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Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera, Father of Jesus?

The grave stone of a Roman soldier found in 1859 in Bingerbruck, Germany bears the name "Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera of Sidon". This is interesting because of a tradition, mainly sourced to the Talmud, holding that Pantera (or derivatives thereof) was the name of the father of Jesus. Further, an ancient rumor holds that Jesus was the bastard of an individual named Pantera (or derivations thereof). The Talmud does not say Pantera was a soldier; however, other ancient sources do repeat this charge. Sidon is an ancient Phoenician port city located in present day Lebanon, not far from Galilee. Biblical Sidon was not part of Palestine although both belonged to the Roman province of Syria in the time of Jesus. It has been proposed that Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera whose grave stone was found in Germany is in fact the father of Jesus. I heard this theory perhaps ten years ago but dismissed it as improbable to the extreme.

I recently started reading The Jesus Dynasty by James D. Tabor, which has prompted me to look at the case more closely. Prof. Tabor presents additional interesting points supporting the theory; however, he stops short of concluding Tiberius Julius Abdes Pantera definitely was the father of Jesus. I read his book as proposing only that known facts warrant giving the possibility greater credence. Hopefully, I have not mischaracterized the conclusions of Prof. Tabor on this topic. I propose in my book Herodian Messiah that the Pantera legend comes from a jumbling of the name of the true father of Jesus, Antipater ben Herod. Perhaps this taints my objectivity but let's set out the known facts about Abdes Pantera (as given by Prof. Tabor) and methodically go through them.
  • Native of Sidon;
  • Died age 62 sometime during the middle of the first century CE in Germany;
  • Served in the legions for 40 years;
  • Former slave who received Roman citizenship from Caesar Tiberius;
  • Gravestone states he served in the "first cohort of archers". The name of the legion and cohort are not identified in Prof. Tabor's book. Wikipedia gives the cohort as Cohors I Sagittariorum.
  • "[T]his particular cohort of archers had come to Dalmatia (Croatia) in the year A.D. 6 from Palestine and was moved to the Rhine/Nahe river area in A.D. 9." ibid at page 69.
Roman legionnaires received citizenship on their discharge from service in the legion. Abdes Pantera received citizenship from Caesar Tiberius who reigned from 14 CE to 37 CE. Prof. Tabor, I believe, assumes Abdes Pantera was still serving in the Roman legions at his death as he dates Pantera's enlistment to age 22 (62-40 years). If Pantera died a citizen, then he clearly had been mustered out of the legions, living in retirement in Germany at the time of his death. Further, as citizenship marks the point that legionnaires depart service and Abdes Pantera received citizenship from Caesar Tiberius, then he left the legions no later than March of 37 CE. Thus, we can construct a reasonable timeline for Abdes Pantera based on the above salient facts together with reasoned inference.
  • 22 BCE, born in or near Sidon;
  • 4 BCE, enters service in Roman legions in Palestine at age 18;
  • 6 CE, cohort moved from Palestine to Dalmatia;
  • 9 CE, cohort moved to Germany;
  • 37 CE, retired from legions and received citizenship;
  • 41 CE, died in Germany.
Under this timeline, Abdes Pantera enlisted in the legions at age 18, which is within the normal age for enlistment. If Pantera left the legions in 37 CE and entered at age 18 in 4 BCE, that puts his death year at 41 CE. This date does conform with the finding that he died in the middle of the first century CE.

