Predictably one of the more controversial topics in my book The Jesus Dynasty is my discussion in chapter 3 titled “An Unnamed Father of Jesus?” in which I treat the “Jesus son of Pantera/Pantira” traditions. The topic has generated more than one sensational headline as well as lots of disdainful treatment, particularly from evangelical Christian readers and reviewers. As my colleague Prof. Ben Witherington dismissively phrased it in his four-part 28 page single-spaced Blog review of my book, “Tabor trots out for us the shop-worn tale of Mary being impregnated by a Roman soldier named Pantera” (Witherington on Tabor’s Jesus Dynasty)
The topic is as controversial as it is complex. My own position is that Jesus’ biological father remains unknown but is unlikely Joseph, husband of Mary. This puts me in an odd position of partial agreement with Christians who take the virgin conception/birth story literally and would likewise hold that Joseph was not the father of Jesus. In the book I then pose the sensitive question–if not Joseph then whom? Is there anything at all to be said of this matter? Has any alternative tradition regarding Jesus’ father come down to us? And the answer is yes, the name Pantera is found in a number of ancient sources. Rather than dismiss these out of hand as a “shop-worn tale” produced by Jewish opponents of the Christians who wanted to cast aspersions on Jesus’ paternity, I felt compelled to honestly examine what one might responsibly conclude about the subject. Having examined the “Jesus son of Panthera” textual traditions in their various forms I then turned to my own investigation of the tombstone of the 1st century Roman soldier, one “Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera” from Sidon who was buried outside of present day Bingerbrück, Germany.
The earliest textual evidence comes from three sources:
Jesus was born of a woman. On that everyone but the most extreme docetic Gnostic would seem to agree–if there are any still left around. 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.
We know nothing about the circumstances of Mary’s pregnancy other than the two accounts in Matthew 1 and Luke 2–in which Jesus has no human father–and the traditions that Jesus was called “Yeshu ben Pantera,” son of a Roman soldier named Pantera–see my post here. If Jesus had a human father, and Joseph, who later married his mother Mary/Miriam, was not responsible for the pregnancy, which even the Gospel accounts insist upon, then we are left with nothing but imagination.
Given what we don’t know and can never really know I have been utterly amazed at the ugliness of some readers who can only imagine the worse when it comes to such a scenario. 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 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? And even 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 this unnamed father of Jesus 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. 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, like some pagan Greco-Roman tale of the god Zeus or Jupiter impregnating a woman with a “son of God.”
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 am convinced, even though we can only imagine in this case, that such imagination is in the direction of the truth.
For years I have considered Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) one of the most moving, informative, and influential novelists of my own reading experience. I remember first reading Tess of the d’Urbervilles and Jude the Obscure over 30 years ago and the images and power of those tragically realistic portrayals of human life on planet earth still remain with me today.
What I have only learned recently is that Hardy gave up writing novels after completing Jude the Obscure in 1895, and largely spent the remainder of his literary career writing poetry. Hardy published his first volume of poetry, Wessex Poems, in 1898. In 1909 he published another volume titled Time’s Laughingstocks and Other Verses. This volume contains a long and passionately rendered poem called “Panthera.” Hardy apparently began to think deeply about the Panthera story as related by the pagan philosopher Celsus as well as in other ancient Jewish sources–namely that the biological father of Jesus was a young Jewish man who later served in the Roman army. I am also convinced that Hardy was aware of the revelation, in 1906, by Adolf Deissmann, of the Panthera tombstone in Germany (see my Jesus Dynasty, pp. 65). The entire tale fired his romantic and melancholy heart.
This largely forgotten poem is amazingly executed in perfect iambic pentameter and rhymed mostly in couplets. Literary critics have found in it much to admire and evaluate in terms of its contributions to form and genre (see Renner’s lovely analysis). It chronicles the sexual and romantic love between a teenaged Mary and a Roman soldier Panthera, stationed in Palestine, but narrated from the point of view of the aging Panthera, thinking back on his life and what he has left behind. The lines are memorial and I urge readers to find the entire poem and read it themselves in the closest good library. Among those that jumped out at me:
A son may be a comfort or a curse,
A seer, a doer, a coward, a fool; yea worse…
Pantera recalls how he had first met Mary at a stopover in Nazareth, at the town spring, with touching imagery:
I proffered help to one–a slim girl, coy
Even as a fawn, meek, and as innocent.
Her long blue gown, the string of silver coins
That hung down by her banded beautiful hair,
Symboled in full immaculate modesty.
He was thoroughly taken in by her goodness and her innocence, what he calls “The tremulous tender charm of trustfulness.”
We met, and met, and under the winking stars
That passed which people earth–true union, yea
to the pure eye of her simplicity.
He leaves the country, only to return 30 years later at Jesus’ death, where he sees Mary at the crucifixion and he learns:
Though I betrayed some qualm, she marked me not;
And I was scare of mood to comrade her
And close the silence of so wide a time
To claim a malefactor as my son–
(For so I guess him). And inquiry made
Brought rumour how at Nazareth long before
And old man wedded her for pity’s sake
On finding she had grown pregnant, none knew how,
Cared for her child, and loved her till he died.
He never sees her again but a near the end Pantera offers sage advice to all who might hear:
Now glares my moody meaning on you, friend?-
That when you talk of offspring as sheer joy
So trustingly you blink contingencies,
Fors Fortuna! He who goes fathering
Gives frightful hostages to hazardry!
Hardy’s poem can surely be seen against the backdrop of his general aversion to conventional forms of religious authority and Christian tradition. However, I think it is likely more than that. He finds in the Pantera story a most apt expression of the most touching aspects of a universal humanness. Human love, separation, the uncharted life of a child, and all they might mean to one old and thinking back on it all. And who could better portray the “human all-too-human,” than the enshrined Mary, mother of God and her divine Son Jesus Christ of Nazareth. It is not just that Hardy disbelieved such orthodoxies, but more that he wanted these figures, the chief symbols of all that is heavenly and perfect and removed from our world, to end up serving that very thing–our very human existence on this planet, so fraught with uncertainties, foolishness, hope, and finally death.
Although I do not share all the details of Hardy’s vision, I do indeed find the Panthera poem profoundly moving for its human sentiments. I have to wonder if James Whitehead might have been influenced by Hardy’s work, though he surely forges his own imaginative account of things in his poems on “The Panther.” I anxiously await the time when the Whitehead corpus will be published and available for all to read. It is truly a legacy worth passing on by a great and gifted mind and heart.