Jesus was born of a woman, of that everyone but the most extreme docetic Gnostic would seem to agree. But how was it that Mary became pregnant?
There are three basic positions that have been offered in response to the two birth stories we get in Matthew and Luke: 1) Jesus had no human father; 2) Jesus is in fact the biological son of Joseph; 3) Jesus is the biological son of an unnamed male under unknown circumstances.
The first option takes us out of the realm of history into the arena of myth and symbol and even those who would take the reports in Matthew and Luke literally, that Mary became pregnant without a male, would have to admit that such “divine” conceptions are otherwise known to us in a host of Greco-Roman stories of the supernatural births of heros, demi-gods, and divine men, sired by Gods. Generally speaking such tales tend to be alien to most forms of ancient Judaism, other than tales of humans who are the offspring of “angels,” which do appear to stem from similar conceptual realities. One can hardly expect a modern historian to take such reports as matters of serious and rational investigation.
As I point out in my book, The Jesus Dynasty, one possible purpose of the “virginal conception” story in Matthew and Luke is to affirm the “divine” origin of Jesus–that he is in some special way the “Son of God” in that his conception is not through any human male. It is entirely possible that this is all one should derive from those stories. Thus we are left with the choice of taking the tale literally or metaphorically. Either way the “virgin conception” of Jesus would be a way of expressing the extraordinary nature of Jesus.
One might well leave it at that and most historians would opt for the most simple explanation–since Mary is eventually wedded to Joseph, whatever the circumstances, he is the most likely father.
However, there are some of us who are intrigued with the core of the Matthean/Lukan story–namely, that Mary becomes pregnant before her union with Joseph and though he goes ahead with the marriage he is not the father. Jane Schaberg has probably offered the most extensive argument for this option in her excellent study, The Illegitimacy of Jesus (Sheffield Academic Press, 1995). I highly recommend this book although I differ in the end with Jane’s conclusions.
Although the “Jesus son of Pantera” sources, dating from the 2nd century AD, offer a “name” of a father, this option itself does not need to have any connection to a Roman soldier, Pantera or otherwise. The notion of an unnamed and unknown father of Jesus is worth considering on its own rights.
Here, of course, we enter the realm of pure speculation, since those of us who are inclined to the view that Jesus had a human father, and Joseph took Mary as his wife, despite her pregnancy before their union, know absolutely nothing about the circumstances of the pregnancy. It is even possible that Matthew and Luke’s report that Mary became pregnant while betrothed is an invention of these writers to bolster the case that God must have been the father. After all, who could accuse such a pious woman as the mother of Jesus of immorality? And would that not make Jesus a bastard or mamzer? Schaberg has even suggested that Mary might have become pregnant by rape, but the birth is “sanctified” by God (and Joseph!) as an act of unconditional love and grace.
I am inclined to the view that Joseph was not the father and that Jesus faced throughout his life the sigma of not having his father around, as well as rumors that his mother had acted immorally. But as we try to imagine possible circumstances leading to Mary’s pregnancy before her union with Joseph (which was after Jesus’ birth according to Luke), it is entirely possible that she evaluated the father and the pregnancy as something moral and righteous and taught Jesus growing up that his birth was honorable and sanctioned by God. Perhaps her parents had intended that she marry Joseph, who might have been older, and she had come to be attached to another. Maybe she had her own ways of processing the resulting scandal of her pregnancy than that of a “fallen woman” who had succumbed to sexual immorality. If there was such a father he seems to have disappeared from the picture and we can know nothing with certainly about him. In our earliest report of “the family,” in Mark 6, Jesus is simply the “son of Mary.” Joseph is never mentioned anywhere in Mark, nor is any other father. I think it is potentially very important to consider the potential psychological effects upon Jesus that this view of his circumstances implies: growing up “fatherless” in that society, but believing in his “divine” calling, honoring his mother as a pious woman, and facing the scorn of society. There are prophetic passages with which Jesus identified that fit like a glove–was he not indeed one “despised of the nation” but destined to rule over all Israel, and the entire world? Was he not the “stone” which the builders rejected, destined to become the chief cornerstone?
The matter of Pantera is an entirely separate issue. Those who scoff at the story having any possible historicity are mistaken I think to take the “slanderous” version, passed on by Celsus, as the most likely tale. By that time the “Jesus on of Pantera” story had become the tale of the Roman soldier seducing Mary. Why give that any historical value whatsoever? It is late, legendary, and derivative. The two elements that might be historical are the “name” itself, and the fact that this name is apparently a favorite of Roman soldiers. Thus the case of Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, who died in Germany sometime in the 1st century AD, simply offers us a model to think about. Whoever Jesus father might have been, and at whatever age, he well might have subsequently ended up in the Roman army–thus serving as a basis of the garbled story that Celsus passes on, expanded in later medieval Jewish tales that get more and more outrageous. In that sense I have resisted the facile summaries of my book as “claiming that Jesus’ father was a Roman soldier.” That charge alone hardly covers the range of possibilities and even probabilities.
My inclination, and I choose this word deliberately, because no one really knows, is that Jesus was born of an unknown father, in unknown circumstances, and that Joseph takes Mary as his wife despite her pregnancy by another. My assumption is that neither Mary nor Jesus considered his conception as an immoral act but somehow destined and sanctioned by God. And finally, yes, I think it is possible that the father’s name was Pantera–whether such a one is known or unknown to us.