As preserved by Origen, Celsus is one of our earliest writers to comment on the genealogies of Jesus. Celsus’s failure to mention any conflict between the genealogies appears to support the view that no conflict was perceived in the second-century context in which he wrote.
But if we follow Origen, Celsus seems to have known that there were two genealogies, as he writes:
“the framers of the genealogies, from a feeling of pride, made Jesus to be descended from the first man, and from the kings of the Jews.”1
Presumably, Celsus’s genealogy “from the first man” refers to the genealogy of Luke, while his genealogy “from the kings of the Jews” refers to the genealogy of Matthew. So Celsus seems to allude here to the genealogies of both Luke and Matthew.
But if Celsus had sought to undermine Christianity, how could he have resisted pointing out that these two genealogies publish very different lists of names?2
Origen gives us an explanation, flatly attributing the oversight to his opponent’s incompetence:
“in finding fault with our Lord’s genealogy, there are certain points which occasion some difficulty even to Christians, and which, owing to the discrepancy between the genealogies, are advanced by some as arguments against their correctness, but which Celsus has not even mentioned. For Celsus, who is truly a braggart, and who professes to be acquainted with all matters relating to Christianity, does not know how to raise doubts in a skilful manner against the credibility of Scripture.”3
But could Celsus really have been unaware of the discrepancies to which Origen alludes? Certainly, if he had known that one of the genealogies was “from the first man” and the other “from the kings of the Jews,” he must have known something of their contents.
The Panthera Tradition
It is possible that Celsus dismissed the genealogies as pious fabrications, which could not have been expected to agree and, hence, required no in-depth refutation. After all, earlier in his work, Celsus had advanced the story that Mary had committed adultery with a Roman soldier named Panthera and that Jesus was their illegitimate child:
“When she [Mary] 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.”4
So it appears that Celsus saw the genealogies as part of a cover up for the liaison that led to Jesus’s birth, a cover up that presumably included the account of the virgin birth as well. Perhaps he had heard of a Jewish tradition, preserved in the Talmud, asserting that Jesus was the illegitimate child of an adulterous union, who acquired magical powers in Egypt.5 Celsus writes:
“[Jesus] invented his birth from a virgin. … [He was really] born in a certain Jewish village, of a poor woman of the country, who gained her subsistence by spinning, and who was turned out of doors by her husband, a carpenter by trade, because she was convicted of adultery; that after being driven away by her husband, and wandering about for a time, she disgracefully gave birth to Jesus, an illegitimate child, who having hired himself out as a servant in Egypt on account of his poverty, and having there acquired some miraculous powers, on which the Egyptians greatly pride themselves, returned to his own country, highly elated on account of them, and by means of these proclaimed himself a God.”6
So in Celsus’s view, not only was Joseph not Jesus’s biological father, but Jesus had never even met Joseph! Of course, any perceived conflict between the genealogies requires that their assertions be taken at face value as giving the lineage of Joseph. But it seems that Celsus was especially eager to point to the irony that Christians considered Jesus to be God despite his apparent illegitimacy, poverty, and lowly birth, circumstances that in his view had only to do with Mary.
Celsus and the Genealogy of Mary
It is not surprising then that Celsus’s criticism of the genealogies focuses entirely on Mary, in particular, on Mary’s supposed ignorance of her noble heritage, as he argues:
“the carpenter’s wife could not have been ignorant of the fact, had she been of such illustrious descent.”7
Of course, nothing in the biblical text speaks to Mary’s awareness or lack of awareness of her heritage. But Celsus tries to use Mary’s ignorance to show that the genealogies are fabrications. If they were not, he suggests, Mary would certainly have known about her descent from royalty. But since she does not appear to know, the genealogies must be false.
Now Celsus’s attempt to undermine the genealogies with respect to Mary’s lineage, rather than Joseph’s, implies that in his view one of the genealogies — though he does not say which — was understood to be a genealogy of Mary.
The problem is that both evangelists attribute their genealogies to Joseph.8 So some interpretation is necessary to represent either of the genealogies as a genealogy of Mary. It seems unlikely that such an interpretation could have been Celsus’s own idea. In fact, he appears to assume that his readers would share this understanding.
The most plausible explanation then is that he received this interpretation from Christians with whom he had contact, whether directly or through their writings. So Celsus’s criticism of Mary’s ignorance appears to supply additional evidence of an early understanding that at least one of the genealogies belonged to Mary, an understanding that this early critic of Christianity simply took for granted.