Pantera as the Unnamed Father of Jesus?
by James Tabor
When I published my book, The Jesus Dynasty in 2006, the most controversial subject I dealt with was a discussion of what I called “the unknown father of Jesus” in chapter 3. You can read an updated version, which became the introduction to a book of James Whitehead’s poetry (see below) here. Unfortunately the press picked up, as they so often do, on what they considered the most sensational and salacious aspect of that issue, namely:
If Mary, the mother of Jesus, became pregnant before her marriage to Joseph, who then was Jesus’ human father?
What I attempted to do was to offer a survey of the historical possibilities, so far as they have come down to us. You can read a summary of my overview, “An Unnamed Father of Jesus,” here. Clearly, the possibility of Mary becoming pregnant “out of wedlock,” and moreover, by the mysterious “Panthera,” which some sources report was a Roman soldier, can be taken as a slanderous charge that she was either raped or guilty of sexual immorality. I address that issue in my post, “Joining the Slanderers,” here, where I argue that if Joseph is not the father of Jesus we simply do not know the circumstances involved in the pregnancy and should reserve judgment.
What I have argued is simply put. We really have three possibilities: 1) Joseph, who married the pregnant Mary, is the father; 2) A mysterious figure, perhaps a relative named Pantera, was the father; 3) the father of Jesus is simply unknown. I don’t include here the theological view that Jesus had no human father since I don’t think it can be considered a serious historical option. Tales of heroes and “divine men,” fathered by a god, abound in the Greco-Roman period, see a few examples here. No serious historian takes these as anything other than mythology and legend. So that leaves us with our three options.
In my treatment in The Jesus Dynasty I end up saying that if we were to fill out Jesus’ “birth certificate” we would most likely have to put under Father, “Unknown.” But I do explore in a preliminary way the name Panthera and its variants (Pandira, Pandera, Pantira, Pantiri). You can read my basic overview, titled “The Jesus Son of Panthera Traditions” here. One of the intriguing possibilities I explore is the possible connection of a 1st century CE tombstone in Germany, of a Roman officer named Pantera, with the traditions regarding Jesus’ father. There is more about that tombstone here, plus discussions of whether Pantera is a real name or a pun, as has often suggested, incorrectly I argue, here, here, and here. Joseph Raymond has recently written a piece here that sheds further light on the tombstone and the Pantera tradition.
Beyond the historical sources and the archaeology I have also explored some poetic and legendary treatments of the Pantera traditions by Thomas Hardy and James Whitehead, here and here. In fact I became involved in the publication of Whitehead’s impressive poems on Pantera, a sample of which you can read here. I highly recommend this lovely little chapbook, for which I wrote the introduction.