Celsus was one of the most visceral enemies of Christianity which the early Church faced. However, his violent attack on Christianity did not result in martyrdoms, but in people falling away from the faith – he was a polemicist, not unlike the ‘New Atheists’ today, who provided intellectual criticisms of the Christian faith. Most or all of his criticisms were eventually handled by Origen, at the requests of his friends who were concerned about Christians loosing their faith because of Celsus’ books. One of Celsus’ most interesting attacks on Christianity is a direct attack on Mary, Mother of God. Here’s how it goes:
[Celsus was] 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;”
~ Origen, Against Celsus, 1.32
Celsus, thus, actually names the Roman soldier who had raped Mary, or else with whom she was having a fling before her marriage to Joseph; Panthera. Moreover, this accusation may exist in other sources. Consider the Talmud:
“Was he then the son of Stada: surely he was the son of Pandira? Said R. Hisda: The husband was Stada, the
paramour was Pandira. [No,] the husband was Pappos b. Judah. His mother was Stada. [No,] his mother was
Miriam the hairdresser. It is as we say in Pumbeditha: This one has been unfaithful to (‘turned away from’
[satath da]) her husband.” (See: Shabbath 104b footnote 19)”
This argument has even been picked up in our present day. For instance Tony Bushby’s The Bible Fraud, is a poorly written attack on the Christian faith. In response, one critic of his book says on this point:
In an attempt to show Jesus being an illegitimate child, Bushby claims various Talmudic passages which mention
a certain Ben (son of) Stada and Ben Panthera are actually references to Jesus… Though some scholars believe this passage is a reference to Jesus (the hairdresser is linguistically similar to
Magdalene), Mary Magdalene was not His mother nor was His stepfather Pappos Ben Judah. Most importantly,
Pappos Ben Judah is a figure mentioned in other Talmudic passages (Mechilta Beshalach Vayehi 6 and Berachot
61 b). Because the Talmud mentions Judah being killed by the Romans in 134 A.D., there is no way he could be
associated with Jesus (See: Pappos Ben Judah).
~ The Divine Evidence
Bushby also refers, in a later chapter, to a headstone inscription:
“Tiberius Julius Abdes Panthera, an archer, native of Sidon, Phoenicia, who in 9 A.D. Was transferred to service in
This, Bushby suggests, actually is a coded message which, if read properly, is supposed to reveal that Panthera actually was transferred in 9 B.C. (as opposed to A.D.). This is not only incredibly convenient, but it leads to the conclusion that Jesus’ biological father was the emperor Tiberius himself! Of course, there is no credibility to Bushby’s arguments here, and it is kind of discouraging to see the level of argumentation which passes for publishable material attacking the Christian faith. However, going back to Celsus, let’s meet the argument in its stronger form and see what can be said about it.
Another polemicist and New Testament scholar who has picked up this argument is Eddie Kendrick, who has said: “Yes, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was raped by a Roman soldier and our Saviour was the outcome of that awful, brutal act- an act I now can prove defined His mission in life.” Kendrick goes on to argue that there is good reason to believe that some recently found documents presenting Jesus’ trial with Pontius Pilate are possibly historically reliable accounts of the trial, and insinuate (at least in his reading) that it was the Roman authorities which Jesus was opposing, and not the Jewish authorities who had a problem with him. Such is the state of the argument presently.
The first thing to note about Celsus’ argument is how remote it is from our time, and Celsus seems not to have bothered about citing his sources (unfortunately for us – assuming he had any of source). What is truly curious about this accusation, though, is how bald it is. Consider how much more plausible it would have been for Celsus to simply argue that since Mary and Joseph were married, they were the ones who had Christ, and the Apostles had simply invented the story of the Virgin birth to satisfy their peculiar Messianic expectations. Why spin off such a tale if it were not true? Origen discerns why; he notices that Celsus’ agenda is precisely to discredit Christ by pointing to the manner of his birth. This kind of reasoning is foreign to us moderns because we reject a fundamental assumption about procreation which ancient philosophers often indulged: the idea that the offspring of an adulterous relationship somehow reflected in their physical defects the moral defects involved in their creation. So, for instance, consider this passage from the Gospel of Philip:
The children a woman bears resemble the man who loves her. If her husband loves her, then they resemble her husband. If it is an adulterer, then they resemble the adulterer. Frequently, if a woman sleeps with her husband out of necessity, while her heart is with the adulterer with whom she usually has intercourse, the child she will bear is born resembling the adulterer. Now, you who live together with the Son of God, love not the world, but love the Lord, in order that those you will bring forth may not resemble the world, but may resemble the Lord.
~Gos. Phil. 77.15-78.24
Origen responds by pointing to the great works of Christ, and arguing that if one were going only by the evidence, one would have almost guessed he was virginally conceived (assuming that is the purest form of procreation possible).
And if there be any truth in the doctrine of the physiognomists, whether Zopyrus, or Loxus, or Polemon, or any other who wrote on such a subject, and who profess to know in some wonderful way that all bodies are adapted to the habits of the souls, must there have been for that soul which was to dwell with miraculous power among men, and work mighty deeds, a body produced, as Celsus thinks, by an act of adultery between Panthera and the Virgin?! Why, from such unhallowed intercourse there must rather have been brought forth some fool to do injury to mankind, – a teacher of licentiousness and wickedness, and other evils; and not of temperance, and righteousness, and the other virtues!
Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say “all”), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities.
~Origen, Against Celsus, Ch. 33 & 32
Moreover, I think we can offer a better apologetic today. If such a story were true, it seems to me, surely it would have been known to the opponents of early Christian belief, and thus it probably would have been a concern of the Apologists. However, neither the detractors of Christian belief, nor the Apologists, evidence any awareness of this accusation. It wasn’t even on the radar of early Christian apologetics. Other staple attacks on Christianity from Jewish detractors, such as the accusation that the disciples stole away the body of Christ, were commonly dealt with, but this story of Panthera impregnating the virgin mother is literally unheard of until Celsus’ attack. Of course, later Fathers, such as Epiphanius, did seem to take the name seriously:
The 4th century Christian apologist Epiphanius seems to take the designation “Jesus son of Panthera” seriously in that he argues the name is actually a nickname for Jacob, the father of Joseph, husband of Mary. So rather than denying it is part of the family tradition he tries to explain it within that context.
Suppose, however, that one is inclined to think that the note in the Talmud about ‘Pandira’ is actually a reference to this accusation which Celsus raises – one might naturally ask the following question: if this story was an invention, how could the same name appear in two sources? There are two possibilities (both of which might be true at the same time). The first is that Celsus himself was well acquainted with the Pharasiac Jewish religion and its polemic against Christianity, and thus he likely helped himself to the slander which had been invented by others. The second is that the name Panthera, because it may not be a Greek name (at any rate not a likely Greco-Roman name), has been thought by many to have been an etymological bastardization of the word parthenos (the Greek word for ‘Virgin’). Thus, Jesus, who was being called the son of ‘parthenos’ (the virgin) was misunderstood unintentionally, or else intentionally changed to, the son of ‘Panthera’. Of course, that may in fact be a stretch – it is hard to tell, but that suggestion is at least not unheard of (it seems plausible to me).
In the end, it is exactly as Origen says:
It was to be expected, indeed, that those who would not believe the miraculous birth of Jesus would invent some falsehood.