Although the name Cohors I Sagittariorum is bland, simply meaning first cohort of archers, I think history knows more about the particular cohort Abdes Pantera belonged to. A search for "Cohors I Sagittariorum" turns up information about a Roman unit named "Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria" (cohort first Hamian archers) that served in Britain. If the same unit, they moved from Germany to Britain perhaps as early as Claudius' invasion in 43 CE and were stationed on the northern frontier. "The First Hamian Cohort were the only regiment of auxiliary archers in the entire Roman army of Britain, recruited from a tribe native to Syria. They are recorded at other forts in Britain at Carvoran (vide RIB 1792) on the Stanegate also at Housesteads on Hadrian's Wall, both sites in Northumberland." Link. "Perhaps the most notably 'specialised' auxiliary regiment in Britain was the 500 strong 'quingenary' cohort of Syrian archers. 'Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria', a unit of bowmen recruited from the Hamian tribesmen from the city of Hama in the Orontes valley in northern Syria." Link. Hama is a city on the banks of the Orontes River in central Syria north of Damascus. Link. How do we know the unit Abdes Pantera belonged to that was named "Cohors I Sagittariorum" is the same as "Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria"? We have two markers to work with--(a) specialized cohort of archers and (b) recruited from Syria. Specialized archer cohorts were unusual in the Roman legions of this period, to my knowledge. The Roman Syrian province was massive but Sidon and the town of Hama are in relative proximity to one another, perhaps 100+ miles apart. It's highly likely these two units with similar names and recruited from the same portion of Syria are one in the same unit. If so, the cohort was comprised of individuals from a specific Syrian tribe (Hamains) and it stands to reason that our Abdes Pantera was ethnically from the Syrian tribe of Hama. How did he find himself in slavery? The practice of the time was to sell the losers of a battle into slavery (including women and children).

In 4 BCE, Sidon was a city-state that was part of the Roman province of Syria. The Jewish kingdom (called Palestine by the Romans) was an independent kingdom for much of the reign of Herod the Great. Around 7 BCE, Herod's status was downgraded by Augustus from "Friend of Caesar" to "Subject King" because of an unauthorized war with Nabatea. At this point, my interpretation is that Herod came under the jurisdiction of the Roman governor of the Syrian province even though the kingdom was still separately ruled by Herod. This arrangement held throughout the remaining years of Herod the Great's reign as well as that of his son, Herod Archelaus. When the Romans deposed Herod Archelaus in 6 CE, Palestine was annexed to the Syrian province although it was administered as a distinct prefecture. Pontius Pilate was the prefect of Palestine who reported to the governor / president of Syria. Sidon was never part of either the Jewish kingdom nor the Roman prefecture of Palestine.

Prior to Herod's death, I don't believe any standard Roman legions were based in the Jewish kingdom, other than Herod's own extensive military (which were themselves Roman auxiliary units) who provided security for Herod's and Rome's interests in the Jewish kingdom. When the Jewish revolt commenced after Herod's death, Syrian Governor Varus moved more than one Roman legion into the Jewish kingdom. This is the point where I believe Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria entered Palestine. Varus made several trips to Judea to put down the revolt thinking that on each previous trip the revolt had been crushed. On his first trip to Jerusalem after the death of Herod, Varus crushed the rebellion and left one Roman legion in Jerusalem. Antiquites XVII 10:1.

If Abdes Pantera's recruitment was connected to the Jewish revolt (a fact that appears highly likely to my eyes given the above timeline), it helps explain how a slave boy from Sidon made his way into a Roman legion based in Palestine. How does a young slave gain his freedom so as to be able to enlist in the Roman legions? He certainly would have had to prove manumission before the legions would take him, least he be a runaway slave. It seems a safe assumption that the Romans came to Tyre and Sidon to recruit soldiers at the time of, or in preparation for, the Jewish revolt after Herod's death in 4 BCE. In times of crisis (such as the revolt), the Roman governor of Syria (then named Varus) may have requisitioned slaves into the legions or otherwise purchased them from their owners.

The analysis should stop here as there is no record of Roman units based in the Jewish kingdom prior to Herod's death. According to the Bible timeline, Jesus was born while Herod still lived (see slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem, Mt. 2:16-18). Thus, Abdes Pantera and his cohort of archerrs arrived in Palestine from Syria after Jesus was already conceived by Mary. However, a cohort of archers numbered only between 500 and 700 men so one may contend the movement of such a small force may have escaped comment by Josephus. For argument's sake, let's suppose Roman soldiers were moved down the coast to Caesarea Maritima prior to Herod's death in anticipation of trouble and our archers were part of this contingent. Why Caesarea Maritima? After conclusion of the war that erupted in the wake of Herod's death, Caesarea Maritima was the base for the only Roman legion permanently based in the Jewish kingdom (although one of its detached cohorts was based in Jerusalem at Fortress Antonia overlooking the Temple). Caesarea was the most Roman of all cities in the Jewish kingdom (especially so in 4 BCE) and logistically easy to supply from the rest of the empire. Caesarea Maritima was the logical place for the Romans to stage troops for expected problems on the horizon in Judea (if they even did such a thing).

