Celsus, Panthera, and the Genealogy of Mary

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.

Justin Martyr and the Genealogy of Mary

Writing in the first half of the third century, Julius Africanus is our earliest writer to raise the two genealogies of Jesus as a potential apologetic issue.1 But before Africanus, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, and apparently even Celsus all refer to the two genealogies, yet mention not a word about any conflict between them.

Thus, Origen takes Celsus to task for his failure to mention discrepancies between the genealogies that caused “some difficulty even to Christians.”2 Irenaeus mentions both genealogies by name, but makes no comment on their use of different ancestors.3 With Justin the citations are less clear, though, if we follow one plausible conjecture, he too apparently alludes to both genealogies without any comment on their differences.

Why were these early writers silent about any conflict between the two genealogies?

One possibility is that they believed one of the genealogies to belong to Mary. The obvious choice would have been Luke. While Matthew asserts that Jacob “begat” Joseph, Luke does not say specifically how Jesus was known as “the son of Joseph.”4

The problem is that none of these writers states explicitly that the Lukan genealogy belongs to Mary. Except perhaps Justin.

In his Dialogue with Trypho, Justin is quite interested in Mary’s ancestry.

  • In 43.1 Justin writes of Jesus as “born of a virgin, of the family of Abraham and tribe of Judah, and of David.”5
  • In 45.4 Justin refers to “this virgin of the family of David.”6
  • In 100.3 Justin again refers to “the virgin … of the family of David, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham.”7

Of course, the biblical text never states that Mary belonged to the tribe of David. It is possible though that Justin inferred this from her betrothal to Joseph.

But did Justin have any more secure reason for his belief that Mary, like her husband, was of the tribe of David? Did Justin believe that he had access to Mary’s genealogy?

A Lukan Genealogy of Mary?

It is often thought that Justin alludes to the Lukan genealogy in Dialogue 100.3. In most editions, Justin refers here to a genealogy headed by Adam “from whom Mary derives her descent.” Presumably, this would refer to the Lukan genealogy.8 Thus:

“Jesus said then that he was the Son of man, either because of his birth by the virgin, who was … of the family of David, and Jacob, and Isaac, and Abraham; or because Adam was the father both of himself and of those who have been first enumerated from whom Mary derives her descent.”9

Unfortunately though the word Adam is a conjecture. While this conjecture is popular among editors, our only surviving manuscripts have Abraham where most editors put Adam.10

Editors seem to prefer Adam because it makes better sense in the context.11 After all, it makes little sense to call Abraham the father of a list of patriarchs that includes himself. Moreover, since Justin is trying to explain why Jesus called himself Son of Man, it makes sense that he would refer to the first man in his argument.

So Adam is not a bad guess. But if this is Justin’s intention, in a context that also invokes the descent of Mary, in order to explain why Jesus called himself Son of Man, we have to wonder, did Justin regard the Lukan genealogy as the genealogy of Mary? Perhaps this is why he mentions no conflict between the genealogies.

Fathers of Daughters and their Sons

But Justin leaves us with one more clue. Almost as an afterthought, he adds:

“For we know that the fathers of women are the fathers likewise of those children whom their daughters bear.”12

Is Justin calling Mary’s child the child of Mary’s father? Is Justin connecting Jesus to Luke’s genealogy through Mary? After all, Mary is the only woman or daughter mentioned in the context.

Maybe Justin is referring to the patriarchs as the fathers of Mary. But this hardly makes sense. The patriarchs already had sons to trace their lineage. By invoking the daughter as bearer of her father’s lineage, Justin seems to be referring to Mary’s immediate father and, more specifically, to her father’s lack of sons. Perhaps it is better then to understand Justin’s expression the fathers of women as fathers who have no sons.13 So it is possible that Justin understood Joseph to be the adopted son of Heli, presumably because in his view Mary had no brothers.14

Does Justin believe that the Lukan genealogy is the genealogy of Mary?

We cannot be certain. But his obscure reference to fathers passing their inheritance to the sons of their daughters suggests that he was prepared to understand Mary’s child, Jesus, as the son of her father. At the same time, Justin’s confidence in repeatedly mentioning Mary’s lineage from the family of David suggests that he had a text in mind to back this up. But Justin would have been hard pressed to find such a text outside of the genealogies of Jesus. Of course, since Justin argues passionately on behalf of Jesus’s miraculous birth, this would only have offered him more incentive to emphasize Mary’s tangible role in the genealogy of Jesus.

When was Bezae’s Lukan genealogy harmonized?

At eighty Greek words — roughly half the size of the Pericope adulterae — Bezae’s distinctive harmonization of the Lukan genealogy of Jesus (Luke 3:23-38) stands as one of its longest variations from the mainstream text. By comparison, the longest so-called “Western non-interpolation” at Luke 22:19-20 involves thirty-two words, while the Sabbath worker episode at Luke 6:5 consists of just twenty-eight words. Yet from Luke 3:23-31, Bezae’s text replaces the forty names from Joseph to David in Luke’s genealogy. In their place, we find the twenty-five names between Joseph and David in Matthew’s genealogy.

