I have received a number of queries over the past year about what we can actually know about Jesus’ father. Can we know if it was actually Joseph? What about the rumors that Jesus was born out of wedlock? That his father was actually a Roman soldier? Whose name was Pantera? Is this latter simply a slander against Jesus and Christianity? Could it be historical?
My friend, New Testament scholar, and occasional guest poster James Tabor (about whom you can read here: TaborBlog – Religion Matters from the Bible to the Modern World (jamestabor.com) is just now finishing a new book of some relevance to the question, called: The Lost Mary: How the Jewish Mother of Jesus Became the Virgin Mother of God (Knopf). James has agreed to write a three-part thread on the question of Jesus’ biological father.
I’ll run the three posts back-to-back-to-back. Here’s #1. You may find these views convincing or controversial, but you should certainly find them informative and interesting!
Was Jesus’ Biological Father a Roman Soldier?
James D. Tabor
As a historian I work with the obvious assumption that all human beings have fathers. Stated like that, this doesn’t sound too shocking. So, what about the biological father of Jesus? Unless one assumes Jesus had no father, the options seem to come down to either Mary’s husband Joseph or some other named or unnamed male. What can be said of either possibility?
I have spent quite a bit of time investigating the various possible threads of historical evidence that might relate to this question. Perhaps the one most referenced comes from the late 2nd century philosopher Celsus who spins a salacious tale about Mary committing adultery with a Roman soldier named Pantera that he say he heard from the “Jews.” I consider that idea wholly unlikely, although I have tried to trace down what we can say about that name Pantera.
If you ask just about any scholar in my field of Christian Origins you will be told that the the expression “Jesus the “son of Pantera” was an anti-Christian pun or malapropism, on the Greek word parthenos or “virgin”—and had nothing to do with the name of the reputed biological father of Jesus. Since the Christians were hailing Jesus as “son of the Virgin” (Parthenos), these Jewish and Greco-Roman critics sportingly said he was “son of the Panther”—or so the argument goes. Panthers were known for their sexual prowess, so such a pun was intended to be both humorous and insulting—implying that Jesus’ father was a lusty animal. According to this explanation, Pantera was not even a real name, but just a clever linguistic gibe invented to oppose the Christian claim that Jesus was “son of the Virgin.”
We now know such was not the case. This dismissal of Pantera as a “pun” was first suggested in the 19th century by a German scholar Karl Nitzsch, and his explanation somehow became like a mantra to explain the name and it is repeated by scholars and in popular books alike. Yet, there is not a shred of ancient evidence to support this explanation of the name, even by the harshest enemies of Jesus who used it in accusations that his mother committed adultery. Quite the opposite is the case.
Many readers might be familiar with the numerous tales in Greek and Roman literature about various “divine men”—heroes, philosophers, or demi-gods, whose conceptions were attributed to a god impregnating their mother. The long list includes Hercules with his marvelous feats of strength, Plato and his wisdom, Alexander the Great as conqueror of the known world, and Apollonius of Tyana with his wonder-working powers. These sorts of extraordinary legends are found throughout ancient cultures—whether Greek, Roman, Egyptian, or Hebrew, and their clear purpose is to emphasize the extraordinary significance of the child born. The ancient world did not share our scientific biological understanding of pregnancy and birth. Miracles were part of their everyday lives—and miraculous tales of such conceptions and births were common. These two accounts in Luke and Matthew of Mary’s pregnancy “through the Holy Spirit” can easily be read in this broader cultural context. As such they can be understood less as scientific reports and more as ways of affirming God’s special destiny for Mary’s firstborn son Jesus.
