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§ 18. Apocryphal Traditions.


We add some notes of minor interest connected with the history of Christ outside of the only authentic record in the Gospel.


I. The Apocryphal Sayings of our Lord.—The canonical Gospels contain all that is necessary for us to know about the words and deeds of our Lord, although many more might have been recorded (John 20:30; 21:25). Their early composition and reception in the church precluded the possibility of a successful rivalry of oral tradition. The extra-biblical sayings of our Lord are mere fragments, few in number, and with one exception rather unimportant, or simply variations of genuine words.

They have been collected by Fabricius, in Codex Apocr. N. T., I pp. 321–335; Grabe: Spicilegium SS. Patrum, ed. alt. I. 12 sqq., 326 sq.; Koerner: De sermonibus Christi ἀγράφοις (Lips. 1776); Routh, in Reliq. Sacrae, vol. I. 9–12, etc.; Rud. Hofmann, in Das Leben Jesu nach den Apokryphen (Leipz. 1851, § 75, pp. 317–334); Bunsen, in Anal. ante-Nic. I. 29 sqq.; Anger, in Synops. Evang. (1852); Westcott: Introd. to the Study of the Gospels, Append. C. (pp. 446 sqq. of the Boston ed. by Hackett); Plumptre, in Ellicott’s Com. for English Readers, I. p. xxxiii.; J. T. Dodd: Sayings ascribed to our Lord by the Fathers (1874); E. B. Nicholson:The Gospel according to the Hebrews (Lond. 1879, pp. 143–162). Comp. an essay of Ewald in his "Jahrbücher der Bibl. Wissenschaft," VI. 40 and 54 sqq., and Geschichte Christus’, p. 288. We avail ourselves chiefly of the collections of Hofmann, Westcott, Plumptre, and Nicholson.

(1) "It is more blessed to give than to receive." Quoted by Paul, Acts 20:35. Comp. Luke 6:30, 31; also Clement of Rome, Ad Cor. c. 2, ἤδιον διδόντες ἢ λαμβάνοντες, "more gladly giving than receiving." This is unquestionably authentic, pregnant with rich meaning, and shining out like a lone star all the more brilliantly. It is true in the highest sense of the love of God and Christ. The somewhat similar sentences of Aristotle, Seneca, and Epicurus, as quoted by Plutarch (see the passages in Wetstein on Acts 20:35), savor of aristocratic pride, and are neutralized by the opposite heathen maxim of mean selfishness: "Foolish is the giver, happy the receiver." Shakespeare may have had the sentence in his mind when he put into the mouth of Portia the golden words:


"The quality of mercy is not strained,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blessed;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes;

’Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown."


(2) "And on the same day Jesus saw a man working at his craft on the Sabbath-day, and He said unto him, ’O man, if thou knowest what thou doest, then art thou blessed; but if thou knowest not, then art thou accursed, and art a transgressor of the Law.’ " An addition to Luke 6:4, in Codex D. or Bezae (in the University library at Cambridge), which contains several remarkable additions. See Tischendorf’s apparatus in ed. VIII. Luc. 6:4, and Scrivener, lntrod. to Criticism of the N. T. p. 8. ἐπικατάρατοςis used John 7:49 (text. rec.) by the Pharisees of the people who know not the law (also Gal. 3:10, 13 in quotations from the O. T.); παραβάτης τοῦ νόμουby Paul (Rom. 2:25, 27; Gal. 2:18) and James (2:9, 11). Plumptre regards the narrative as authentic, and remarks that "it brings out with a marvellous force the distinction between the conscious transgression of a law recognized as still binding, and the assertion of a higher law as superseding the lower. Comp. also the remarks of Hofmann, l.c. p. 318.

(3) "But ye seek (or, in the imperative, seek ye, ζητεῖτε) to increase from little, and (not) from greater to be less." An addition in Codex D. to Matt 20:28. See Tischendorf. Comp. Luke 14:11; John 5:44. Westcott regards this as a genuine fragment. Nicholson inserts "not," with the Curetonian Syriac, D; all other authorities omit it. Juvencus has incorporated the passage in his poetic Hist. Evang. III. 613 sqq., quoted by Hofmann, p. 319.