No other of Bezae’s variations suggests more clearly the work of a determined editor! In fact, the process of harmonization required the Matthean order to be reversed to accommodate Luke’s reverse-chronological design! So Bezae’s Lukan genealogy must be regarded as evidence of the secondary nature of its distinctive text. After all, to suggest otherwise, we must explain why the mainstream text would have introduced genealogies that do not agree. Yet while the motive for a change on Bezae’s side seems obvious enough, it is not so obvious when such a change might have occurred.

Our investigation of synoptic harmonization must naturally begin in the second century. But while our second-century sources mention the two genealogies, they are notably quiet on any conflict between them. While Justin Martyr does not cite Matthew’s genealogy, he refers to the Lukan genealogy in connection with Jesus’s descent from Adam, explaining why Jesus called himself “Son of Man”:

“He called himself Son of Man either because of his birth by the Virgin who was … of the family of David and Jacob and Isaac and Abraham, or because Adam himself was the father of those above-named patriarchs, from whom Mary traces her descent.” (Dial. 100.3) 1

Now Justin mentions nothing here of any conflict between the genealogies. More striking though is the apparent reason why, namely, that Justin sees the Lukan genealogy, not as an account of Joseph’s lineage, but rather as the account of Mary’s illustrious descent through David and the patriarchs to Adam. Clearly there is no other genealogy to which Justin could be alluding than the Lukan text.

Justin confirms this understanding in the Apology, where he refers to Mary’s descent from Judah, the father of the Jews:

“For by the power of God He [Christ] was conceived by a virgin of the seed of Jacob, who was the father of Judah, the father of the Jews, as we have shown; and Jesse was His forefather according to the oracle, and He was the son of Jacob and Judah according to lineal succession. (1 Apol. 32) 2

It is clear then that Justin could perceive no conflict raised by the Lukan genealogy, which he believes to represent Jesus’ lineage through Mary.

Irenaeus is similarly aware of the Lukan genealogy, citing it with its Matthean counterpart in support of his doctrine of recapitulation. He first cites the Matthean genealogy (which he regards as giving Joseph’s lineage) to argue the impossibility that Jesus could have been born physically of Joseph, because Jeremiah had cursed Jeconiah’s descendants, barring them from the throne:

“For Joseph is seen to be the son of Joachim and Jechonias, as also Matthew explains His origin. Now Jechonias and all his descendants were disinherited from the kingdom. So says Jeremias …” (Haer. 3.21.9) 3

Irenaeus then cites the Lukan genealogy to argue that Christ is descended from Adam and thus is able to rescue the whole of fallen humanity:

“Luke shows that the genealogy of our Lord, which extends to Adam, contains seventy-two generations, and so he joins the end to the beginning and points out that He [Christ] it is who recapitulates in Himself all the nations that had been dispersed from Adam onward.” (Haer. 3.22.3-4)4

In neither case does Irenaeus mention any discrepancy between Luke and Matthew.

Yet of all second-century writers, the one that we would most expect to have attempted a harmonization is Tatian. but It seems rather that Tatian omitted the genealogy altogether from his harmony. According to Theodoret of Cyrrhus (d. 457), this was not due to any inability to reconcile the synoptic texts, but from a prejudice against Jesus’s Davidic heritage.

Most striking though is the silence of Celsus on the conflict, even though according to Origen was aware of both genealogies:

“he [Celsus] asserts that the ‘framers of the genealogies, from a feeling of pride, made Jesus to be descended from the first man [i.e. according to Luke], and from the kings of the Jews [i.e. according to Matthew].'” (Cels. 2.32; ANF 4, 444)

Yet amazingly Celsus seems to have said nothing of any discrepancies between the two genealogies, though he seems to know both! In fact, Origen takes Celsus to task for his neglect of this obvious problem:

“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.”

Origen dismisses Celsus’ comment about Jesus’ social status:

“the carpenter’s wife could not have been ignorant of the fact, had she been of such illustrious descent.”

But it is clear from this that, like Justin, Celsus understood Luke’s genealogy to be that of Mary and Matthew’s to be that of Joseph. In fact, Celsus apparently considered it so self-evident that Luke recorded Jesus’ genealogy through Mary, that he does not bother to mention it. Yet Origen does inform us that in his time the discrepancies between the genealogies had been “advanced by some as arguments against their correctness.”

It is not until the third century that we find the issue of the genealogies being raised in the surviving literature, when according to Eusebius, Julius Africanus noted the problem and suggested the custom of Levirate marriage as a possible solution. But although Eusebius claims that Africanus is “refuting the opinions of others” (Hist. eccl. 1.7.1; NPNF 2.1, 91), it is hard to rely totally on his evidence, given his mistaken claim that Africanus received his answer “from tradition,” when Africanus himself contradicts this very statement, admitting namely that

“we can urge no testimony in its support [the Levirate marriage solution], we have nothing better or truer to offer.” (Hist. eccl. 1.7.15; NPNF 2.1, 94)

It seems then we cannot assume that Bezae’s harmonized Lukan genealogy arose in the second century. If an individual as hostile to Christianity as Celsus apparently saw no conflict, then neither can we assume that Bezae’s editors necessarily saw a conflict. Like Celsus, they may have viewed the two genealogies as belonging to Mary and Joseph.