Here James Tabor continues with his discussion of Jesus’ actual,  biological father.  There are ancient indications that it was a man named Pantera.  How do evaluate these statements.  Could they possibly be true?


Part II

The Jewish term for such a child born of any sexual relationship forbidden in the Torah is a mamzer, often mistakenly translated as “bastard,” but it is a legal term, not a term of profanity in Hebrew.[1] It refers to the child born of any sexual union forbidden in the Torah (Deuteronomy 22:13-30; Leviticus 18). This could include incest, adultery, or any forbidden union (Deuteronomy 22:13-30; Leviticus 18). Along with the term mamzer, there was a related term the rabbis use that might be translated a “hushling” or a “silenced one.” This is one who knows his mother but not his father. There is also the term “foundling,” used for one who knows neither father nor mother.[2] The child of a single woman and a man she could lawfully have married is not a mamzer. Also, any child born to a married woman, even if she is known to have been unfaithful, is presumed to be her husband’s, unless she is so promiscuous that such a presumption becomes unsupportable. So much depends on the man. In the case of Mary, we are told that Joseph took her as his wife, which is essentially sanctioning the pregnancy. Such categories are primarily about who can verifiably establish lineage, and who can rightfully marry whom. What we don’t know is to what extent people in fact formed their social groups and boundaries around such distinctions in Mary’s time. As in any age, religious authorities often legislate and make their demands, only to be ignored by both rulers and commoners. We don’t want to make the mistake of reading rabbinic imagination from later centuries back into life in the Galilee in the first century.[3]

The Mishnah, complied in the third-century CE, quotes a saying from Rabbi Simeon ben Azzai, an early second-century rabbi, that some take to refer either to Jesus

—or if not to him directly, to one of a similarly questionable birth: “I found a family register in Jerusalem and in it was written ‘Such-a-one is a mamzer through [transgression of] your neighbor’s wife’”[4] The use of the term “Such-a-one” to avoid using the name of a controversial person is attested elsewhere.[5] There is an oblique reference in the Babylonian Talmud that I referenced previously, that likely refers to Mary as well, “She who was the descendant of princes and governors played the harlot with carpenters.”[6] The point here, like Tertullian’s association of “son of a carpenter” with Mary being a whore, and possibly Matthew’s altering Mark’s “son of Mary” to “son of the carpenter,” seems to be that someone of high royal pedigree such as Mary consorted with a man of the common working class. This persistent theme, charging Mary with an illicit union, is found dozens of times in various strata of rabbinic sources over a period of several hundred years.[7]

In the fourth-century apocryphal text called the Acts of Pilate, which relates an account of Jesus’ trial before the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate, one of the charges made by Jesus’ enemies echoes the text in John—namely, “you were born of fornication.” No one takes this text as an accurate account of the trial of Jesus; it is wholly legendary, but it shows that the slander persisted over time.[8]

The same idea surfaces in the Qur’an where we read of “a great slander” against Mary, referring to Jesus as “illegitimate,” rather than God “casting into Mary” a spirit causing her pregnancy (4:156, 171; 19:16-36).

I understand even raising this possibility of a father of Jesus is heretical and scandalous. To be clear, Mary was engaged to Joseph according to both our gospel stories (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:26-27). In Jewish tradition, if an engaged woman has sexual intercourse with a man other than her fiancée, it was considered adultery (Deuteronomy 22:23-24). But there is a fine line between a divinely “engendered” pregnancy and a divinely “sanctioned” one.

So who might Jesus’ father have been—assuming it was not Joseph? Do we have a name or even a hint of such a person? And if so, what do we know about him? As it turns out there is name in some of our ancient Jewish sources—Pantera.