(4) "Be ye trustworthy money-changers, or, proved bankers (τραπεζῖται δόκιμοι); i.e. expert in distinguishing the genuine coin from the counterfeit. Quoted by Clement of Alexandria (several times), Origen (in Joann, xix.), Eusebius, Epiphanius, Cyril of Alexandria, and many others. Comp. 1 Thess. 5:21: "Prove all things, hold fast the good," and the parable of the talents, Matt. 25:27. Delitzsch, who with many others regards this maxim as genuine, gives it the meaning: Exchange the less valuable for the more valuable, esteem sacred coin higher than common coin, and highest of all the one precious pearl of the gospel.(Ein Tag in Capernaum, p. 136.) Renan likewise adopts it as historical, but explains it in an Ebionite and monastic sense as an advice of voluntary poverty. "Be ye good bankers (soyez de bons banquiers), that is to say: Make good investments for the kingdom of God, by giving your goods to the poor, according to the ancient proverb (Prov. 19:17): ’He that hath pity upon the poor, lendeth to the Lord’ " (Vie de Jésus, ch. XI. p. 180, 5th Par. ed.).

[(5) "The Son of God says,(?) ’Let us resist all iniquity, and hold it in abhorrence.’ " From the Epistle of Barnabas, c. 4. This Epistle, though incorporated in the Codex Sinaiticus, is probably not a work of the apostolic Barnabas. Westcott and Plumptre quote the passage from the Latin version, which introduces the sentence with the words: sicut dicit Filius Dei. But this seems to be a mistake for sicut decet filios Dei, "as becometh the sons of God." This is evident from the Greek original (brought to light by the discovery of the Codex Sinaiticus), which reads, ὡς πρέπει υἱοῖς θεου̑ and connects the words with the preceding sentence. See the edition of Barnabae Epistula by Gebhardt and Harnack in Patr. Apost. Op. I. 14. For the sense comp. 2 Tim. 2:19: ἀποστάτω ἀπὸ ἀδικίαςJames 4:7: ἀνίστητε τῷ διαβόλῳ, Ps. 119:163: ἀδικίαν ἐμίσησα.]

(6) "They who wish to see me, and to lay hold on my kingdom, must receive me with affliction and suffering." From the Epistle of Barnabas, c. 7, where the words are introduced by "Thus he [Jesus] saith," φησίν But it is doubtful whether they are meant as a quotation or rather as a conclusion of the former remarks and a general reminiscence of several passages. Comp. Matt. 16:24; 20:3; Acts 14:22: "We must through much tribulation enter into the kingdom of God."

(7) "He that wonders [ὁ θαυμάσαςwith the wonder of reverential faith] shall reign, and he that reigns shall be made to rest." From the "Gospel of the Hebrews," quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. II. 9, § 45). The Alexandrian divine quotes this and the following sentence to show, as Plumptre finely says, "that in the teaching of Christ, as in that of Plato, wonder is at once the beginning and the end of knowledge."

(8) "Look with wonder at the things that are before thee (θαύμασον τα πάροντα)." From Clement of Alexandria (Strom. II. 9, § 45.).

(9) "I came to abolish sacrifices, and unless ye cease from sacrificing, the wrath [of God] will not cease from you." From the Gospel of the Ebionites (or rather Essaean Judaizers), quoted by Epiphanius (Haer. xxx. 16). Comp. Matt. 9:13, "I will have mercy and not sacrifice."

(10) "Ask great things, and the small shall be added to you: ask heavenly and there shall be added unto you earthly things." Quoted by Clement of Alexandria (Strom. I. 24, § 154; comp. IV. 6, § 34) and Origen (de Oratione, c. 2), with slight differences. Comp. Matt. 6:33, of which it is probably a free quotation from memory. Ambrose also quotes the sentence (Ep. xxxvi. 3): "Denique scriptum est: ’Petite magna, et parva adjicientur vobis. Petite coelestia, et terrena adjicientur.’"

(11) "In the things wherein I find you, in them will I judge you." Quoted by Justin Martyr (Dial. c. Tryph. c. 47), and Clement of Alexandria (Quis dives, § 40). Somewhat different Nilus: "Such as I find thee, I will judge thee, saith the Lord." The parallel passages in Ezekiel 7:3, 8; 18:30; 24:14; 33:20 are not sufficient to account for this sentence. It is probably taken from an apocryphal Gospel. See Hofmann, p. 323.

