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“Yeshu(a) ben Pantera” is one of the names used in Talmudic literature to designate Jesus of Nazareth. This cryptic name, mainly used in Palestinian texts, has been the object of much research. No solution, however, is regarded as definitive as yet.[1]

To what historical reality does this term bear witness ? Does it illustrate a tacit Jewish polemic against Jesus and Christianity ? Or does it bear witness to nomenclature peculiar to Talmudic literature, whose obscure origin has been lost ?

After surveying earlier research and providing perspective on the difficulties that this name bears with it, the present study offers a new effort at interpretation.

I. The State of Research

In a rather old but still important study, H. Laible suggested that the term Πανθήρα (Pantera) refers to a Roman soldier, Mary’s lover and the true father of Jesus.[2] Hence Jesus would be the product of an illicit union, making him an illegitimate child.

In a long study of the Jews in patristic literature, Samuel Krauss analyzed a passage in Sifre on Deut. 32:20, which suggests the following interpretation :

I will see what their end shall be — I will inform them of their fate — for they are a very forward generation — neither “a generation which is inverted” nor “a generation which shall be overturned” is written here, but a very forward generation — they are fickle, they are perfidious.[3]

According to Krauss, the Hebrew word pornim is a corrupt form of the Greek, πόρνοι, which accounts for the idea of perversion implied by this interpretation. Similarly, the Greek words πορνεῖον and πόρνη can also be related to Hebrew forms, being transliterations of the Greek.

Moreover, in this passage of Sifre, the variant reading of pornim produces pardanim, which means a vagabond, but which remains difficult to translate. According to Krauss, a phonetic phenomenon took place in this variant, with the insertion of a daleth between the resh and the nun, which he regards as a process familiar to philologists. Hence, pardanim would be the equivalent of πόρνοι, whereas the feminine form πόρνη, would have been transformed into pardanit.

In his final analysis, this philologist concluded that pandera was connected to pardanit, differentiated only by the position of the second letters, nun and resh — a change that he regards as recurrent in Talmudic terminology derived from Greek. Thus pandera would be the equivalent of πόρνη, modified by phonetic influences. Thus, according to the final element, yeshua ben pandera would be interpreted to mean “the son of a prostitute,” summing up the Jewish attitude toward Jesus.[4]

It must be emphasized that this philological deduction is difficult to accept, because, aside from its dependence upon conjectures without any true foundation, it considers only the word pandera with a daleth as the third letter, and not pantera with a teth.[5]

A. Deissmann demonstrated that Ben Pantera was a very common Roman name, widely used in the Roman armies, which explains the number of Latin inscriptions from the High Empire in which it is found. According to Deissmann, the tradition regarding Jesus’ illegitimate birth was very old among the Jews, and was founded precisely on the idea of relations between a Roman soldier named Pantera and Mary, Jesus’ mother.[6] We should also note that epitaphs have been found mentioning the family name of Pantera.[7]

L. Patterson suggested that in fact Pantera was not a military name but rather a first name common in the Roman army. The Jewish use of the word would probably have come into being because of the similarity in sound to the Greek term Παρθένος, meaning virgin. These circumstances would then have given rise to the legend that Jesus’ mother committed adultery with a Roman soldier.[8]

S. Kaminski surmised that the name yeshua ben pantera was a corrupt form of yeshua ben sira. This conjecture is close to the thesis that juxtaposes pantera with “panther,” claiming a connection between that name and the Greek word θηρός, meaning “savage beast.” This would be an expression of violent opposition to the veneration of Jesus and his divine nature.[9]

One is constrained to acknowledge that these rather arbitrary linguistic connections cannot explain why the name yeshua ben pantera would derive from the name yeshua ben sira.