In our earliest examples of the name Jesus is routinely identified as “Yeshua ben Pantera”—Jesus son of Pantera—without any pejorative connotation whatsoever. The name is simply given in passing—a son identified by his father’s name, as common and innocuous as the New Testament designations “Jesus son of Joseph,” or for that matter, “Simon son of Jonah” referring to Peter. These random references come from the close of the first century and the beginning of the second, with stories of rabbis encountering some of Jesus’ followers just a generation removed from him. These references are not focusing on the name “Pantera,” nor do they make any point about it. It is not a very common name, but it is a real name, and it is known even among Jews and non-Jews of the time. What’s more, these earliest stories about Jesus son of Pantera are set in the streets of Sepphoris in the late first century, fewer than four miles northwest of Nazareth. These are local traditions circulating and passed on by those lived in the region. This confluence of time and place is rather extraordinary. I want to examine two of those stories more closely.

The first is a short passing story from the turn of the first century about a certain Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama, who was bitten by a snake. A man named Jacob of Sikhnaya (or Sikhnin) came to heal him “in the name of Yeshua ben Pantera.” Rabbi Ishmael, who heads the Pharisees, objected, since Jesus, or Yeshua, was seen as a heretic by the rabbis. Before Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama could finish their debate over the permissibility of such a prayer, Ben Dama died. Rabbi Ishmael attributed the death to giving any credence to a figure like Jesus who had “broken through the fence” of the Torah. We know this expression refers to one who does not accept the Oral Torah and traditions of the Pharisees, which Jesus regularly opposed.[9]

There are three versions of this story. The earliest is in the collection we call the Tosefta (second- to third-century CE), and the latest is in the Babylonian Talmud (fifth-century CE).[10] Though similar, the version in the Babylonian Talmud drops the “Jesus son of Pantera” reference and substitutes “Jesus the Nazarene.” This makes perfect sense for a later time, far removed from the Land of Israel, when Christianity had spread widely. Just as important, this further indicates that the name Pantera itself is not the focus of these stories and can come and go in the telling.

The second account with a reference to Pantera is a much longer story, also found in three versions, again including the Tosefta. In this narrative, Rabbi Eliezar, one of the most prominent rabbis of the late first century, was walking on the streets of Sepphoris and met a certain Jacob of Sikhnin.[11] Jacob told him about a teaching of a certain Yeshua ben Panteri—clearly Jesus of Nazareth—as the later version in the Babylonian Talmud makes clear. This teaching from Jesus involved a technical question of Jewish Law: What was to be done with money brought to the house of God that had been earned by a male or female prostitute? Jesus had said it should be received as other gifts, but used to build toilets and bath houses, pointing out “from filth it came and to filth it should go,” quoting Micah 1:7. The answer pleased Eliezar very much, and for that Eliezar was arrested on suspicion of sympathizing with heretics, since the teachings of Jesus, however wise or appealing, were anathema to the rabbis at that time.[12]

These two sources are set in the generation after Jesus, in the Galilee, on the streets of Sepphoris, and Jesus is regularly called the “son of Pantera,” with no negative aspersions implied by the use the name Pantera itself. This is our earliest and most important clue in tracking down the possible historical connection of the name Pantera with Jesus. What Jesus son of Pantera is reputed to have taught, in the case of the wages of a prostitute, is good solid halacha—the term used for Jewish legal jurisprudence.

This makes it clear to us that these two Jewish groups—the Pharisees and the Nazarenes—were bitterly opposed to one another, with the former denouncing the latter as heretics. However, they are more what I would call “spitting cousins.” We know that the various sects of Judaism of the late first century were hopelessly divided. In fact, the rabbis say that Jerusalem was destroyed because of the “baseless hatred” within the parties and politics within the Jewish body politic itself.[13]


[1] See Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus, (New York: Doubleday, 2000), pp. 5-22 as well as his online article, “The Mamzer Jesus and His Birth”

[2] These categories are laid out in the Mishnah, see Kiddushim 4: Priests, Israelites, impaired priests, converts, freed slaves, mamzers, temple servants (netinim), hushlings, and foundlings. They all have to do with pedigree and lineage—who can marry whom.