(12) "He who is nigh unto me is nigh unto the fire: he who is far from me is far from the kingdom. From Origen (Comm. in Jer. III. p. 778), and Didymus of Alexandria (in Ps. 88:8). Comp, Luke 12:49. Ignatius (Ad Smyrn. c. 4) has a similar saying, but not as a quotation, "To be near the sword is to be near God" (ἐγγύς μαχαίρας ἐγγύς θεοῦ).

(13) "If ye kept not that which is little, who will give you that which is great? For I say unto you, he that is faithful in the least is faithful also in much." From the homily of Pseudo-Clement of Rome (ch. 8). Comp. Luke 16:10–12 and Matt. 25:21, 23. Irenaeus (II. 34, 3) quotes similarly, probably from memory: "Si in modico fideles non fuistis, quod magnum est quis dabit nobis?"

(14) "Keep the flesh pure, and the seal [probably baptism] without stain that we (ye) may receive eternal life." From Pseudo-Clement, ch. 8. But as this is connected with the former sentence by ἄρα οὖν τοῦτο λὲγει, it seems to be only an explanation ("he means this") not a separate quotation. See Lightfoot, St. Clement of Rome, pp. 200 and 201, and his Appendix containing the newly recovered Portions, p. 384:. On the sense comp. 2 Tim. 2:19; Rom. 4:11; Eph. 1:13; 4:30.

(15) Our Lord, being asked by Salome when His kingdom should come, and the things which he had spoken be accomplished, answered, "When the two shall be one, and the outward as the inward, and the male with the female, neither male nor female." From Clement of Alexandria, as a quotation from "the Gospel according to the Egyptians" (Strom.III. 13, § 92), and the homily of Pseudo-Clement of Rome (ch. 12). Comp. Matt. 22:30; Gal. 3:28; 1 Cor. 7:29. The sentence has a mystical coloring which is alien to the genuine Gospels, but suited the Gnostic taste.

(16) "For those that are infirm was I infirm, and for those that hunger did I hunger, and for those that thirst did I thirst." From Origen (in Matt. xiii. 2). Comp. Matt. 25:35, 36; 1 Cor. 9:20–22.

(17) "Never be ye joyful, except when ye have seen your brother [dwelling] in love." Quoted from the Hebrew Gospel by Jerome (in Eph. v. 3).

(18) "Take hold, handle me, and see that I am not a bodiless demon [i.e. spirit]." From Ignatius (Ad Symrn. c. 3), and Jerome, who quotes it from the Nazarene Gospel (De Viris illustr. 16). Words said to have been spoken to Peter and the apostles after the resurrection. Comp. Luke 24:39; John 20:27.

(19) "Good must needs come, but blessed is he through whom it cometh; in like manner evil must needs come, but woe to him through whom it cometh." From the "Clementine Homilies," xii. 29. For the second clause comp. Matt. 18:7; Luke 17:1.

(20) "My mystery is for me, and for the sons of my house." From Clement of Alexandria (Strom. V. 10, § 64), the Clementine Homilies (xix. 20), and Alexander of Alexandria (Ep. ad Alex. c. 5, where the words are ascribed to the Father). Comp. Isa. 24:16 (Sept.); Matt. 13:11; Mark 4:11.

(21) "If you do not make your low things high and your crooked things straight ye shall not enter into my kingdom." From the Acta Philippi in Tischendorf’s Acta Apost. Apocr. p. 90, quoted by Ewald, Gesch. Christus, p. 288, who calls these words a weak echo of more excellent sayings.

(22) "I will choose these things to myself. Very excellent are those whom my Father that is in heaven hath given to me." From the Hebrew Gospel, quoted by Eusebius (Theophan. iv. 13).

