More on the German Panthera Tombstone
by James Tabor
As I pointed out in a previous blog post here, the term “Jesus son of Pantera” comes up in 2nd century AD Greek and Jewish sources, including texts associated with stories set in the city of Sepporis, just four miles from Nazareth where Jesus grew up. In chapter 3 of The Jesus Dynasty, titled “An Unnamed Father of Jesus” I discuss the Pantera tradition, including the oft heard assertion, that the name “Pantera” is a pun of Jewish enemies of the Christians of the Greek word parthenos or virgin. It is strange how often this assertion gets repeated, though I think it has no basis either in history or linguistics. When early Christians countered the charge that Jesus was the “son of Pantera” they took the name seriously, not as a pun, and asserted that it was indeed a “family name” in the lineage of Jesus. I agree with Deissmann that the evidence shows that it is a “real” name, whether or not we can identify any historical figure to which it referred. In my book I examine the tombstone in Germany of a 1st century Roman soldier from Palestine of that name, not so much to claim it belonged to the “father” of Jesus, but rather to learn what we can of this particular individual.
When I sent in my book manuscript The Jesus Dynasty for publication most of what I knew about the Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera tombstone now located in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, was taken from two main sources: the article by Deissmann, “Der Name Panthera,” published in 1906 (see notes in my book for details), as well as the information he included in his subsequent book, Licht vom Osten/Light from East (1923); and another article by L. Patterson, “Origin of the Name Pantera,” JTS (1917), which built on Deissmann’s work.
As far as I can tell almost everything subsequently published, which is mostly people mentioning the Bingerbrück tombstone in passing, most often to dismiss it as insignificant, relies on these two initial publications. It is from those two articles that the ideas emerge that the names Tiberius Julius indicate manumission under the emperor Tiberius (thus after 14 AD), that our Panthera is a Jew or Semite based on the name Abdes (this is more Patterson than Deissmann), and that the 1st cohort of archers had come to the Rhine in the year 9 AD. Deissmann’s main point, echoed by Patterson, was not to say that this Panthera was the “father” of Jesus, or even had any remote connection to Jesus, but that the name Panthera was not an invention of Jewish enemies of Christianity, spurning the virgin birth, but a real name used by the ancients and thus likely picked up for some reason in the “Yeshua ben Pantera” traditions.
Since that time I have been able to examine much more closely the archives (mostly artifacts, paintings, and articles published in the Bonner Jahrbuch in 1859-1860, at the time of the discovery) that I brought back with me from the museum in Bad Kreusnach where the tomb stones are now housed, and thus to learn much more about the original discovery of this cemetery in 1859 as well as the others buried with Panthera. I was also able to photograph, measure, and study closely the Pantera tombstone itself. All Deissmann apparently had was the inscription itself as published in the catalogue CIL XIII 7514. He seems to know nothing of the discovery, its context, or anything related thereto.
There are lots of interesting avenues of inquiry but at least three issues that need to be resolved are the following:
1. The significance of the Semitic name Abdes. I am not convinced by Deissmann’s postcard correspondent, Count Wolf Baudissin (footnoted in Light from East, p. 74), that Abdes=Eded Isis or “servant of Isis.” I think it is more likely a name, and Deissmann himself refers to another soldier who is called “Cottio the son of Abdes,” which seems to be the same name. It was Patterson that took the name to mean our Panthera was a Jew. I would not go that far but did take it as an indication of at least a “Semitic” background. I have also wondered if the name might be related to Sbedsdas or “Zebedee,” which is found on another soldier’s tombstone in the area, who was from Tyre, which would make it more akin to Zebdas from the Hebrew root Zabad (=Doros/gift) in Hebrew.
2. Do the names Tiberius Julius indicate manumission or perhaps something else? I went with the freed slave suggestion, which seemed to have been so confidently asserted by Deissmann and Patterson, but now tend to doubt that such is the case. Our Abdes Pantera might have taken on these names much later in life, even at retirement, for reasons having nothing to do with having been a freed slave, but perhaps just as a way of honoring the emperor Tiberius, celebrating citizenship, or otherwise celebrating a higher status than that of a commoner. One very well known figure from antiquity with that name was the famous nephew of Philo, Tiberius Julius Alexander.
3. What is the evidence for Deissmann’s assertion that that particular cohort of archers had come to Dalmatia (Croatia) in the year A.D. 6 from Palestine and moved to the Rhine/Nahe river area in A.D. 9? He refers to a source by Domaszewski but gives no details in the citation, so I take it this source is well known in his time and would be known to Roman historians, which I am not. Of course we should not take 9 AD as the date Abdes Pantera necessarily arrived in the area. The cohort would have been regularly replenished by new recruits throughout the 1st century, once stationed in the area.
Given what we know so far of Abdes Pantera it is difficult to date him more precisely. We know he was from Sidon in Palestine, that he served in the army for forty years and that he died at age 62. Whether he might have been retired at the time he died or not we can not be sure, so accordingly, we can not be sure at what age his 40 year service began or when he took on the name Tiberius Julius, other than to place it sometime between the years of the reign of the emperor: 14-37AD.
I can add, just for interest, that three large tombstones, Pantera among them, were found on October 19, 1859 about 300 yards from the Nahe River in connection with the construction of the Bingerbrück railway station. The first two, individuals named Hyperanor and Julia Quintia, were in their vertical positions but the third one, Abdes, was slanted. The foundations of all three were at the same level, and all three were headless, due to the building in earlier times of an embankment wall. Clay funerary urns were found with vessels as well as coins. These finds have been distributed in a number of museums and I am in the process of trying to locate them all. They will perhaps allow us to date at least the terminus ad quem of the cemetery. Other tombstones were subsequently recovered in the area, which was obviously a Roman cemetery. Four different army units are represented, including the 4th Legion, and the IV Delmatarum, 1 Pannoniorum, and the 1st Sagittariorum cohorts–all known to be in that area during the mid-1st century AD. Pictured here is a painting made in 1859 of the original discovery–taking us back to a time when photography was just coming into use, but not yet for archaeology.
I believe there is still much to learn about both the cemetery and Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, so stay tuned…It is entirely possible that his funerary urn is still preserved in the archives of one of the museums in Germany.