[3] For this point I am indebted to the insightful works of Jacob Neusner, my teacher Louis Feldman, and Shaye J. D. Cohen, most particularly.

[4] Yebamot 4:13, s.v. “Jesus” The Jewish Encyclopedia, p. 170 for further comment on this passage. Also, Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2007), pp. 15-24. Tales of Mary’s adultery and Jesus’ illegitimacy run through many later rabbinic texts.

[5] The first-century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuyah, was regularly called “Acher” meaning “the Other,” to avoid using his name. Compare Yoma 66a.

[6] b. Sanhedrin 106a.

[7] See Peter Schäfer, Jesus in the Talmud, pp. 15-24; 97-102 for an analysis of the basic references, but compare Joseph Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth; His Life, Times, and Teaching, trans. Herbert Danby (London: Allen and Unwin: 1925) and Samuel Krauss, Das Leben Jesu Nach Jüdischen Quellen. (1902 rpt. Hildesheim: Olms, 2006).

[8] Acts of Pilate 2.3. See J. K. Elliott, ed., The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation Based on M. R. James (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), pp. 172-173.

[9] On Jesus and the “oral Torah” of the Pharisees, see Mark 7:1-13.

[10] The three versions of this story are: t. Hullin 2.22-23; y. Sabbath. 14d; and b.’Abod. Zar. 27b. The parallel story in y. Sabbath. 14d, involving Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, is immediately adjacent to the Ben Dama account.

[11] James in English = Jacob in Hebrew. It is possible that the name Sikhnin is confused for Shikin, as we know it today, a Jewish village clustered around Sepphoris—just a mile to the northwest. The site is currently being excavated by James Strange from Samford University. Eliezar became one of the greatest rabbis of his time, but he was likely educated as a Pharisee before the horrible days of the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE and its aftermath, when most of the leading Jerusalem Pharisees fled north to Sepphoris in the Galilee. It is not historically impossible that this Jacob could be “James the brother of Jesus.” The identification with Jesus brother was suggested by Klausner, Jesus of Nazareth, p. 41-42. See the discussion of Richard Bauckham, Jude and the Relatives of Jesus, pp. 106-121. Bauckham does not categorically reject the identification with Jesus’ brother James, though he suggests a more likely choice, chronologically, would be another James, the grandson (or some say son) of Jude, who was the brother of Jesus.

[12] The three texts are: t. Hullin 2:24; Kohelet Rabbah 1:8:3; b.’Abodah Zarah 16b-17a. In this case the later text, from the Babylonian Talmud, also substitutes “Jesus the Nazarene” for “Jesus son of Pantera.”

[13] See Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, Westminster John Knox Press, 1988 and The Beginnings of Jewishness: Boundaries, Varieties, Uncertainties, University of California Press, 2001.

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2023-09-30T10:16:46-04:00September 24th, 2023|Historical Jesus|

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  1. RickR September 24, 2023 at 7:59 am

    I think the blog is drifting towards fringe stories about Jesus that probably get good reader interest because they are scandalous or salacious but are academically weak. Tabor is an amazing scholar and no one can doubt his credentials but even he succumbs to the allure of a bigger audience. And even Bart, despite his academic prowess, is starting to drift the same way. The temptation to snag a bigger audience can be very strong.

    • BDEhrman September 28, 2023 at 7:36 pm

      I don’t sense much of a drift myself, at least in my own posts. The posts on the empty tomb, as you know, were re-posts from many years ago. Other than that, I can’t think of any fringe theories (of mine) on here. James’s post, of course, is representing James’s views, which are worth thinking about even if I and others disagree with them?

