The Mara bar Sarapion Project

The Syriac letter of Mara bar Sarapion still is accessible only through W. Cureton’s 1855 edition with English translation, B.P. Pratten’s translation in the ‘Ante-Nicene Fathers’ series (1867-72) and the German version by F. Schulthess (1897). Clearly these are products of a bygone era of scholarship. A new edition of this highly important document, together with a translation and a discussion of interpretative issues, is an urgent desideratum. This is the project undertaken by a small research team consisting of Annette Merz (New Testament Studies, Utrecht), David Rensberger (Syriology, New Testament Studies, Atlanta GA) and Teun Tieleman (Ancient Philosophy, Utrecht) in the context of the Utrecht based research programme ‘Habent sua fata libelli: “Text Processing” in the Philosophical and Religious Movements of the Roman Empire (1-300 CE)’. A few pilot studies are due to appear very soon (see below). Advances in research are to be expected in the following areas:

Linguistic dimension:
The nature of the Syriac written by Mara has so far been examined only in a superficial way in spite of the fact that this letter constitutes one of the earliest extant documents in the Syriac dialect of the Aramaic language. Philological work of a fundamental kind remains to be done here. The results will be especially profitable for researchers working on the Peschitta (the Syriac Bible) and the treatises of the Syriac Church Fathers.

Historical context:
The historical context of the letter is disputed. It has been dated to the first century CE, viz. to the immediate aftermath of the Roman annexation of Commagene in 72 or 73 CE. Alternative datings have been proposed in view of other times of crisis in Roman-Commagenean relations, viz. in the second and third century. We believe existing studies tend to focus too narrowly on details of military history. What is needed is a comprehensive approach to the letter as recording the moral and political reflections of a member of the Commagenean élite on Roman imperialism and its treatment of Commagene in particular. Considered in this light, the dating of the letter to the first century proves to be far more plausible than has so far been assumed (Merz and Tieleman 2008).

Philosophical dimension:
The issue to be addressed first is whether the doctrinal content of the letter is so general as to resist association with any philosophical school in particular (McVey 1990) or reveals a systematic philosophical and in particular Stoic outlook (Merz and Tieleman 2008). Further, the author’s Greek culture should not be taken to preclude Near Eastern elements, in particular the influence of traditional wisdom literature—an aspect that needs to be explored further along the lines suggested by Rensberger (2008). In addition, the striking role accorded by Mara to Time as a cosmic force encourages further inquiry into his relation (if any) to Zoroastrianism.

Mara’s knowledge of Early Christianity:
Mara includes a fascinating testimony about Jesus (“the wise king of the Jews”) whom he aligns with Socrates and Pythagoras as examples of persecuted wise men—a testimony which also needs to be explicated in the context of the letter as a whole. Mara was not a crypto-Christian of the first century (Cureton 1855). Nor does the letter constitute an anti-Jewish Christian pseudepigraphon of the 3rd-4th century (McVey 1990). More likely we are dealing with an early instance of the pagan reaction to Christian preaching in Syria. Thus the letter provides the earliest surviving testimony about Jesus from a pagan source.

Literary dimension:
Mara’s letter to his son is in many respects a typical ‘prison letter’ whose author is trying to come to terms with his relation to his Roman captors (who may or may not be present as secondary readers) and with the threat of execution—which is why it is also a moving personal document. This feature makes a comparison with Paul’s and Ignatius’ prison letters a very promising undertaking. Further, this text represents the philosophical testament of a Syriac Stoic employing the epistolary form—which invites comparison between his letter and other philosophical letters. Included in this inquiry is the examination of a brief anecdote on Mara’s exemplary attitude while in prison, which is appended to the letter in the only manuscript in which it has been preserved.

Religion in Commagene:
In addition to the above areas of research which are already being explored by members of the research group it will be worth asking what the letter could contribute to the study of ancient religion. Thus we intend to study the distinctive religiosity displayed by Mara, who often speaks of God in the singular but on one occasion of ‘our gods’ (viz. the gods worshipped in the city of Samosata), in the context of the many-faceted religion of Commagene in the Hellenistic and Roman periods. Of particular interest is the cultic reform imposed by king Antiochus I in the first century BCE, which is one of the archeologically and epigraphically best documented ruler cults of the Hellenistic world. Possibly the letter contains indications as to its author’s familiarity with the inscriptions to be found on the royal monuments erected by order of Antiochus.


Cureton, W. (1855), ‘The Epistle of Mara, Son of Serapion’ in Spicilegium Syriacum (London) 43-48, 70-76, 101-2.
Schulthess, F. (1897), ‘Der Brief des Mara bar Sarapion. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der syrischen Literatur’, Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 51, 365-91.
McVey, K.E. (1990), ‘A Fresh Look at the Letter of Mara Bar Sarapion’ in R. Lavenant S.J. (ed.), V Symposium Syriacum 1988 (Roma) 257-72.
Rensberger, D. (forthcoming), ‘Reconsidering the Letter of Mara bar Serapion’, forthcoming in E. Meyers et. al (eds.) Aramaic Studies in Judaism and Early Christianity, Warsaw IN.
Merz, A. & Tieleman, T., ‘The Letter of Mara bar Sarapion. Some Comments on its Philosophical and Historical Context’, in D. Houtman et al. (eds.) Empsychoi Logoi (Studies in Honour of Pieter W. van der Horst) (Leiden: Brill 2008) 107-33.

NOTE: A symposium on Mara's letter will be held in Utrecht on 10-12 December, 2009. For more information click here

Webmaster   04 / 01 / 2008