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?
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. 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. 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.
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’” The use of the term “Such-a-one” to avoid using the name of a controversial person is attested elsewhere. 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.” 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.
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.
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.
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). 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. 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.
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.
 See Bruce Chilton, Rabbi Jesus, (New York: Doubleday, 2000), pp. 5-22 as well as his online article, “The Mamzer Jesus and His Birth” http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/2005/10/chi298001.shtml.
 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.
 For this point I am indebted to the insightful works of Jacob Neusner, my teacher Louis Feldman, and Shaye J. D. Cohen, most particularly.
 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.
 The first-century rabbi, Elisha ben Abuyah, was regularly called “Acher” meaning “the Other,” to avoid using his name. Compare Yoma 66a.
 b. Sanhedrin 106a.
 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).
 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.
 On Jesus and the “oral Torah” of the Pharisees, see Mark 7:1-13.
 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.
 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.
 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.”
 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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