A reader sent me an email last week: “What’s this about “Pantera, the father of Jesus?” It caught me by surprise; it’s been a long time since I first heard this myth. Here’s what we know:
Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera was a Roman soldier in the first century. His tombstone is presently kept in the Römerhalle museum in Bad Kreuznach, Germany. The “Pantera Myth” states that he was part of the troops that suppressed the revolt at Sepphoris near Nazareth during that year before Jesus was born. The two towns were within walking distance of each other, and we know the troops felt at ease socializing with the locals.
Then, 177 years later, an anti-Christian writer named Celsus, in his book “On the True Doctrine,” claimed that Pantera had actually walked down to Nazareth and committed adultery with Mary after she was engaged to Joseph, and Pantera was, in fact, the father of Jesus.
But Celsus wasn’t the only one. We see the same accusation in a document written about the same time, called the Acts of Pilate. And the great Father of the Church, Tertullian, writing around the year 197, mentions that people are calling Jesus “the son of a prostitute.” (De Spectaculis. 30:3) And finally, Origen, another Father of the Church, in the year 248 wrote a whole tract called “Against Celsus,” in which he once again tries to stamp out this embarrassing accusation.
So why are we still hearing about it? It’s all Matthew’s fault. He wrote (1:18):
“After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant. So her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publically, decided to divorce her secretly.”
Why in the world did Matthew write this? He could have told the whole story the way Luke did and never mention Joseph’s suspicion of adultery. But this was all Celsus needed, and the story grew from there.
Okay. So, why did Matthew make this accusation a central part of his infancy narrative? The answer is because Matthew’s Jesus is the next Moses and the mother of Moses was accused of this. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan wrote a beautiful book (just a few years before Marcus died) called The First Christmas, in which they show how Matthew followed the “Moses Pattern” described in all the midrashim accounts of Exodus 1-2 that Matthew had available.
In the Targum of Jerusalem, in the Antiquities by Josephus’ in the Sefer ha-Zikhronot, in the Book of Biblical Antiquities by Philo—all of which were available to Matthew, this “Moses Pattern” is repeated:
Matthew begins this Moses theme in his infancy narrative and then carries it throughout his whole Gospel. You can see it clearly in chapter 5 where the “new Moses” goes up on the mountain and gives the “new 10 commandments” in the form of the Beatitudes.
So what about Pantera? Well, Pantera was an historical Roman soldier—his tombstone lies in Germany—but his story is a myth. There is no factual, historical evidence that he was stationed in a town next to Nazareth and that he visited Mary and became the father of Jesus. Myths grow legs and run from century to century.
Well, then, how about the infancy narrative? Is that a myth, too? There is no historical evidence that any of these “Christmas events” took place either. Borg and Crossan prefer to call the infancy narrative a parable, not a myth. “A man was giving a large banquet and invited many, etc.,” (Lk.14:16) sounds a lot like: “After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, etc.” A parable is a story which illustrates a universal truth.
Sounds all right to me. What do you think?