If we begin with our two birth stories—those of Matthew and Luke—both are quite clear that Joseph is not the father. In fact, that seems to be the whole point of both stories. Luke narrates Mary’s side of things, whereas Matthew relates things from Joseph’s viewpoint, but the point is the same. Mary is pregnant “of the Holy Spirit” and Joseph is not the father. Later, when Jesus is an adult, and speaks of God as his father, he is sarcastically attacked by some of his enemies who declare to him, “We were not born of fornication, we have one Father, even God” (John 8:41). They are evidently picking up on the local gossip that Mary’s pregnancy was not from Joseph. They also call Jesus a “Samaritan,” implying his father was of questionable pedigree (John 8:48). The Samaritans claimed to be remnants of the northern tribes of Israel—sometimes referred to as the “Lost Tribes”—who remained in the land after the Assyrian captivity in the eighth-century BCE. They were generally considered by the Jews in the time of Jesus as a mixed race whose ancestry could not be verified. The two charges are thus related—being born illegitimately or born of a Samaritan father with no established pedigree.
Herod the Great had ten wives but one of them, Malthace, was a Samaritan. She was the mother of Herod Antipas and Archelaus, his two most prominent surviving sons whom the emperor Augustus appointed over the Galilee and Judea respectively. We have seen how he and his son Antipas desperately sought some kind of legitimization of their lineages through marriages to women with a priestly pedigree.
Many scholars do not find implications of scandal connected with Jesus’ birth in these texts of Mark and John. Presumably, their assumption is that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus and nothing about the pregnancy was out of the ordinary. In this case the idea that Joseph was not the father was a pure invention of Matthew, followed by Luke, toward the end of the first century; then a hundred years later, Jewish enemies of the Christians came up with the slander that Mary had committed adultery and was driven out by her husband Joseph.
I think this has things completely backward. There is something oddly irregular about Jesus’ birth from the start. Matthew includes four women in his genealogy—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba (Matthew 1:3-6) when such male lineages almost never include women. Each of the four is known for some kind of questionable sexual behavior—but all are connected to prominent men connected to the lineage of king David. It as if Matthew wants to hint to the reader—don’t be too quick to judge Mary for her pregnancy, God used these other women connected to the house of David in major ways, despite the irregular nature of their pregnancies. At the same time Matthew makes it clear that Joseph, whose line he is tracing, is the “husband of Mary, of whom [i.e., feminine pronoun in Greek] Jesus was born.” (Matthew 1:16). Likewise, as we have seen, Luke begins his genealogy with the assertion that Jesus was “supposedly” of Joseph (Luke 3:23). That is likely why Mark does not mention Jesus’ birth at all and leaves Joseph completely out of his story. For Mark, Jesus is a Davidic “son of Mary,” and that is all that counts. Although the theologically embellished birth narratives in Matthew and Luke develop a generation after Jesus, they preserve a historical core—Mary becomes pregnant before her marriage to Joseph, Joseph is not the father, so Jesus’ status as a son of David must come from his mother.
The second-century CE Christian writer Tertullian, who is considered the founder of Latin theology, has an interesting passage in which he imagines how Jesus enemies will be punished on the day of judgment for saying he was “the son of a carpenter or the harlot, a Sabbath breaker, a Samaritan and a demon-possessed man . . .” The reference directly echoes the controversy between Jesus and his Jewish opponents in chapters 8 and 9 of John’s gospel, clearly showing that the illegitimacy retort by Jesus’ enemies was based on rumors that his mother was a harlot.
These implications, or outright charges, of illegitimacy are not limited to our New Testament gospels. There is good reason to think this slander might have dogged Jesus and his mother Mary their entire lives. It seems to just pop up, here and there. The Coptic Gospel of Thomas, a text that some date to the early second century, discovered in 1945 among the Nag Hammadi codices, is a collection of 114 sayings of Jesus, most of which are not included in our New Testament gospels. Saying 105 is most interesting:
Jesus said: He who shall know father and mother shall be called the son of a harlot.
This can also be translated as a question: “Will they call him the son of a harlot?” Since these cryptic sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of Thomas have no context, we cannot be certain of their wider meaning, however, the clear implication seems to be that Mary’s pregnancy with Jesus could be seen in in such a negative way. Some have interpreted the saying as referring to the Gnostic notion of despising physical birth—i.e., “hating one’s mother and father”—but in that case one would be more likely called an “orphan” rather than “son of a harlot,” the precise charge that we find is circulating about Jesus’ birth.