(23) "The Lord said, speaking of His kingdom, ’The days will come in which vines will spring up, each having ten thousand stocks, and on each stock ten thousand branches, and on each branch ten thousand shoots, and on each shoot ten thousand bunches, and on each bunch ten thousand grapes, and each grape when pressed shall give five-and-twenty measures of wine. And when any saint shall have laid hold on one bunch, another shall cry, I am a better bunch, take me; through me bless the Lord.’ Likewise also [he said], ’that a grain of wheat shall produce ten thousand ears of corn, and each grain ten pounds of fine pure flour; and so all other fruits and seeds and each herb according to its proper nature. And that all animals, using for food what is received from the earth, shall live in peace and concord with one another, subject to men with all subjection.’ " To this description Papias adds: "These things are credible to those who believe. And when Judas the traitor believed not and asked, ’How shall such products come from the Lord?’ the Lord said, ’They shall see who come to me in these times.’ " From the "weak-minded" Papias (quoted by Irenaeus, Adv. Haer. V. 33, 3). Comp. Isa. 11:6–9.

This is a strongly figurative description of the millennium. Westcott thinks it is based on a real discourse, but to me it sounds fabulous, and borrowed from the Apocalypse of Baruch which has a similar passage (cap. 29, first published in Monumenta Sacra et Profana opera collegii Doctorum Bibliothecae Ambrosianae, Tom. I. Fasc. II. Mediol. 1866, p. 80, and then in Fritzsche’s ed. of Libri Apocryphi Veteris Test. Lips. 1871, p. 666): "Etiam terra dabit fructus suos unum in decem millia, et in vite una erunt Mille palmites, et unus palmes faciet mille botros, et botrus unus faciet mille acinos, et unus acinus faciet corum vini. Et qui esurierunt jucundabuntur, iterum autem videbunt prodigia quotidie .... Et erit in illo tempore, descendet iterum desuper thesaurus manna, et comedent ex eo in istis annis."

Westcott quotes eleven other apocryphal sayings which are only loose quotations or perversions of genuine words of Christ, and may therefore be omitted. Nicholson has gathered the probable or possible fragments of the Gospel according to the Hebrews, which correspond more or less to passages in the canonical Gospels.

Mohammedan tradition has preserved in the Koran and in other writings several striking words of Christ, which Hofmann, l.c. pp. 327–329, has collected. The following is the best:

"Jesus, the Son of Mary, said, ’He who longs to be rich is like a man who drinks sea-water; the more he drinks the more thirsty he becomes, and never leaves off drinking till he perishes."


II. Personal Appearance of Jesus. None of the Evangelists, not even the beloved disciple and bosom-friend of Jesus, gives us the least hint of his countenance and stature, or of his voice, his manner, his food, his dress, his mode of daily life. In this respect our instincts of natural affection have been wisely overruled. He who is the Saviour of all and the perfect exemplar for all should not be identified with the particular lineaments of one race or nationality or type of beauty. We should cling to the Christ in spirit and in glory rather than to the Christ in the flesh So St. Paul thought (2 Cor. 5:16; Comp. 1 Pet. 1:8). Though unseen, he is loved beyond all human beings.


I see Thee not, I hear Thee not,

Yet art Thou oft with me;

And earth hath ne’er so dear a spot,

As when I meet with Thee."


Jesus no doubt accommodated himself in dress and general appearance to the customs of his age and people, and avoided all ostentation. He probably passed unnoticed through busy crowds. But to the closer observer he must have revealed a spiritual beauty and an overawing majesty in his countenance and personal bearing. This helps to explain the readiness with which the disciples, forsaking all things, followed him in boundless reverence and devotion. He had not the physiognomy of a sinner. He had more than the physiognomy of a saint. He reflected from his eyes and countenance the serene peace and celestial purity of a sinless soul in blessed harmony with God. His presence commanded reverence, confidence and affection.

In the absence of authentic representation, Christian art in its irrepressible desire to exhibit in visible form the fairest among the children of men, was left to its own imperfect conception of ideal beauty. The church under persecution in the first three centuries, was averse to pictorial representations of Christ, and associated with him in his state of humiliation (but not in his state of exaltation) the idea of uncomeliness, taking too literally the prophetic description of the suffering Messiah in the twenty-second Psalm and the fifty-third chapter of Isaiah. The victorious church after Constantine, starting from the Messianic picture in the forty-fifth Psalm and the Song of Solomon, saw the same Lord in heavenly glory, "fairer than the children of men" and "altogether lovely." Yet the difference was not so great as it is sometimes represented. For even the ante-Nicene fathers (especially Clement of Alexandria), besides expressly distinguishing between the first appearance of Christ in lowliness and humility, and his second appearance in glory and, majesty, did not mean to deny to the Saviour even in the days of his flesh a higher order of spiritual beauty, "the glory of the only-begotten of the Father full of grace and truth," which shone through the veil of his humanity, and which at times, as on the mount of transfiguration, anticipated his future glory. "Certainly," says Jerome, "a flame of fire and starry brightness flashed from his eye, and the majesty of the God head shone in his face."

