In our earliest examples of the name, Jesus is routinely identified as “Yeshua ben Pantera”—Jesus son of Pantera—without any pejorative connotation whatsoever. The name is simply given in passing—a son identified by his father’s name, as common and innocuous as the New Testament designations “Jesus son of Joseph,” or for that matter, “Simon son of Jonah” referring to Peter. These random references come from the close of the first century and the beginning of the second, with stories of rabbis encountering some of Jesus’ followers just a generation removed from him. These references are not focusing on the name “Pantera,” nor do they make any point about it. It is not a very common name, but it is a real name, and it is known even among Jews and non-Jews of the time. What’s more, these earliest stories about Jesus son of Pantera are set in the streets of Sepphoris in the late first century, fewer than four miles northwest of Nazareth. These are local traditions circulating and passed on by those lived in the region. This confluence of time and place is rather extraordinary. I want to examine two of those stories more closely.
The first is a short passing story from the turn of the first century about a certain Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama, who was bitten by a snake. A man named Jacob of Sikhnaya (or Sikhnin) came to heal him “in the name of Yeshua ben Pantera.” Rabbi Ishmael, who heads the Pharisees, objected, since Jesus, or Yeshua, was seen as a heretic by the rabbis. Before Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Eleazar ben Dama could finish their debate over the permissibility of such a prayer, Ben Dama died. Rabbi Ishmael attributed the death to giving any credence to a figure like Jesus, who had “broken through the fence” of the Torah. We know this expression refers to one who does not accept the Oral Torah and traditions of the Pharisees, which Jesus regularly opposed.
There are three versions of this story. The earliest is in the collection we call the Tosefta (second- to third-century CE), and the latest is in the Babylonian Talmud (fifth-century CE). Though similar, the version in the Babylonian Talmud drops the “Jesus son of Pantera” reference and substitutes “Jesus the Nazarene.” This makes perfect sense for a later time, far removed from the Land of Israel, when Christianity had spread widely. Just as important, this further indicates that the name Pantera itself is not the focus of these stories, and can come and go in the telling.
The second account with a reference to Pantera is a much longer story, also found in three versions, again including the Tosefta. In this narrative, Rabbi Eliezar, one of the most prominent rabbis of the late first century, was walking on the streets of Sepphoris and met a certain Jacob of Sikhnin. Jacob told him about a teaching of a certain Yeshua ben Panteri—clearly Jesus of Nazareth—as the later version in the Babylonian Talmud makes clear. This teaching from Jesus involved a technical question of Jewish Law: What was to be done with money brought to the house of God that had been earned by a male or female prostitute? Jesus had said it should be received as other gifts, but rather used to build toilets and bath houses, pointing out “from filth it came and to filth it should go,” quoting Micah 1:7. The answer pleased Eliezar very much, and for that Eliezar was arrested on suspicion of sympathizing with heretics, since the teachings of Jesus, however wise or appealing, were anathema to the rabbis at that time.
These two sources are set in the generation after Jesus, in the Galilee, on the streets of Sepphoris, and Jesus is regularly called the “son of Pantera,” with no negative aspersions implied by the use of the name Pantera itself. This is our earliest and most important clue in tracking down the possible historical connection of the name Pantera with Jesus. What Jesus son of Pantera is reputed to have taught, in the case of the wages of a prostitute, is good solid halacha—the term used for Jewish legal jurisprudence. —Extracts taken from Dr James Tabor in his blog dated 8th September 2023.
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Approved ~ Primus Pilus
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