      • JDTabor September 29, 2023 at 9:09 am

        As for the blog as a whole, I will leave that to Bart. However, I think this assertion that I do my work in search of a “bigger audience” is a bit insulting, especially with terms like “succumb” and “allure.” I guess any scholar is glad for an audience of whatever size one can muster, if one considers ones work valuable. I am not sure to what “fringe stories” about Jesus refers…what I do in this post is try to pull together anything we might say about the name “Pantera” in all of our sources. We get this all the time on YouTube comments–much of it drifting toward insult–“He just wanted to sell his books,” or “he is just into making money.”

    • rburos September 28, 2023 at 8:47 pm

      I think it is fascinating.

    • Bewilderbeast September 29, 2023 at 1:09 pm

      ALL the stories written in the decades after Jesus are of interest and bear studying. “Not liking” them is not a valid reason to want to ignore them, IMO. By all means criticise with reasons, but (seemingly) wanting them not even discussed? That’s out.

    • sLiu October 4, 2023 at 7:25 am

      that’s interesting point.

      the cult I grew up in was a publishing house

  2. dankoh September 24, 2023 at 2:24 pm

    One factor I feel deserves attention is medieval Christian censorship of the Talmud, which may be evident in footnote 12 (“the Nazarene” substituting for “ben Panera”). I’m sure this has complicated your research.

  3. giselebendor September 25, 2023 at 8:45 am

    Very interesting article.

    I’ve read more by you on Pantera in one of your books supporting the plausibility of Pantera’s grave in Germany being Jesus father’s grave.

    It’s deplorable that Mary was slandered as a prostitute,but then,to this day in certain Middle Eastern and African societies,women are stoned to death for having been raped,their pregnancy being proof of her “guilt”.The case of Amina Narval,Nigeria(international pressure eventually saved her life),is only one example.

    We cannot know whether Pantera was Jesus’ biological father.But the possibility-beyond mere plausibility-that Mary was raped,in my view,is quite high.
    I base this intuition on the power of earliest Christian apologetics.The illegitimate pregnancy became a virginal conception.
    The rumours of illegitimacy,as you write,were persistent.Perhaps Joseph claimed the child was engendered during their betrothal and thus saved her life.Similar examples to the Incarnation apologetic story can be found in the metamorphosis of the Crucifixion’s defeat into a theological triumph,like some sort of a healing spiritual alchemy.

    Assuming Jesus was illegitimate,as he was growing up,rumours would have left a mark on him.Jesus’ obsession with “his” Father always sounded compensatory to me,as he didn’t know who his father was. A Heavenly Father.Conjecture,no doubt,but perhaps relevant.

    Your thoughts?
    BTW,I’m signed for your May Israel trip.I spend a few months every year in Israel,but never been on a trip like that.
    Very exciting!

    • JDTabor September 29, 2023 at 7:52 am

      I look forward to spending time with you next May. It is indeed a unique trip. It filled up in three days but I will plan another for those who are interested, there is a waiting list. As for Pantera, I don’t think the rape thesis is likely for some of the reasons I stated. I do recommend folks interested read Jane Schubert’s book, The Illegitimacy of Jesus. She was a fine New Testament scholar and the book is broad and literary, as well as historical. It is a wonderful piece of work. Also some of Bruce Chilton’s work.

  4. Dorothy September 25, 2023 at 4:14 pm

    Hello, Dr. Tabor.

    Is it possible that Mary’s τεκτον/carpenter husband was actually named Pantera and not Joseph? That “Joseph” was simply the name that Matthew chose to assign to Jesus’s putative father, and that his choice was subsequently followed by Luke? (This would mean Luke had some knowledge of Matthew’s gospel; or vice versa if Luke was first). After all, neither Matthew nor Luke had any problem making up entire genealogies, so why stick at the name of their main character’s father? Isn’t it possible that, by the time they were writing, some eighty years after Jesus’s birth, the name of the supposed father would have been forgotten? What I’m suggesting is that the Christmas story really should be about Mary and Pantera, instead of Mary and Joseph.

    Or could Joseph had been called Joseph Pantera, Joseph the Panther? That would certainly give him a whole new image.

