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.

Against reason? Bezae’s Greek text and the possibility of Latin influence

Any close examination of Bezae’s Greek text reveals its unmistakable affinity with the Old Latin version. What prevents us then from considering its text form as a possible revision to an Old Latin model? In fact, variations on this idea of Latin influence were the norm until 1767, when, reversing his former position, J. S. Semler expressed his disapproval of such theories as contrary to reason and precedent:

“concerning Greek codices being influenced and altered to the Latin … [this] is neither according to reason nor precedent, which can be easily proved” [1]

In his notes on J. D. Michaelis’s Introduction, H. Marsh concurs:

“there is no reason whatsoever for ascribing any reading of a Greek manuscript to the influence of the Latin …” [2]

Such was the legacy of Semler, Michaelis, Marsh, and others, that we find F. J. A. Hort equally dismissive of what he called:

“a whimsical theory of the last century, which, ignoring all Non-Latin Western documentary evidence except the handful of extant bilingual uncials, maintained that the Western Greek text owed its peculiarities to translation from the Latin.” [3]

But is it really contrary to reason that a Greek text might be influenced by or even corrected to a Latin version? It seems the only constraint worth considering is whether the participants who produced this text form had reason to prefer Latin readings over Greek.

Jerome versus Ambrosiaster

At the time of Bezae’s production in ca 400, the Old Latin version was clearly well-established in the Latin-speaking church, while the Greek tradition was sometimes viewed with suspicion — especially as an impetus of change to the familiar Old Latin version. Why else would Jerome take such pains to defend his revision to Greek exemplars? And why else would he challenge his opponents to produce a single Latin exemplar from the many divergent copies — no doubt assuming they could never do it? Jerome writes:

“if we are to pin our faith to the Latin texts, it is for our opponents to tell us which; for there are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies.” (Prologue to the Four Gospels)

Surprisingly though, we find one of these opponents, the elusive Ambrosiaster, apparently contemplating Jerome’s challenge, for he suggests three criteria — reason, history, and authority — by which to identify “the true text,” not in the Greek tradition, but in the Old Latin version:

“I consider this to be the true text, when reason, history, and authority are all preserved. For the text that is retained today in the Latin codices is found to be the same in the ancients, Tertullian, Victorinus and Cyprian.” (Comm. Rom 5:14, see my working translation of the entire passage)

When we consider Ambrosiaster, it no longer appears so “whimsical” to imagine Latin versions influencing Greek texts in a properly conducive context.

Ambrosiaster on the Relative Integrity of the Latin Tradition

We might begin with Ambrosiaster’s rather dismal view of (at least) the recent Greek tradition:

“the Greek codices … have discrepancies among themselves, which provoke a spirit of controversy … [such that] those who can prevail by no other means in a dispute take matters into their own hands, changing the words.” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

While there is nothing novel about such claims as the stock-and-trade of heresiological discourse, we should bear in mind here that Ambrosiaster is not directing his accusation at heretics, but presumably at orthodox controversialists, whose tendentious alterations threatened to overwhelm “the true text.”

Considered in this light, Ambrosiaster’s appeal to the integrity of the Latin version is hardly surprisingly:

“it is well-known that very long ago native Latin speakers translated the text we now have from ancient Greek codices” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

Yet his acknowledgment of the “ancient Greek codices” suggests that he regards the initial Greek text as the ultimate authority, though he seems to doubt whether this text is still accessible in the Greek manuscripts of his own time. On the other hand, he seems to think that the Old Latin version might supply access to this ancient text, since in his view, the Greek text available to these translators would have been closer to “the true text” than any recent Greek text.

Of course, for this argument to work Ambrosiaster must somehow show that the Old Latin version is less corrupt than extant Greek texts, a severe difficulty to say the least. After all, how is it possible that after the same period of copying the Old Latin version would be any less corrupt in relation to the ancient Greek text than contemporary Greek codices?

Attempting to address this question, Ambrosiaster makes the rather bold claim that:

“the innocence of former times has safeguarded [this original Latin version] and now certifies [it] to us without corruption.” (Comm. Rom 5:14)

We have to wonder whether Ambrosiaster sincerely believes in this supposed innocence of former times. Perhaps he is simply seeking a rhetorical advantage. Given though that he has already considered criteria to identify “the true text,” it seems he really does believe it. But how?

A possible clue lies in his concern about internecine controversy and its alleged corrupting effect on the Greek text. It may be that he sees this “innocence of former times” in terms of a relatively stable text form that stands in antithesis to the corrupted forms spawned by recent controversies. Perhaps also he sees in this antithesis a distinction between the comparative quiet of the Latin West with its still incipient theological self-awareness and the incessant controversy of the Greek East with its significantly more advanced and varied theological traditions.

