeither the Romans or their own countrymen. How, then, do Bruce and other apologists who cite Mara Bar-Serapion's reference to a "wise king" who was executed by the Jews know for a fact that this was an allusion to Jesus of Nazareth and not to some other Messianic prophet of those times?
One could just as easily assume that Mara Bar-Serapion was referring to the Essene "Teacher of Righteousness," who was often mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls found at Qumran. The person in these documents called the teacher of righteousness was presented as a Messianic figure who suffered vicariously for the people. Since Essene teachings were widely circulated before and after the time Jesus allegedly lived, one could argue that this teacher "lived on in the teaching which he had given." The point is that Mara Bar-Serapion simply did not identify the "wise king" whom the Jews had "executed," and in the absence of that information, one can only guess who this was supposed to be. F. F. Bruce and his inerrantist cohorts can't just arbitrarily make a vague statement like this into a reference to Jesus. They need proof that Bar-Serapion definitely meant Jesus, and they simply don't have it.
We should notice too the historical time frame of the characters that Bar-Serapion specifically identified by name. Socrates lived in the 5th century B. C. and Pythagoras in the 6th. One may legitimately wonder, then, if Bar-Serapion's "wise king" was someone who had lived about the same time as Socrates and Pythagoras rather than someone who had been "executed" centuries after their time. Bar-Serapion did say that "just after" the execution of their "wise king," the Jews had their kingdom abolished and were "ruined and driven from their land" to live "in complete dispersion," so he could very well have been referring to events close to the time of Pythagoras and Socrates when the Jews' kingdom was abolished by Nebuchadnezzar, after which the Jews were taken into Babylonian captivity and later dispersed in various countries, or he could even have been referring to a king in the northern kingdom of Israel, which was abolished by the Assyrian conquest of 722-721 B.C., after which the northern tribes were dispersed to Mesopotamia and Media, where they eventually lost their national identity. At any rate, if Bar-Serapion was using the word king literally, he had to be referring to someone who lived before the Babylonian conquest of Judea, because there simply were no "Jewish kings" after Zedekiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar installed as a puppet until he finally sacked Jerusalem in 586 B. C. and "abolished" the Jewish kingdom. So if the Jews had literally executed a "wise king," it had to have been someone who lived before that date.
There is just as much biblical evidence to support this view as there is for the apologetic claim that Bar-Serapion was referring to Jesus. The Bible itself recorded the political assassinations of Jewish royalty that occurred close enough to Nebuchadnezzar's capture of Jerusalem to consider the conquest of either Israel or Judea as an event that had happened "just after" the murder of one of these kings. Josiah's father, King Amon, for example, was assassinated less than 50 years before Nebuchadnezzar's siege of Jerusalem ( 2 Kings 21:23). Admittedly, the Bible didn't speak very flatteringly of Amon or of most of the other assassinated Jewish kings either for that matter, but in the absence of corroborating records, who can really know how objective the writers of biblical history were? At times, they seemed very political in their reporting. Who can know either what records and traditions Bar-Serapion may have known about that would have given him a different perspective of Jewish history than the ethnocentric views of the biblical writers? Furthermore, if Christian apologists are going to quibble that some biblical details do not fit the theory that Bar-Serapion's "wise king" was one of the kings of Israel or Judea assassinated before Jerusalem's fall to Nebuchadnezzar, they should admit that some biblical details don't fit their Jesus theory either. Where, for example, does the New Testament say that the Jews executed Jesus? It says that he was executed by the Romans. The New Testament also teaches that Judea was under foreign domination during the life of Jesus, so the Jews' kingdom wasn't abolished after Jesus was executed. It had been abolished long before then.
For the sake of argument, let's just assume that Bar-Serapion's letter was beyond all reasonable doubt referring to Jesus of Nazareth. Still it could not be considered reliable evidence that such a person had actually lived, because the letter contains factual errors. According to Bar-Serapion, the "men of Samos" had "burn[ed]" Pythagoras, an implication that he had been killed by his countrymen. In reality, 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 (Encyclopedia Americana, 1994, Vol. 23, p. 45). The men of Samos did not "burn" Pythagoras, so if Mara Bar-Serapion's letter was incorrect in such an important detail as this, how can it be considered reliable proof of the historicity of anything, much less the existence of a person who wasn't even mentioned by name in the document?
We might also ask what Mara Bar-Serapion meant in saying that Pythagoras "lived on in the statue of Hera." What statue of Hera? Hera was the sister and wife of Zeus, so there were undoubtedly many statues of her in the Greek culture of the 6th century B. C. What exactly did Bar-Serapion mean? When was the island of Samos covered with sand "in a moment," and when did the famine and plague come upon the Athenians after their crime against Socrates? History knows of no events as calamitous as these that Bar-Serapion referred to. To say the least, there is a lot of vagueness and uncertainty in this document.
Christian apologists will have to keep looking, because they have certainly found no proof of the historicity of Jesus of Nazareth in Mara Bar-Serapion's letter.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Sharon Williams with whom I
the historical Jesus and other biblical subjects through several
published in The Pekin (Illinois) Daily Times, was sent
advanced copy of this article and invited to respond to it. She
on the grounds that she did not want to be mistreated in