    Personally, I’m disappointed that the parthenos/pantheros theory has been scrapped. It’s a lovely play on words — what solvers of British-style cryptic crosswords call a “spoonerism.”

    I enjoyed your NINT presentation yesterday. Thank you.

    • JDTabor September 29, 2023 at 8:04 am

      Well that seems to be the view of the later church fathers have comment on the name–rather than go for the pun they just say sure, it is a family name. Of course they don’t say it is Joseph! Since they believe Jesus only had God as his father. But for them it is indeed “all in the family.” Anything is “possible” in our fragmented playing field of disparate texts and bits here and there scattered over the first decades of the movement, and my attempt was to sort through them and see what might emerge. I think the early rabbinic stuff is the most valuable, set in Sepphoris, associated with Jacob of Shikin and Eliezer in the early 2nd century, and the later Babylonian versions change Yeshua ben Pantera to Yeshua HaNotzri.

      • hsourceofthebible October 1, 2023 at 12:33 am

        Let me try a few more possibilities. That is that Joseph was Jewish but of Parthian origin. And hence the reference became that Jesus was “Parthenos” (interpreted virgin born). A more literal point could be that he was born Virgo or Mary was Virgo, hence referring to Jesus ben Mary became Jesus ben Parthenos. Those who found this “Son of God” idea heretical, including scientific leaning agnostics, therefore sought many different variations including Pantera etc. The Parthians ruled Sepphori through their Hasmoneans and did have much sway in Syria. The antagonism towards Herod was because he defeated the Hasmoneans. Joseph could have been seen to have Parthian ties. Helenized Parthian influence is seen in the belt of John the Baptist, the Magi bearing gifts, etc. Joseph of Aramathea is seen as a typographic equivalent of Joseph fused with Paris who gets the body of Hector. The Feast of Joseph of Aramathea is coincidentally enough the same as Liber Pater (or Bacchus?) on March 17th — the Free Father.

        • JDTabor October 2, 2023 at 10:38 am

          There can be endless such paring of names and the like but I continue to hold that it is used as an ordinary name in our earliest sources–and they are also regionally proximate to the area of Galilee in which we find Jesus…namely the Bet Netopha valley…I also go with Tal Ilan, in reading the Pantera ossuary from Givat Hamivtar, although I know many epigraphers disagree. I trust her instincts and experience here.

          • Serene October 7, 2023 at 2:58 am

            I’ve finally read all three parts. Thanks for introducing me to cool stuff.

            “A man named Jacob of Sikhnaya (or Sikhnin) came to heal him “in the name of Yeshua ben Pantera.
            …—without any pejorative connotation whatsoever”

            What do you think about what the venerable Wiki says — that the polemics start * doubling down* on the healing and good works that Jesus performs — because he’s stolen the name of god! That’s the answer to the riddle of Matthew 21:25. It has magic.

            “The first-century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuyah, was regularly called “Acher” meaning “the Other,” to avoid using his name. Compare Yoma 66a.”

            Good find. I think these roles, like The Other, The Liar, the Righteous Teacher, The Prince Of This World, The Morning Light, etc are ways to talk about figures in power.

            Prince of this World imo might be Prince Agrippa, tax collector of Galilee around that time, who becomes king of the Jewish people.

            Anyways, best way to prove that Jesus is the son of a guy in a panther hat is to blow holes in my hypothesis that Jesus is the son of a handmaiden and a Abrahamic divinized king under the right to engaged Jewish virgins:

    • AngeloB October 3, 2023 at 10:36 pm

      I have finished watching Candida Moss’s presentation and q and a. Today I just started watching Hugo Mendez’ talk.