The earliest pictures of Christ, in the Catacombs, are purely symbolic, and represent him under the figures of the Lamb, the good Shepherd, the Fish. The last has reference to the Greek word Ichthys, which contains the initials of the words Ἰησοῦς Χριστός Θεοῦ Ὑιὸς Σωτὴρ. "Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour." Real pictures of Christ in the early church would have been an offence to the Jewish, and a temptation and snare to the heathen converts.

The first formal description of the personal appearance of Christ, which, though not authentic and certainly not older than the fourth century, exerted great influence on the pictorial representations, is ascribed to the heathen Publius Lentulus, a supposed contemporary of Pilate and "President of the people of Jerusalem" (there was no such office), in an apocryphal Latin letter to the Roman Senate, which was first discovered in a MS. copy of the writings of Anselm of Canterbury in the twelfth century, and published with slight variations by, Fabricius, Carpzov, Gabler, etc. It is as follows:

"In this time appeared a man, who lives till now, a man endowed with great powers. Men call him a great prophet; his own disciples term Him the Son of God. His name is Jesus Christ. He restores the dead to life, and cures the sick of all manner of diseases. This man is of noble and well-proportioned stature, with a face full of kindness and yet firmness, so that the beholders both love Him and fear Him. His hair is of the color of wine, and golden at the root; straight, and without lustre, but from the level of the ears curling and glossy, and divided down the centre after the fashion of the Nazarenes [Nazarites?]. His forehead is even and smooth, his face without wrinkle or blemish, and glowing with delicate bloom. His countenance is frank and kind. Nose and mouth are in no way faulty. His beard is full, of the same hazel color as his hair, not long, but forked. His eyes are blue, and extremely brilliant. In reproof and rebuke he is formidable; in exhortation and teaching, gentle and amiable. He has never been seen to laugh, but oftentimes to weep, (numquam visus est ridere, flere autem saepe). His person is tall and erect; his hands and limbs beautiful and straight. In speaking he is deliberate and grave, and little given to loquacity. In beauty he surpasses the children of men."

Another description is found in the works of the Greek theologian, John of Damascus, of the 8th century (Epist. ad Theoph. Imp. de venerandis Imag., spurious), and a similar one in the Church History of Nicephorus (I. 40), of the 14th century. They represent Christ as resembling his mother, and ascribe to him a stately person though slightly stooping, beautiful eyes, blond, long, and curly hair, pale, olive complexion, long fingers, and a look expressive of nobility, wisdom, and patience.

On the ground of these descriptions, and of the Abgar and the Veronica legends, arose a vast number of pictures of Christ, which are divided into two classes: the Salvator pictures, with the expression of calm serenity and dignity, without the faintest mark of grief, and the Ecce Homo pictures of the suffering Saviour with the crown of thorns. The greatest painters and sculptors have exhausted the resources of their genius in representations of Christ; but neither color nor chisel nor pen can do more than produce a feeble reflection of the beauty and glory of Him who is the Son of God and the Son of Man.

