Panthera is the name of a soldier said by Celsus to be Jesus’ real father and referred to in passages on Jesus in the Talmud and the Toledot Yeshu.
2nd-century usage by Celsus
In the 2nd century, Celsus, a Greek philosopher, wrote that Jesus’s father was a Roman soldier named Panthera. The views of Celsus drew responses from Origen, who considered it a fabricated story. Celsus’ claim is only known from Origen’s reply. Origen writes:
Let us return, however, to the words put into the mouth of the Jew, where “the mother of Jesus” is described as having been “turned out by the carpenter who was betrothed to her, as she had been convicted of adultery and had a child by a certain soldier named Panthera”.
Raymond E. Brown states that the story of Panthera is a fanciful explanation of the birth of Jesus which includes very little historical evidence.
Celsus’ wide-ranging criticism of Christianity included the assertions that Christians had forsaken the laws of their fathers, that their minds had been held captive by Jesus and that the teachings of Jesus included nothing new and were simply a repetition of the sayings of the Greek philosophers.
Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan state that given the antagonism of Celsus towards Christianity, his suggestion of the Roman parentage of Jesus might derive from the memory of Roman military operations suppressing a revolt at Sepphoris near Nazareth around the time of Jesus’ birth. The “common legionary name” Panthera could have arisen from a satirical connection between “Panther” and the Greek word “Parthenos” meaning virgin.
Jewish usage in the Middle Ages
The story that Jesus was the son of a man named Pantera is referred to in the Talmud, in which Jesus is widely understood to be the figure referred to as “Ben Stada”:
It is taught that Rabbi Eliezer said to the Wise, “Did not Ben Stada bring spells from Egypt in a cut in his flesh?” They said to him, “He was a fool, and they do not bring evidence from a fool.” Ben Stada is Ben Pantera. Rabbi Hisda said, “The husband was Stada, the lover was Pantera.” The husband was “actually” Pappos ben Judah, the mother was Stada. The mother was Miriam “Mary” the dresser of women’s hair. As we say in Pumbeditha, “She has been false to “satath da” her husband.” (b. Shabbat 104b)
Peter Schäfer explains this passage as a commentary designed to clarify the multiple names used to refer to Jesus, concluding with the explanation that he was the son of his mother’s lover “Pantera”, but was known as “son of Stada”, because this name was given to his mother, being “an epithet which derives from the Hebrew/Aramaic root sat.ah/sete’ (‘to deviate from the right path, to go astray, to be unfaithful’). In other words, his mother Miriam was also called ‘Stada’ because she was a sotah, a woman suspected, or rather convicted, of adultery.” A few of the references explicitly name Jesus (“Yeshu”) as the “son of Pandera”: these explicit connections are found in the Tosefta, the Qohelet Rabbah, and the Jerusalem Talmud, but not in the Babylonian Talmud.
The book Toledot Yeshu, which dates to the Middle Ages and appeared in Aramaic as well as Hebrew as an anti-Christian satirical chronicle of Jesus, also refers to the name Pantera, or Pandera. The book accuses Jesus of illegitimate birth as the son of Pandera, and of heretical and at times violent activities along with his followers during his ministry.
Throughout the centuries, both Christian and Jewish scholars have generally only paid minor attention to the Toledot Yeshu. Robert E. Van Voorst states that the literary origins of Toledot Yeshu cannot be traced with any certainty, and given that it is unlikely to go before the 4th century, it is far too late to include authentic remembrances of Jesus. The nature of the Toledot Yeshu as a parody of the Christian gospels is manifested by the claim that the Apostle Peter pretended to be Christian so he could separate them from the Jews and its portrayal of Judas Iscariot as a hero who posed as a disciple of Jesus in order to stop the Christians.
Bruce Chilton and Craig A. Evans state that the Toledot Yeshu consists primarily of fictitious anti-Christian stories based on the ongoing friction with the Jews, and that it offers no value to historical research on Jesus. The Blackwell Companion to Jesus states that the Toledot Yeshu has no historical facts as such, and was perhaps created as a tool for warding off conversions to Christianity.
Ethiopian ecclesiastical literature
A soldier by the name of Pantos/Pantera also appears twice in Ethiopian church documents. In the First Book of Ethiopian Maccabees he is listed as one of three brothers who resists the Seleucid invasion of Judea. Within the text itself he is cited as receiving his name from the act of strangling panthers with his bare hands. This name and personage also appears in the text of the Ethiopian Synaxarion (Tahisas 25), where he is remembered along with his brothers in the canon of Ethiopian saints. Neither text makes any clear identification of this figure with the legendary accounts of the paternal ancestry of Christ.