  5. AndySeattle September 25, 2023 at 4:19 pm

    Some readers of this blog might enjoy the online Meetup group, Interfaith Bible Study, in which we are reading not only the Bible but also Prof. Ehrman’s Lost Scriptures book. It’s free and is basically a casual book club. It’s free and open to all.
    Check out Interfaith Bible Study on Meetup

  6. GeoffClifton September 25, 2023 at 4:28 pm

    Thank you Dr Tabor. This is fascinating. I have a vague notion of reading somewhere (I’m away from home right now so don’t have access to my library) that Pantera was an African name, that he was probably an African auxiliary soldier in Roman service and that Jesus consequently had a dark complexion, which is mentioned in some hostile (to Christianity) Rabbinic sources. I may be thinking of certain semi-fictional comments made by Robert Graves in his novel Claudius the God.
    By the way, I very much enjoyed your talk in the NINT conference at the weekend, Dr Tabor.

    • JDTabor September 29, 2023 at 8:13 am

      The name Pantera is not common but there are quite a few examples scattered through texts of the period. I have compliled most of them and they come from a wide variety of regions and contexts, with some in the Roman army. The Pantera I mentioned, buried in Bingen, Germany was from Sidon, north of Sepphoris, but as I note, his time while in the Roman army, based on his service and manumission, does not fit the chronology of Mary’s pregnancy, as Chris Zeichmann has shown in his excellent article in JSHJ. However, please note his conclusions–which some seem to have miss…he does not close the door to this Sidonian being Jesus father nor to him being Jewish, given his name Abdes. I highly recommend Chris’s article. It is the best thing out there to my knowledge. Journal for the study of the Historical Jesus 18 (2020) 141-155.

  7. mathieu September 25, 2023 at 7:54 pm

    I’ve heard some scholars, Dr. Ehrman included, claim Jesus was not mentioned in 1st century, non-Christian writing except for two places, Josephus (and someone else, I can’t off-hand remember who), and those are considered forgeries. Yet here you say there are 2 (6?) places in Jewish writing. What’s up with that? Did I hear things wrong?

  8. apmorgan September 29, 2023 at 10:03 am

    It’s interesting to see early references to Jesus that portray him as having some admirable quality, such as an insightful intelligence, without suggesting that these qualities are in any way supernatural or divine.

    The halacha attributed to Jesus appears to be a compromise position between not accepting the gift at all, and accepting it without distinction (although the fact that you wrote “but rather” rather than simply “but” makes me wonder if there ought to be a “not” in “it should be received as other gifts”). The story makes me wonder what rulings were favoured by other rabbis in Eliezar’s environment (I don’t mean to assume that the anecdote involving Eliezar is historical).

  9. bresler September 29, 2023 at 9:00 pm

    Fascinating. BTW is there by any chance a typo in following sentence?:
    ” Jesus had said it should be received as other gifts, but rather ….”
    (“should not be received” makes more sense)

    • JDTabor September 30, 2023 at 10:13 am

      I took out the word “rather,” but it should read that the gift would be received…just different use made thereof.

      Jesus had said it should be received as other gifts, but used to build toilets and bath houses

  10. hsourceofthebible October 2, 2023 at 3:12 pm

    Alright Sir. So if I am to understand your article —
    Joseph is son of Panthera (which still contradicts Celsus, and the rather unwelcome suggestion that Jesus was born of a questionable or forbidden union) or that this was the family name. Historically, in 1859, they found the tombstone and in 1891 the Ossuary(by Ganneau). “Schonfield takes Panthera as a family name, stemming from the great-grandmother of Jesus:” per Chad Day?
    To me, Matthew’s intentions are clear. He sought to tie the name Joseph through reference to Hosea 11 to the Father of Jesus. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. … It was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them by the arms;” and brought Jesus(Ephraim, then Moses) out of Egypt where the evil Herod the Great (killer of babies) sent the Messiah. Joseph is the Spiritual Father of Moses. Where Mark was writing to a Gentile audience of Greek Tragedy, citizens of Parthia and Rome, Matthew was drawing deep typology from his Hellenistic Jewish roots.

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