Now that we have a better handle on Abdes Pantera and his cohort of archers, let's attempt to connect him to Mary the mother of Jesus. Although his probable timeline has him arriving in Palestine after the death of Herod, which is too late to make him the father of Jesus, we are assuming for the sake of argument that Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria arrived in Palestine while Herod still lived and joined the Roman auxilary garrison at Caesarea Maritima. In peacetime, only one cohort was based in Fortress Antonia overlooking the Temple in Jerusalem. I can't fathom a newly formed auxiliary unit of Syrian tribesmen being assigned to sensitive duty in Jerusalem. Why couldn't Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria have been posted to Galilee? Herod's own army guarded Galilee (as did the army of Antipas after the death of Herod). Is it possible Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria was initially recruited by Herod and not the Romans? I think not. Josephus lists the ethnicities of the various mercenaries serving in Herod's army at the time of his death and Hamians are not listed. Antiquities XVII 8:3--Thracians, Germans, and Galatians (also Gauls mentioned elsewhere). Further, an administrator appointed by Augustus (Sabinus) to take charge of Herod's property until his will could be probated in Rome dismissed the soldiers of Herod's army months after his death, which helped fuel the rebellion. Our cohort of archers stayed intacted for move than a century after the death of Herod. I conclude Cohors Prima Hamiorum Sagittaria was a Roman unit unconnected to Herod. As such, it's logical location should it have been for some reason moved to Palestine prior to Herod's death was Caesarea. Again, there is no evidence Roman units moved into the Jewish kingdom prior to the death of Herod.

The majority view is that Mary was a young village girl in Galilee at the time Jesus was conceived. The facts indicate Abdes Pantera arrived in Palestine after Jesus was conceived. For argument's sake, let's proceed under the assumption his unit arrived before the death of Herod. Caesarea Maritima, as the name implies, is on the Mediterranean coast in Samaria. Nazareth and Sepphoris lie perhaps 30 miles northeast of Caesarea with a low mountain range separates the two points. Although the distance between Nazareth and Caesarea Maritima was not great, the cultures were light years apart. I'm not even sure Nazareth existed in 4 BCE. If it did, the village was extremely small (perhaps no more than a few hundred people). Caesarea Maritima was a thoroughly Roman city with a large amphitheater, public baths, hippodrome, temples to Roman deities, etc. Sepphoris was not significantly Hellenized until after Herod Antipas became ruler of Galilee in 4 BCE (and the city was burnt to the ground in the Jewish revolt). See Mark Chancey article. At the time Jesus was conceived, Nazareth and Sepphoris would have been thoroughly Jewish towns subject to Jewish religious law. Try and place yourself back into Galilee of 4 BCE. I submit the closest present day cultural parallel are Muslim countries with Sharia law, such as Saudi Arabia and Iran. Women did not travel alone, especially unmarried virgins. A senior male member of the girl's household was to accompany her at all time away from home. If Mary hooked up with Abdes Pantera, then she somehow traveled to Caesarea Maritima and this was done in the company of a male member of her family. Then, the story goes, she found love with Abdes Pantera close in time to when her family betrothed her to Joseph the carpenter. In Muslim countries of the present day, an unmarried girl found pregnant risks being killed by her family due to the shame it brings upon them. It's a fair assumption that the same attitude prevailed in Biblical Galilee.