R. Eisler conjectured that the origin of the name Πανθήρα, deriving from Greek sources, and of pandera, deriving from Jewish sources, refers to the figure of the treacherous Trojan Pandaros, who, despite the armistice, shot an arrow at Menelaos (Iliad V). The name was given to Jesus in connection with his entry into Jerusalem as “King of the Jews,” ending the peace that had existed between the Jews and the Romans since Varus and the commencement of the hostilities that eventually led to the destruction of Jerusalem.[10]

It is, however, difficult to imagine that, in a Jewish milieu, a connection would have been made between the Homeric epic of the Iliad and the person of Jesus, thus as it is improbable that reference would have been made to Pandaros in the circumstances that the Jews later had to confront.[11] As Maurice Goguel has noted, Eisler failed to prove that Jesus’ action was directed against the Romans. Had that been the case, the initiative for the conflict would not have belonged to Jesus but to Pontius Pilate.[12]

According to Joseph Klausner, the term Pantera is a corruption of Παρθένος. This semantic corruption is based on the following historical situation : during the first century, the Jews already were familiar with the Christian creed and the concepts of the virgin birth of Jesus. Hence, in derision, the Jews called Jesus “Ben Pantera,” meaning, “son of a panther.” Consequently, the son of the virgin (υἱὸς τῆς παρθένου) became, in mockery, the son of the panther (ben pantera).[13]

According to Morton Smith, this thesis is problematic, because it presupposes that in such an early time, the Jews already were familiar with the Christian belief in the virginal conception and birth of Jesus, and, it must be said that this idea is far from obvious, at least with respect to the first century in the Galilee. Smith also notes that the word Παρθένος is found in that form only once in the New Testament, in Matt. 1:23. Indeed, the term comes from the Septuagint (Is. 7:14) and can be regarded as a late gloss on the Book of Matthew.[14]

One must concede that Smith’s arguments are convincing, especially if one considers the linguistic distance between pantera and Παρθένος. It is extremely difficult to imagine that the Sages would have employed a Greek term in Hebrew transliteration with the omission of certain letters. It is much more likely that they would have had recourse to their own phraseology, used for derisive purposes.[15]

With regard to Jesus’ ancestry and the familiar context of his birth, various hypotheses have been proposed to clarify the origin of the term pantera. However, these often lean upon flimsy linguistic parallels.

J.Z. Lauterbach proposes a thesis based on the relation between pantera and Πενθερός, meaning father-in-law or fiancé. This approach implies that Jesus was the product of a union in which Mary was betrothed but not yet married, according to the Halakha. Thus Jesus becomes the son of the fiancé or the son of the father-in-law. According to Talmudic terminology, Mary is defined as arusa and not as nesuah. In this perspective, the Hebraic term hathan defines a fiancé and is equivalent to the Greek word Πενθερός.[16]

However, this theory entails two serious difficulties :

  • It has not been attested that the bonds uniting Jesus’ parents were known in the Jewish world as early as the first century.

  • It is difficult to suppose that the Sages of the Talmud would have used Greek rather than Hebrew terminology.

David Rokeah dates the origin of the name yeshua ben pantera to the end of the first century, hand in hand with the emergence of Christian belief in the virginal conception and birth of Jesus. Hence, the invention of this cryptogram would be a Jewish antithesis to that belief.[17]

According to Rokeah, the epithet Ben Pantera was already widespread in Jewish society as early as the end of the first century. Rokeah posits a connection between the propagation of biographies of Jesus, including his virginal conception and birth, and the emergence of the Jewish tradition regarding Mary’s alleged adultery. This approach reinforces the idea of the Jewish origin of that defamation, which was later transmitted to the Pagan world.[18] Moreover, Rokeah maintains that during the Yabneh Period, the patronymic Ben Pantera was already used to mock Christian belief in Jesus’ virginal conception and birth.[19]

G.G. Porton concludes that the name yeshua ben pantera is a corrupt form of yehoshua ben Perahiah. However, the only detail that he offers to support his contention is that Yehoshua ben Perahiah, like Jesus, is known in Talmudic sources as a magician.[20] Thus, it is difficult, taking note of other occurrences of this name, to accept G.G. Porton’s thesis.[21]

According to Peter Schäfer, the close similarity between the words in the Talmud and those of Celsus (as attested by Origen) regarding the name Pantera suggests a common source. Moreover, his argument, which consists in reading the Talmudic polemic and that of Celsus regarding Mary’s adultery and the illegitimate birth of Jesus as a counter-narrative to the Evangelists, is entirely pertinent.[22]

In his analysis of the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Schäfer states judiciously :

The bizarre idea of having the Holy Spirit intervene to make him the father of Mary’s child is nothing but a cover-up of the truth, it maintains, namely that Mary, Joseph’s legal wife, had a secret lover and that her child was just a bastard like any other bastard. Joseph’s suspicion, whether he was Mary’s husband or her betrothed, was absolutely warranted : Mary had indeed been unfaithful to him. He should have dismissed her immediately as was customary according to Jewish law.[23]

Thus Schäfer regards this accusation of adultery as a challenge to belief in the virginal conception, as a challenge to his status as the Messiah descended from David, a position that one can only accept without reservation.