 Celsus’s work titled On the True Doctrine, has been lost. What survives is a detailed refutation by the early third-century Christian apologist Origen, titled Against Celsus. In refuting Celsus’s arguments Origen quotes his entire work, paragraph by paragraph—and then adds his responses bit by bit. By collecting all these quotations, and assembling them, scholars have been able to reconstruct Celsus’s original work.
 I thank my graduate student Chad Day for first pointing out to me the origin and/or promotion of this idea by Karl Nitzsch, “Über eine Reihe talmudischer und patristischer Täuschungen, welche sich an den mißverstandenen Spottnamen Ben-Pandira geknüpft,” Theologische Studien und Kritiken 13 (1840) 115–20. Joseph Klausner (1874-1958) was a Jewish historian and professor of Hebrew Literature at Hebrew University. In 1922, he published his study of the life of Jesus in Hebrew, Yeshu Ha-Notzri (Jerusalem: Shtibel, 1922). It was translated into English in 1925 as Jesus of Nazareth; His Life, Times, and Teaching, trans. Herbert Danby (London: Allen and Unwin: 1925). Although some scholars doubted the explanation on philological grounds—parthenos and pantera are not closely homophonic—it was repeated endlessly, with no serious investigation, until it achieved the status of a scholarly imprimatur. See, for example, Robert E. Van Voorst, Jesus Outside the New Testament: An Introduction to the Ancient Evidence (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2000), p. 117. Even John P. Meier, whose research on Jesus tends to be one of the most thorough in terms of evaluating sources, relying upon Klausner, seems to accept this explanation of the “name” Pantera, see A Marginal Jew, pp. 96.
For some samples of such tales see my compilation, “Divine Men, Heroes, and Gods” https://pages.uncc.edu/james-tabor/hellenistic-roman-religion-philosophy/divine-men-heros-gods/ , as well as Charles H. Talbert, “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” The Historical Jesus in Context, eds. Amy-Jill Levine, Dale C. Allison, and John Dominic Crossan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 79-86.
For comparisons to the kind of tales that develop around Jesus see, Smith, Morton. “Prolegomena to a Discussion of Aretalogies, Divine Men, the Gospels and Jesus.” Journal of Biblical Literature 90, no. 2 (1971): 174-99.
 See the insightful summary of ancient evidence, including that of our New Testament Gospels, by Andrew Lincoln, “How Babies Were Made in Jesus’ Time,” The Biblical Archaeology Review 40.6 (Nov/Dec 2014):42-49.
 Josephus, Jewish War 1. 562.
 Tamar posed as a prostitute and got pregnant by Judah, son of Jacob (Genesis 38); Rahab was the prostitute that aided the Israelite spies in conquering Jericho (Joshua 6); Ruth was a Moabite woman who crawled into bed with Boaz—grandfather of king David (Ruth 3); and Bathsheba, mother of Solomon and Nathan, committed adultery with king David (2 Samuel 11).
 Tertullian, De Spectaculis 30. This is my translation of the Latin: “Hic est ille, dicam, fabri aut quaestuariae filius, sabbati destructor, Samarites et daemonium habens.”
 Appendix 1 contains a fresh translation of the Gospel of Thomas in William Schneemelcher, ed., Gospels and Related Writings, translated by R. McL. Wilson. Vol. 1 of New Testament Apocrypha. Rev. ed. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1991), pp. 511-522.
 See Funk’s comment, reflecting the majority opinion of the Jesus Seminar Fellows, that this saying has to do with disputes with rival Judean groups over Jesus’ legitimacy, in Robert W. Funk and Roy W. Hover, The Five Gospels: What Did Jesus Really Say? The Search for the Authentic Words of Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 1996), p. 526.
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