Among modern biographers of Christ, Dr. Sepp (Rom. Cath., Das Leben Jesu Christi, 1865, vol. VI. 312 sqq.) defends the legend of St. Veronica of the Herodian family, and the genuineness of the picture, of the suffering Saviour with the crown of thorns which he impressed on her silken veil. He rejects the philological explanation of the legend from "the true image" (vera εἰκὼν= Veronica), and derives the name from φερενίκη (Berenice), the Victorious. But Bishop Hefele (Art. Christusbilder, in the Cath. Kirchen-Lexikon of Wetzer and Welte, II. 519–524) is inclined, with Grimm, to identify Veronica with the Berenice who is said to have erected a statue to Christ at Caesarea Philippi (Euseb. VII. 18), and to see in the Veronica legend only the Latin version of the Abgar legend of the Greek Church. Dr. Hase (Leben Jesu, p. 79) ascribes to Christ manly beauty, firm health, and delicate, yet not very characteristic features. He quotes John 20:14 and Luke 24:16, where it is said that his friends did not recognize him, but these passages refer only to the mysterious appearances of the risen Lord. Renan (Vie de Jésus, ch. X-XIV. p. 403) describes him in the frivolous style of a novelist, as a doux Galilèen, of calm and dignified attitude, as a beau jeune hommewho made a deep impression upon women, especially Mary of Magdala; even a proud Roman lady, the wife of Pontius Pilate, when she caught a glimpse of him from the window (?), was enchanted, dreamed of him in the night and was frightened at the prospect of his death. Dr. Keim (I. 463) infers from his character, as described in the Synoptical Gospels, that he was perhaps not strikingly handsome, yet certainly noble, lovely, manly, healthy and vigorous, looking like a prophet, commanding reverence, making men, women, children, sick and poor people feel happy in his presence. Canon Farrar (I. 150) adopts the view of Jerome and Augustine, and speaks of Christ as "full of mingled majesty and tenderness in—


’That face

How beautiful, if sorrow had not made

Sorrow more beautiful than beauty’s self.’ "


On artistic representations of Christ see J. B. Carpzov: De oris et corpor is J. Christi forma Pseudo-Lentuli, J. Damasceni et Nicephori proso - pographiae. Helmst. 1777. P. E. Jablonski: De origine imaginum Christi Domini. Lugd. Batav. 1804. W. Grimm: Die Sage vom Ursprung der Christusbilder. Berlin, 1843. Dr. Legis Glückselig: Christus-Archäologie; Das Buch von Jesus Christus und seinem wahren Ebenbilde. Prag, 1863 4to. Mrs. Jameson and Lady Eastlake: The History of our Lord as exemplified in Works of Art (with illustrations). Lond., 2d ed. 1865 2 vols. Cowper: Apocr. Gospels. Lond. 1867, pp. 217–226. Hase: Leben Jesu, pp. 76–80 (5th ed.), Keim: Gesch. Jesu von Naz. I. 459–464. Farrar: Life of Christ. Lond. 1874, I. 148–150, 312–313; II. 464.


III. The Testimony of Josephus on John the Baptist. Antiq. Jud. xviii. c. 5, § 2. Whatever may be thought of the more famous passage of Christ which we have discussed in § 14 (p. 92), the passage on John is undoubtedly genuine and so accepted by most scholars. It fully and independently confirms the account of the Gospels on John’s work and martyrdom, and furnishes, indirectly, an argument in favor of the historical character of their account of Christ, for whom he merely prepared the way. We give it in Whiston’s translation: "Now some of the Jews thought that the destruction of Herod’s army came from God, and that very justly, as a punishment of what he did against John, who was called the Baptist; for Herod slew him, who was a good man (ἀγαθὸν ἄνδρα), and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body: supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. Now when [many] others came in crowds about him, for they were greatly moved [or pleased] by hearing his words, Herod, who feared lest the great influence John had over the people might put it into his power and inclination to raise a rebellion (for they seemed ready to do anything he should advise), thought it best, by putting him to death, to prevent any mischief he might cause, and not bring himself into difficulties, by sparing a man who might make him repent of it when it should be too late. Accordingly he was sent a prisoner, out of Herod’s suspicious temper, to Machaerus, the castle I before mentioned, and was there put to death. Now the Jews had an opinion that the destruction of this army was sent as a punishment upon Herod, and a mark of God’s displeasure to him."


IV. The Testimony of Mara to Christ, a.d. 74. This extra-biblical notice of Christ, made known first in 1865, and referred to above § 14 p. 94) reads as follows (as translated from the Syriac by Cureton and Pratten):

"What are we to say, when the wise are dragged by force by 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.] 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 destruction 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 he enacted.

The nationality and position of Mara are unknown. Dr. Payne Smith supposes him to have been a Persian. He wrote from prison and wished to die, "by what kind of death concerns me not." In the beginning of his letter Mara says: "On this account, lo, I have written for thee 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." The birth of life may refer to the appearance of Christianity in the world, or to Mara’s own conversion. But there is no other indication that he was a Christian. The advice he gives to his son is simply to "devote himself to wisdom, the fount of all things good, the treasure that fails not."

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