So we have found that the meaning of the cryptogram, yeshu(a) ben pantera, is far from being obvious. It probably changed over time according to the Jewish perception of Jesus. Moreover, the epithet also became well known among Christians and pagans.

It may well be that in an early period the name was first an oral tradition and that it was later transcribed, in its different forms, first in ancient writings such as the Tosefta and following that in other texts.[24] Perhaps indeed the name “Ben Pantera” first originated among the Jews and then spread among the pagans, which gave rise to the acerbic reactions of Christian writers.

In view of the difficulty of determining the exact meaning of the cryptogram yeshu(a) ben pantera, some scholars have opted for taking it as a simple name, with no pejorative connotation.[25]

II. Christian Sources

Interestingly, vestiges of the formula “Ben Pantera” can be found in patristic literature. In his commentary on John 20:14, Origen reports a tradition, according to which Jesus was illegitimate, which he imputes to the Jews.[26] Origen mentions the accusation of adultery leveled against Mary around the year 248. In his polemic work, Contra Celsum I, 32, he attributes the following words to the pagan philosopher (c. 178 ce) :

But let us now return to where the Jew is introduced, speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying 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 ;”[27] (στρατιώτου Πανθήρα τοὔνομα) and let us see whether those who have blindly concocted these fables about the adultery of the Virgin with Panthera, and her rejection by the carpenter, did not invent these stories to overturn His miraculous conception by the Holy Ghost.[28]

This passage permits us to assume that the defamation attributed to Celsus regarding Jesus’ mother predated the second century. However, this injurious remark regarding the virgin birth of Jesus does not appear to be of pagan origin. Rather it is Jewish in origin and was probably widespread a few decades before Celsus made use of it.[29] Moreover, Origen explicitly mentions the Jewish origin of Celsus’ remark.[30]

The tradition of Jesus’ mother’s adultery is also found in certain Christian apocrypha, showing that the accusation emerged around the beginning of the second century. It may be supposed that its mention in Christian texts is a consequence of its wide dissemination. It goes without saying that these texts deny the accusation. However, the fact that they mention them shows the tenacity and perseverance of these accusations.

Seen in this light, one finds in the Gospel of Thomas 105 : “Jesus said : He who shall know father and mother shall be called the son of a harlot.”[31] A similar reference is found in the Acts of Pilate II:3 :

The elders of the Jews answered and said unto Jesus : What shall we see ? Firstly, that thou wast born of fornication ; secondly, that thy birth in Bethlehem was the cause of the slaying of children ; thirdly, that thy father Joseph and thy mother Mary fled into Egypt because they had no confidence before the people.[32]

These sources lead one to conjecture that the insulting accusation of Mary’s adultery was widespread among the Jews, and that it was probably transmitted to the pagans and finally found its way into the Christian apocrypha. Hence it is probably quite a longstanding tradition.[33]

It should be noted that Celsus’ tract was contemporaneous with the appearance of the Christian apocrypha exalting Mary’s virginity. As an example one could cite the Protevangelium of James 11:2-3 that refers to the conception of Jesus “by the Word”.[34] Another very interesting mention appears also in the Ascension of Isaiah 11:5 which indicates that Joseph did not send Mary away after he found her to be with child and kept her as a “holy virgin, though with child”. The passage goes on to present Jesus’ birth as miraculous : Joseph and Mary were alone when Mary discovered with astonishment a “small babe”. And after she had been astonished, her womb was found as before she had conceived.[35] Finally, the following passage can be cited from the Odes of Solomon 19:6, referring to a virgin who gives birth to a child. This virgin becomes a mother and is found filled with tenderness bringing into the world this child while suffering no birth pains.[36]

These passages clearly show the intention of their authors. They wished to demonstrate, even exalt Mary’s virginity. The fact that they were contemporary with Celsus’ remarks may lead us to see in them a kind of Christian response to the pagan philosopher’s attacks. If this assumption is retained, we would be in presence of two types of defense established in the Christian world in the fight against the pagan and Jewish slanders concerning the virgin birth of Jesus :

  • Taking up the reconsidered accusation of adultery in order to counterattack the authors of this accusation.

