Back at the start of the year, I made a very brief reference to the claim that the true father of Jesus was a Roman soldier named Pantera, Pandera, or Panthera. The claim originates in Jewish anti-Christian lore and first appears in the historical record in Origen’s Contra Celsus 1.32, where the Church Father relates with disapproval the fact that the pagan philosopher Celsus had said of the Virgin that “when she was pregnant she was turned out of doors by the carpenter to whom she had been betrothed, as having been guilty of adultery, and that she bore a child to a certain soldier named Panthera.” This particular tale also appeared in the Jerusalem Talmud and the satirical Jewish anti-Gospel called the Sefer Toledot Yeshu. Some Late Antique Jewish texts call Jesus the “son of Pantera,” and imply that the story originated in the first century CE. What I didn’t know is that James Tabor, advocate of the Talpiot Tomb, takes this seriously!
I discovered this fact in a roundabout way after a Facebook posting linked me to an article from last year that not only rehearsed this claim, which was well known to me, but included the full name and career of Pantera, which was not known to me from any ancient or medieval source. According to the article, this soldier was Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, from Phoenicia, who died at the age of 62, having served 40 years as an archer in the Roman army. This was rather specific, given that none of the medieval or ancient sources provided any such claim for the alleged rapist who sired Jesus. Even better, the article gave the text of his tombstone!
I transcribe it here from a standard source, for accuracy:
TIB ∙ IVL ∙ ABDES ∙ PANTERA ∙
The Latin text of the tombstone allowed me to quickly find that it belongs to a stone discovered in Bingerbrück in 1859, on what was then the Prussian-Hessian border. After the stone’s discovery, scholars considered it an unusual name and wondered if it was unique to this fellow. By the end of the nineteenth century, archaeologists and philologists had proved that the name “Pantera” (and its variants) occurred commonly among the people of Judea, particularly Roman soldiers. Pantera’s cohort had moved from Judea to Germany during the time he served.
So far, so boring. The stone is of interest to those who enjoy Roman military history, but James Tabor wrote in his 2006 book The Jesus Dynasty that this Pantera might well have been Jesus’ father! “I became convinced that the possible connection of this Roman soldier with the traditions related to Jesus’ father should not be dismissed out of hand just because it sounds offensive to piety and faith.” Tabor rejects the scholarly suggestion that “Pantera” was a somewhat anagrammatic pun on the Greek Parthenos, referring to the Virgin Birth, because he doesn’t think the words sound much alike. (Others believe the phrase Ben Pantera, meaning “son of a she-leopard” is simply a phrase meaning “illegitimate,” parallel to the Arabic insult “son of the lioness.”) While Tabor offers the requisite hedges and qualifiers that his claims are only possibilities, he argued that as a soldier who was stationed in Judea around time of Christ’s birth, and bearing the same name Celsus gave to the rapist, this Pantera (can we call him T. J. Panther to keep them straight?) is probably the Pantera of Celsus’ account and later Jewish lore. Further, although we don’t know when T. J. Panther served, his cohort was involved in sacking Sepphoris, near to Nazareth, in 4 BCE, the time of Jesus’ conception and birth. (The cohort moved to Dalmatia in 6 CE and Binger in 9.) The rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus allegedly claimed in the first century that Sepphoris is where the story of Pantera originated, but we know this only from later accounts, written around 300 CE.
Just since it’s been a pain in the ass to find, here is what Eliezer said to the Romans after being arrested on suspicion of being a Christian, as given in the Avoda Zara 17a and Tosefta Hullin 2.34 (bracketed words are only in the Avoda): “Once I was walking in the main street of Sepphoris, and met [one of the disciples of Jesus the Nazarene] Jacob of Kefar Siknin, who repeated to me a heretical saying in the name of Jesus ben Pantera which pleased me well” (trans. George F. Moore).
The astonishing leaps in logic in this case are paralleled only by the leaps in logic he makes in declaring the Talpiot Tomb that of Jesus himself. In both cases, Tabor is happy to declare common names to be meaningfully related to the Bible. There is little surprise that fellow Talpiot Tomb advocate Simcha Jacobovici endorsed the Pantera parentage as well.
We have no reason to trust that Celsus is correct, of course, and many of his other claims cannot be supported by evidence. For example, Celsus, and later Jewish sources, claimed Jesus learned magic while apprenticed to Egyptian mages. This has no evidentiary support. We also have other Panteras in the required area, including Pentheros, a Hellenized Jew who lived in Jerusalem, and presumably other members of his family who shared the name. The presence of other soldiers named Pantera would suggest that when Eliezer allegedly spoke there was a Jewish rumor in circulation decades after Jesus’ death challenging Christian claims with scurrilous accusations of sexual impropriety with the impious Jews who collaborated with the occupying Romans.
Anyway, the bottom line is that the three largest assumptions underlying Tabor’s claim hardly let us declare the “Pantera mystery solved,” as he said.
There is therefore not enough logical reason to suppose that T. J. Panther was “Pantera,” or that either of them was really the father of Jesus. It’s a possibility, but not more of one than it was in 180 CE.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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