James Tabor, a professor of religious studies, in his 2006 book “The Jesus Dynasty,” takes surprisingly seriously the old Jewish idea that Jesus was known as the illegitimate son of a Roman soldier named Pantera—as well attested a tradition as any [emphasis mine — RD], occurring in Jewish texts of the second century, in which a Jesus ben Pantera makes several appearances, and the name is merely descriptive, not derogatory.
The whole problem with two centuries worth of historical Jesus scholarship is summed up in those seven words: “As well attested a tradition as any.” Because obviously if you don’t mind a little supernaturalism with your history, a story about Jesus being a Roman soldier’s bastard that dates from the second century — and late in the second century, at that — is dramatically less “well attested” than the well-known tradition (perhaps you’ve heard of it) that Jesus was born of a virgin married to Joseph the carpenter, which dates from the 70s or 80s A.D. at the latest, when the Gospels of Luke and Matthew were composed. Bracket the question of miracles, and there’s really no comparison: Giving the Roman soldier story equal weight with the accounts in Matthew and Luke is like saying that a tale about Abraham Lincoln that first surfaced in the 1970s has just as much credibility as a story that dates to the 1890s (and is associated with eyewitnesses to Lincoln’s life).
The New Testament: Its Apostolic Foundations & the Significance of 70
The answer to the question of the “historical Jesus” is intricately tied to the question of the New Testament. The bulk of our knowledge about the person of Jesus comes from the New Testament; for this reason, the New Testament must become the principal object of analysis to answer the more fundamental question: who was Jesus of Nazareth?
God chose to communicate with mankind in human language, which by necessity is deeply shaded by the personality, culture, and time of each sacred author. The sacred authors inevitably wrote as people of their own time for their own time while communicating the truths that God wished to be written. Accordingly throughout history any attempt to understand and learn these truths has required that the Church “journey back” to the world of the sacred authors to truly understand Sacred Scripture.
Jesus of Nazareth: Liar, Lunatic, Lord—or Historical Victim?
A student at a Catholic university—if it faithfully abides by Pope Leo XIII’s Aeterni Patris and Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University—will constantly be informed that modern philosophy has committed “crimes of reason.” This philosophical shift, a consequence of a movement borne in a period called “the Enlightenment,” has tremendously affected all the other disciplines of academia, particularly the natural and social sciences. This reflects my own experience and how I was educated to think.
Yet this bad philosophy that has pervaded all of academia was largely unexamined in how it affected Christian theology in my academic experience. Certainly, we took notice of its more self-evident effects; the most obvious being the work of dissenting theologians supporting women’s ordination, who didn’t believe in Hell, who argue for the moral legitimacy of artificial contraception, and so forth—in other words, manifestations where the underlying philosophy is clearly not Catholic—but there never was any exhaustive attempt to uncover how “bad philosophy” has infiltrated Christian theology. In many ways, the question was addressed, but only in broad strokes at points where the question at hand was not the focal point. In other words, this question was addressed insofar as it can be by talking about it considering another perspective or point of interest. It was not addressed for me except by a sole professor by the name of Fr. Robert Barringer, to whom I am deeply indebted.
The perpetual virginity of Mary has always been reconciled with biblical references to Jesus’ brethren by a proper understanding of the meaning of the term “brethren.” The predominant view in Latin Christianity is the “cousins theory” mentioned by Eusebius of Caesarea as a belief of some Christians, but more widely supported by St. Jerome in De Viris Illustribus in the 4th century, as he sought to defend the doctrine of Mary as Ever-Virgin. This biblical interpretation found favor with the Pope at the time and became widely promulgated, eventually becoming the non-official, but majority view of the Roman church.
With great respect and love of St. Jerome, a celebrated saint and Father of the Church, dare I say, I would like to boldly make a theological argument against his position and that of the majority of Catholics and delineate a just as valid, but arguably more reasonable theological opinion.