  • The exaltation of Mary’s virginity in the second century apocryphal texts in order to contest Celsus and his disciples.[37]

Most interestingly, the name Pantera appears in Epiphanius in Adversus Haereses III, 78, 7, where he quotes Origen regarding Jacob, the father of Joseph and Jesus’ grandfather. In that passage Jacob is given the name of Πάνθηρ.[38] In his analysis of this text, Lauterbach cites the Talmudic dictum, according to which grandchildren are like children (Yebamot 62b), concluding that Πάνθηρ became the patronymic applied to Jesus. Hence, according to this scholar, both Jews and Christians would have used the same name for Jesus.[39] In any event, it should be noted that the mention of Πάνθηρ in the passage from Epiphanius shows that in the fourth century, it implied no insult to Jesus.[40]

Nevertheless, as Herford emphasizes, it is difficult to state why Jacob, Joseph’s father and Jesus’ grandfather should have been called Πάνθηρ. Moreover, this instance of its appearance sheds no new light on the origin of the cryptogram pantera. Herford suggests that the name pantera occasioned the mention of Πάνθηρ and not vice versa.[41]

The accusation was current for a long time among the Jews, for it is found in Toledot Yeshu.[42] In this work, the structural outline of the biography of Jesus in the Gospels is preserved, while it is reshaped to produce a truncated version of the events. The remarks in the book are based on Talmudic sources that have been thoroughly reworked. Toledot Yeshu is thus given over to a thorough revision of the stories in the Gospels, presenting it in the form of a Jewish life of Jesus.[43] Hence we must take the information contained in this polemic work as representative. The illegitimate birth of Jesus is rewritten according to various versions of the name of Mary’s lover and Jesus’ father. The Vienna manuscript, entitled, “History of the Mother and her Son,” recounts the only version in which Mary’s husband is named Joseph Ben Pandera, whereas the impious man who instigated the adultery is named Yohanan.[44] In the Strasburg manuscripts, the Wagenseil and Huldreich versions of Toledot Yeshu, the names are inverted : Jesus’ mother’s husband is named Yohanan, and the adulterous partner is named Joseph Pandera (or Joseph ben Pandera in the Strasburg manuscript).[45] Most likely, the association of the name Joseph with Pandera is a combination of the evangelical tradition, where Jesus is the son of Joseph, and the Jewish tradition, where he is the son of Pantera.[46]

Here it should be emphasized that the mention “Jesus son of Joseph” in the Gospels appears in this form only in Luke (4:22) and John (1:45 ; 6:42), in other words, only in the later Gospels. In John (1:45), this expression is employed at the time of the meeting between Philip and Nathanael and the object is to make the person of Jesus more intelligible to Nathanael. It can be supposed that if the author of the Fourth Gospel had been acquainted with the idea of the virgin birth of Jesus, he would have used the expression “Jesus son of Joseph” with the addition of some reservation. Philip’s messianic announcement to Nathanael is thus part of the idea of a natural family origin.[47] In John 6:42, the verse specifies : “Is this not Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know ?” It thus offers a supplementary element referring explicitly to Jesus’ parents, who moreover seemed to be known by the speakers. Therefore it can be emphasized that no arguments are employed to counter the affirmation of a natural birth of Jesus.[48] This ignorance in John’s community of the virginal birth of Jesus is particularly surprising, in view of the fact, for instance, that two decades later Ignatius of Antioch considered it essential for his faith.[49]

Hence, the accusations of adultery and illegitimate birth that were formulated among the Jews are not an independent tradition but resulted from a Jewish reaction to the Christian belief in Jesus’ virginal conception and birth. Therefore, one may assume that this tradition could have emerged as early as the second century. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that the tradition preceded the composition of the Gospel according to Matthew.[50]