Prof. Tabor presents points regarding Sidon and Jesus that I had not previously considered. First, Sidon was one of the very few cities outside of Palestine that Jesus visited. Also, Jesus praised Tyre and Sidon while condemning certain Jewish cities (Capernaum, Chozarin, and Bethsaida). See Luke 10:13-15. Then we have a curious passage found at Mark 7:24 (King James Version): "And from thence he arose, and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon, and entered into an house, and would have no man know it: but he could not be hid." Whose house did he enter that he did not want people to know about? A relative of his father Abdes Pantera? Interesting. But the name "Sidon" only appears in the King James version of the passage. More recent biblical editions such as the New American Standard Bible and New International Version read, "to the region of Tyre" with Sidon omitted; however, they acknowledge that some early Bible manuscripts have it "Tyre and Sidon". Be that as it may, we are left with a mere innuendo regarding a family connection of Jesus to Sidon and even more so to Pantera the Roman soldier. I must acknowledge my own extensive use of such circumstantial evidence (sometimes thin) in Herodian Messiah. If we were investigating a crime, circumstantial evidence only carries weight when it's coupled with motive and opportunity. Prof. Tabor gives a similar concept in his book: "When you get closer to the truth, everything begins to fit." ibid at page 75.

The connection between Jesus and Abdes Pantera, as outlined above, is extremely thin. But does the theory "fit" with the Biblical profile of Mary? First, the facts tend to indicate Abdes Pantera's cohort wasn't in Palestine at the time Jesus was conceived. Second, his unit was recruited from Hamian tribesmen whose homeland was north of Damascus so it is unlikely Pantera was Jewish. Further, I find it extremely difficult, logistically, for Mary the Galilean village girl to have snuck away from her family and engaged in a sexual relationship with a Roman soldier. Consider further the extreme danger that would befall Mary should she become pregnant by a Roman soldier and this supposed relationship becomes unthinkable in my view.

Circling back to my first connection to the Pantera theory, I ran across it while trying to make sense of why the Sanhedrin refused to execute Jesus claiming it lacked jurisdiction to do so (and demanding that Pontius Pilate perform the deed). The Sanhedrin possessed authority to execute Jewish citizens and, we know, did so. See the cases of Stephen and James the Just. Once the accused was convicted by the Sanhedrin of a capital offense, the sentence was carried out the next day outside the Hall of Hewn Stones. Jesus was convicted of blashpeme, a capital offense. Why wasn't he executed by the Sanhedrin? A logical solution comes to us from the case of Paul of Tarsus who could not be executed by the Sanhedrin due to his Roman citizenship. If Jesus had Roman citizenship, then it becomes perfectly understandable why the Sanhedrin declared it lacked the authority to execute him and demanded Pilate perform the punishment. But how would Jesus have gotten Roman citizenship? The only Roman citizens in Palestine during the late first century BCE were Herod's family, Roman administrators, and Roman soldiers. This is what drew me to the story of Pantera the Roman soldier. But the facts we know about Abdes Pantera do not in any way allow us to confer Roman citizenship upon Jesus. First and foremost, he had just entered the Roman legions at the time Jesus was conceived, therefore, he was not then a Roman citizen (having been born a slave). Secondly, both parents must be Roman citizens to confer citizenship to their child. Even if Mary secretly married Pantera, marriage to a Roman citizen (and Pantera wasn't a citizen then) does not automatically confer citizenship to the bride. It would take a husband with wealth or political power to secure Roman citizenship via marriage to a Jewish girl such as Mary. Pantera the former slave doesn't fit the necessary profile. For the foregoing reasons, I don't find any merit to the argument, interesting though it may be, that a Roman soldier named Pantera was the father of Jesus.


Jesus Christ, Messiah of Levi? (10-10-2010)

Addendum: I should mention that Prof. Tabor makes a point in his book on a separate topic that I was very glad to read. On page 52 he connects the name of Mary's father in the Protoevangelium of James (Joachim) with the name given for the grandfather of Jesus in Luke 3:23 (Heli). The reasoning goes that Joachim = Eliakim = Heli. Link. I first wrote about this topic in 2007 having found the theory in a Catholic Encyclopedia unsupported by any mainline scholars (and then unaware of Prof. Tabor's book). To my knowledge, Prof. Tabor is the first scholar to support this view. It's an important point because (a) it helps establish that the genealogy contained in Luke is that of Mary and not Joseph and (b) the Protoevangelium of James gives us valuable details about Joachim / Heli not found in Luke.

Update: Prof. Tabor has a new entry at his blog on this topic, The "Jesus son of Panthera" Traditions. Dated: 11-15-10.

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