Who Was Jesus Father? Imagining the Best
by James Tabor
We know nothing about the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy other than the two birth accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 2. In both accounts Mary is engaged to Joseph, she becomes pregnant, and Joseph is not the father. Matthew says simply that before the marriage “she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 1:18). In Luke Mary is told the same–namely that Holy Spirit will come upon her, making the child holy–the son of God (Luke 1:35). Such a designation of a future king or Messiah as “son of God” is based upon Psalm 2 where David is told, “You are my son, today I have begotten you,” which surely does not imply that David had no human father–or, that Yahweh impregnates human women as in the tale of the “Sons of God” and the “daughters of men” in Genesis 6. Although it is traditional to take these phrases about the role of the Holy Spirit in making the pregnancy “holy,” as affirmation about no human father we might ask if those phrases necessarily imply that. What if Mary is being told–your pregnancy is sanctified by the Holy Spirit? It is worth comparing the account of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptizer in the light of this possibility, as Luke relates both stories back to back. Notice carefully:
The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah when he is serving his term of duty in the Temple at Jerusalem. He is told that his wife Elizabeth, though advanced in age, will bear him a son. When he returns home the text simply says: “After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for give months she hid herself, saying, “Thus the Lord has done to me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men” (Luke 1:24). Though it is certainly implied that Zechariah is the father of the child, it is not explicitly stated. The point of the story is that the pregnancy is brought about by Divine agency.” Might the same be said for Mary’s pregnancy, related immediately in the following verses?
Mark and John have no birth stories. Mark calls Jesus the “son of Mary” with no father mentioned (Mark 6:3), implying some irregularity. John uses the phrase “Jesus son of Joseph” twice, though it is not clear if he intends by this to affirm that Josephus, husband of Mary, was Jesus’ biological or adoptive father (John 1:45; 6:42). In his Prologue he simply says that the Word or Logos, who is God, becomes flesh, without elaborating the means of such an incarnation. In some early rabbinic traditions Jesus was called “Yeshu ben Pantera” and a few later sources identify this “Pantera” as a Roman soldier. I have written extensively on this subject and you can find a summary of posts dealing with the Pantera materials here. Historians are generally agreed that if we had to fill out Jesus’ birth certificate we would best write in at the line for Father: Unknown, though many would argue the most likely candidate is Joseph. But if Joseph is the father one has to wonder why do all of these sources imply something irregular and out of the ordinary?
If we assume that Mary became pregnant and Joseph was not the father but became her legal husband we are left to our imagination as to how the pregnancy might have come about. But why imagine the worse? Why join the slanderers? Why use words like “bastard” and “illegitimacy.” Why imagine rape and violence, or sexual looseness? One has to ask, illegitimate in whose eyes? Bastard according to whom? Matthew, in giving Jesus’ genealogy, hints to the reader that one should be careful in judging those of the past, even those of this holy lineage of David of the tribe of Judah. What about Tamar and Rahab and Ruth and Bathsheba, each presumably the subject of slander and evil tongues in their own times for sexual improprieties? And if the name Pantera does represent a real person, the father of Jesus, we know nothing of his life at the time he met Mary, at what age he might have joined the Roman army, or really anything at all about him–unless the German tombstone tells us a bit–and there is no way to link that Pantera to the one spoken of in Sepphoris in the 2nd century A.D.
I am a Romanticist, so I am keen on imagining the best. My reading of ancient literature convinces me that the passion of love between a man and a woman is ubiquitous in every culture in the ancient Mediterranean world. Despite societal expectations and strictures the heart has always had its ways. Why not imagine, since we are imagining, Mary and Jesus’ father deeply in love? I had someone tell me after a lecture that such ideas were anachronistic projections into the past–Marriages were arranged, individual love between couples simply did not exist as an ideal to be sought. I had to wonder what literature from antiquity this person had been reading. Why not imagine honorable motives and pure intentions? Perhaps the family objected to the whole thing? Perhaps Mary was forced to flee to her relatives? I like to imagine her firmly standing her ground and honoring the child growing within her as a gift of God.
How Joseph comes into the picture we don’t know, whether he was indeed older, or the pick of the family, or what, but he appears to be a “good man” and he can be honored for that. The father, whoever he might have been, disappears. But who knows what Mary might have told Jesus about it all, if she chose to relate to him the circumstances? He seems to have grown up under the stigma of being called “son of Mary,” with no father named, in our earliest text–the gospel of Mark. But again, I prefer to imagine Mary standing firm for her choice of his father and telling him that his father was a good and holy man in the eyes of God–no matter what the wagging tongues, ancient or even modern, might imply to the contrary. Only a woman knows the inner secrets of her heart, and who and why she decides to share her bed. Maybe Mary believed in destiny, in chosenness. Maybe she raised Jesus with a sense of his specialness, his uniqueness. All of this could be the case without angels appearing and pregnancies coming from on high, as if Jesus’ birth is like that of some Greco-Roman mythological tale of a woman being impregnated by a God–see here for some examples.
Because of the extraordinary character of Jesus, of James his brother, and the others in the family, I choose to imagine the best about Mary and the unnamed father of Jesus, and I would like to think, even though we can only imagine in this case, that such imagination is in the direction of the truth.