III. A New Proposal

The name, “Son of Pantera,” must be understood solely as a Jewish representation of Christianity as early as the second century, the time of Celsus’ remarks. It was probably a common and widespread term of mockery among the Jews, meant to express derision of the belief in Jesus’ virginal conception and birth. This defamatory epithet is also found in the writings of Tertullian in second century. He refers to the Jewish arguments against Jesus in the following manner :

This, I shall say, this is that carpenter’s or prostitute’s son, that Sabbath-breaker, that Samaritan and devil-possessed ! This is He whom you purchased from Judas ! This is He whom you struck with reed and fist, whom you contemptuously spat upon, to whom you gave gall and vinegar to drink ! This is He whom His disciples secretly stole away, that it might be said He had risen again.[51]

This passage is particularly interesting, because it mentions the Jewish accusation of a union with a prostitute, of which Jesus was the product. This must have been a widespread allegation among the Jews, the very milieu in which Tertullian developed. Moreover, it confirms Origen’s remarks in Contra Celsum.

The Jewish allegation that Jesus was the son of a prostitute is quite well grounded in the Talmudic tradition. It appears in both the Talmudic and Midrashic corpus and without doubt testifies to a very old Jewish representation of the person of Jesus.[52] According to this approach, and to return to the purpose of the present contribution, Jesus is alleged to be the product of an illicit union between Mary and a Roman soldier named Pantera. The latter is regarded as the lover of Jesus’ mother and his biological father. The accusation that Jesus was the son of a prostitute is elaborated in the Midrash in the form of the affiliation between Jesus and Christianity. In other words, Christianity is equated with the seduction of a prostitute, from whom one must distance oneself radically, as we see in the following passage :[53]

What is the hedge which the Holy Writings made about their words ? Lo, it says, Remove thy way far from her, and come not nigh the door of her house.

Prov 5, 8

Remove thy way from her refers to minuth. When a man is told, “Go not among the minim and enter not into their midst, lest thou stumble through them” he might retort, “I have confidence in myself that, although I enter into their midst, I shall not stumble through them” (or) perhaps thou mightest say, “I will listen to their talk and then retire”. Therefore the verse says, None that go unto her return, neither do they attain unto the paths of life.

Prov 2, 19

It is written, She hath prepared her meat, she hath mingled her wine : she hath also furnished her table (Prov 9, 2). Such are the wicked (reshaim).[54] For when a man enters into their circle, they feed him and give him drink and clothe him and shelter him and give him much money. As soon as he becomes one of them, they each claim their own and take it away from him. And of them it is said, Till an arrow strike through the liver ; as a bird hasteneth to the snare — and knoweth not that it is at the cost of his life.

Prov 7, 23

Another interpretation. Remove thy way far from her refers to a harlot. For a man is told, “Walk not in this market place and enter not this lane, for a comely and far-farmed harlot is there”. And if he says, I have confidence in myself that, although I go there, I shall not stumble because of her, he is told, although thou hast confidence in thyself, walk not there lest thou stumble through her. For lo, the Sages have said that a man should not get into the habit of passing by a harlot’s door, for it is said, For she hath cast down many wounded ; yea, a mighty host are all her slain.

Prov 7, 26

This is a crucial text, because it allows us to distinguish the attitude of the Sages toward the Christian minim [heretics].[55] In effect we find a clear connection between Christianity and prostitution.[56] This connection is to be understood in the following manner : prostitution represents the archetype of temptation ; similarly, for the Sages Christianity represents the archetype of temptation. That temptation is regarded as absolutely subversive ; hence there is the injunction to keep one’s distance from it, because it is very difficult to resist it.[57]

We must conclude by saying that the epithet “Ben Pantera” is very old and corresponds to a historical period when the Jews wished to represent Christianity to themselves by choosing the person of Jesus as an emblematic figure of that religion. At that time, the doctrinal polemics between Jews and Christians caused the two religions to reach a Parting of the Ways and to regard one another as rivals.[58] Certainly the emergence of the name Ben Pantera must be situated in this spirit of combat but, above all, of rivalry. It is in this spirit of polemic, which appeared in the second century, that the Parting of the Ways should be placed. This phenomenon of separation between Jews and Judeo-Christians can be explained by a dual process that had its origin both in the rabbinical world and the Christian world, while being a function of different historical factors. The Jewish world, that was well on its way to socio-religious normalization after the destruction of the Second Temple, wished to expel the Judeo-Christians from the Synagogue. The Birkat ha-minim constitutes the most significant step in this direction.[59] In the Christian world, the second century was the time of the great Dialogues and disputes with the Jews, including the Dialogue between Jason and Papiscos on Jesus, unfortunately lost, the Dialogue with Tryphon of Justin of Neapolis or Tertullian’s Adversus Iudaeos. In the Christian world this century represented the concern for construction of an identity passing frequently by self-definition (in order to dispute internally with personalities such as Basilides or Marcion) and apologetic steps aimed at informing the Roman authorities of the existence and reality of Christianity.[60]