The Relative Innocence of the Latin Tradition from Corrupting Controversy

It seems this contrast between East and West offers a promising explanation of the kind of innocence Ambrosiaster claims for the Old Latin version, namely, that it had escaped the corrupting influence of theological controversy as a consequence of its development in the theological backwater of the Latin West. Canon 1 of the Council of Constantinople (381) draws attention to a list of anathematized heresies, which largely affected the Greek East:

every heresy shall be anathematized, particularly that of the Eunomians or [Anomœans, the Arians or] Eudoxians, and that of the Semi-Arians or Pneumatomachi, and that of the Sabellians, and that of the Marcellians, and that of the Photinians, and that of the Apollinarians. (NPNF 2.14, 172)

In fact, the relative “innocence” of the Latin West was apparently taken for granted by contemporary observers in both East and West. Consider Sozomen’s narrative of the post-Nicene period:

“The Church throughout the whole of the West in its entirety regulated itself by the doctrines of the Fathers, and kept aloof from all contentions and hair-splitting about dogma. As to the Eastern Church, … [t]here were some … who were fond of wrangling and battled against the term ‘consubstantial'” (Eccl. Hist. 3.13, NPNF 2.2, p. 291; PL 67.1065-1068).

The “innocence” of the West is still captured in the decades following Ambrosiaster’s dispute with Jerome in a letter from Pope Anastasius to John of Jerusalem (401), in which the former professes his total ignorance, not only of Origen’s writings or their contents, but even of Origen himself:

“As for Origen, whose writings he [Rufinus] has translated into our language, I have neither formerly known, nor do I now seek to know either who he was or what expression he may have given to his thought.” (NPNF 2.3, p. 433; PL 21.629)

Of course, Origen’s speculative theology would have been emblematic of the theological adventurousness of the East.

At the same time, the controversies of the East were carried to Ambrosiaster’s doorstep in Rome in the 370’s, as rival Nicene parties to the Antiochian schism sent repeated envoys to Rome in attempts to bolster their respective claims to the episcopal office. Ambrosiaster would have witnessed firsthand Basil of Caesarea’s persistent correspondence attempting to involve Rome and the bishops of Italy and Gaul in resolving the schism on behalf of Meletius, while the proponents of Paulinus equally persistently subverted his efforts. [4]

Nor could Ambrosiaster have been ignorant of Basil’s depictions of chaos:

“Nearly all the East … from Illyricum to Egypt is being agitated. … The old heresy, sown by Arius … has now boldly and unblushingly reappeared. … [I]n every district the champions of right doctrine have been exiled from their Churches … and the control of affairs has been handed over to men who are leading captive the souls of the simpler [ones].” (Epist. 70, NPNF 2.8, p. 166; PG 32.433-434)

And again:

“It is not only one Church which is in peril, nor yet two or three which have fallen … The mischief of this heresy spreads almost from the borders of Illyricum to the Thebaid. Its bad seeds were first sown by the infamous Arius … souls are drenched in ignorance, because adulterators of the word imitate the truth. … [Yet] in addition to the open attack of the heretics, the Churches are reduced to utter helplessness by the war raging among those who are supposed to be orthodox.” (Epist. 92.1-2, NPNF 2.8, p. 178; PG 32.477-480)

Clearly then, Ambrosiaster’s interest in controversy as a source of variation is no coincidence. At the same time, his opinion of the innocence of the Latin tradition now becomes somewhat understandable — perhaps even reasonable.

What does this mean for Bezan research?

It seems then that we must acknowledge a real possibility that Bezae’s Greek tradition has been molded to one or more strands of the Old Latin version — though not its own Latin column — perhaps as recently as the decades immediately prior to Bezae’s production. Ambrosiaster’s apparent response to Jerome would then suggest one framework in which the correction of a Greek text to a Latin model is not only possible, but also has a clear motive, namely, to preserve gospel traditions in either language that were thought to have been lost in recent Greek manuscripts. Ambrosiaster’s acceptance of the ancient Greek codices as the ultimate authority supplies a viable raison d’être for a corrected Greek text that seeks to reconstruct the ancient Greek Vorlage used by the Old Latin translators.

Of course, in the final analysis, we must carefully distinguish between what our critical knowledge tells us, namely, that such a reconstruction is unlikely to have been achieved in this manner, and the motivation of the participants to make the attempt. Of course, we have no inkling as to whether such a project — if there was such a project — would have been judged a success even by the participants. It seems it could not have been successful, which would of course have left Bezae as a lasting legacy of a bold, creative, yet fundamentally misguided attempt to restore the initial Greek text from an Old Version.


[1] de codicibus graecis ad latinos informatis et mutatis … nec rationibus … nec exemplis luculentis adhuc effectum estApparatus ad liberalem Novi Testamenti interpretationem (1767) 44, my translation.

[2] H. Marsh, “Notes” in J. D. Michaelis, Introduction to the New Testament (trans. H. Marsh; 1802) 2/2:683.

[3] B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, The New Testament in the Original Greek, Introduction (1882) 120.

[4] M. A. Norton, “Prosopography of Pope Damasus,” Folia 4 (1950), 13–31; 5 (1951), 30–55; 6 (1952), 16–39. Volumes 5 and 6 lay out many of the sources.