The idea of a separation between Jews and Christians in the second century has long been taken for granted by the historiographical research. It was considered that this century launched a period of relative isolation between Jews and Christians and that the only possible interactions involved polemics and conflict. In the last few years, this paradigm has been re-evaluated and Judaism and Christianity are no longer considered monolithic entities for which an act of separation would have marked a historic rupture. The geographic and cultural variations are taken into greater consideration as well as the historical evolutions of the groups such as the “Jewish Christians” and “Judaizers” that so strained to establish dichotomously a definitive separation. This new historiographical approach dwells on the continuity between the traditions shared by Judaism and Christianity and on their mutual impacts. Certainly mutations arose, but an important place is accorded to the constants between the traditions.[61]

Thus, Ben Pantera is the most ancient reference to Jesus to be found in Talmudic literature.[62]

Excursus : Yeshu ben Pantiri

The name yeshua ben pantiri is equivalent to yeshu hanotsri (Jesus of Nazareth). While these names are typical of rabbinical literature, it should be noted that the latter is mainly found in Babylonian sources.[63] Although relatively few in number, these passages are very explicit in their reference to Jesus.[64]

It should be noted that the form yeshua ben Pantiri occurs nowhere else in the Talmud except in Tosefta Hulin II, 24. Hence, the name is usually thought to be a deformation of the form, yeshua ben pant(d)era, which is supposed to be its original version. Nevertheless, M.S. Rens claims to have uncovered a mention of Jesus in the name Yeshua ben Pantiri, which appears in the Baraita of Baba Metsia 62a :

Two people were traveling along the way and one of them had in his possession a flask of water. If both drink, they will die, however, if one of them drinks, he will reach a settlement. Ben Patura preached : “It is better that both should drink and die than one should witness the death of this fellow.” Until R. Aqiba came and taught : “That your brother may live with you. Your life takes precedence over your fellow’s life.”

According to Rens, the unusual use of the verbal form darash without any scriptural support reveals a teaching by an anonymous author who does not belong to the circles close to the Sages. In the present case, this author, who is thus ben Patura, is assimilated to yeshua ben pantiri, meaning Jesus. Rens thus suggests correcting the text, basing himself on a transliteration of the Hebrew ben pantiri into the Latin ben Patri (filius patri), evoking the filial nature of Jesus, as it seems to appear in the Gospels.[65]

Regarding the teaching that is supposed to be that of Jesus, Lauterbach does not hesitate to associate it to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, suggesting that it might have been omitted during the composition of the Gospel of Matthew.[66] In making this move, this scholar associates the two terms, darash, which allegedly introduces the teachings of Jesus, and drasha, which means a sermon.[67] Notwithstanding, this connection, which, to say the least, is speculative, suffers from several difficulties, which cast doubt upon its veracity :

  • Other occurrences of the verb form darash are found, and their authors are well known Sages.[68]

  • It is unlikely that Jesus would have been named with the Hebrew term ben accompanied by the Latin patri.

  • A text of the Sifra, with content almost identical to that of the Baraita, mentions R. Aquiba in conversation with ben Patouri(a). Needless to say, this contemporary reference completely undermines the identification of the latter with Jesus.[69]

  • Certain texts of the Tosefta mention the complete name of Ben Patouri(a), who appears to be R. Yehuda ben Paturi, a man who indeed lived in the second century.[70]

Thus it is difficult to connect these two personages to one another. Nevertheless, it does seem logical to assume that yeshua ben pantiri is a deformation of yeshua ben pantera, which was much better known in Talmudic texts as references to Jesus.