I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. But you want to kill me, because my teaching makes no progress among you. I am telling you the things I have seen while with the Father; as for you, practice the things you have heard from the Father!” They answered him, “Abraham is our father!” Jesus replied, “If you are Abraham’s children, you would be doing the deeds of Abraham. But now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth I heard from God. Abraham did not do this! You people are doing the deeds of your father.” Then they said to Jesus, “We were not born as a result of immorality! We have only one Father, God himself.” (John 8:37-41)Some think that this accusation was probably merely intended as an insult and did not represent a real doubt about Jesus’ legitimacy (e.g. Miller, 2003: 214).
Pilate called Jesus, and said to him: “What is it that these witness against you, and you say nothing to them?” And Jesus answered: “If they had not the power, they would not speak. Everyone has power over his own mouth to say good and evil; let them see to it.”
And the elders of the Jews answering, say to Jesus: “What shall we see? First, that you was born of fornication; second, that at your birth in Bethlehem there took place a massacre of infants; third, that your father Joseph and your mother Mary fled into Egypt, because they had no confidence in the people.”
Some of the bystanders, kind men of the Jews, say: “We say that he was not born of fornication; but we know that Mary was espoused to Joseph, and that he was not born of fornication.” Pilate says to the Jews who said that he was of fornication: “This speech of yours is not true, seeing that the betrothal took place, as these of your nation say.” Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: “We with all the multitude say that he was born of fornication, and that he is a magician; but these are proselytes, and his disciples.” And Pilate, calling Annas and Caiaphas, says to them: “What are proselytes?” They say to him: “They have been born sons of the Gentiles, and then have become Jews.” Then answered those who testified that Jesus was not born of fornication, Lazarus and Asterius, Antonius and James, Annes and Azaras, Samuel and Isaac, Finees and Crispus, Agrippa and Judas: “We were not born proselytes, but are sons of the Jews, and we speak the truth; for we were present at the betrothal of Mary.”
And Pilate, calling to him those twelve men who proved that Jesus had not been born of fornication, said to them: “I adjure you by the health of Caesar, tell me if it is true that Jesus was not born of fornication.” They say to Pilate: “We have a law not to swear, because it is a sin; but let them swear by the health of Caesar that it is not as we say, and we are worthy of death.” Then said Pilate to Annas and Caiaphas: “Answer you nothing to those things which these testify?” Annas and Caiaphas say to Pilate: “Those twelve believe that he is not born of fornication; we — all the people — cry out that he was born of fornication, and is a magician, and says that he himself is the Son of God and a king, and we are not believed.” (Nic. 2)
This piece of text is probably completely forged and does not have much historical value, but what interests us here is its documentation of the fact that there were Jews — possibly many of them — who considered Jesus an illicit son. Equally interesting is the fact that the dispute is not over whether Jesus was conceived miraculously by a virgin or not, but whether he was the legitimate son of Mary and Joseph or the illicit son of Mary and another, unknown man.
Celsus, a staunch 2nd century opponent of Christianity, recounts in his book The True Doctrine, which is quoted in Origen’s Against Celsus, an attack by a Jewish interlocutor on Jesus and the accusation that Jesus fabricated the story of his birth from a virgin:
He accuses Him of having “invented his birth from a virgin,” and upbraids Him with being “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.” (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.28)
Other reports have even identified and named the man who is alleged to have fathered Jesus illegitimately. Celsus cites the following claim by a Jew against Mary: “when she 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” (Origen, Against Celsus, 1.32).
The Jewish Talmud also has a few references attributed to rabbis from the early 2nd century that call Jesus “son of Pantera,” and appear to treat “Pantera” as a family name. Other Talmudic references call Jesus the “son of Stada.” Miller points out that the Rabbis knew that “son of Stada” was not Jesus’ real name. He suggests that this seems to have been the name of a Jew who promoted the worship of non-Roman gods and was put to death because of that, so Jewish Rabbis applied it to Jesus because they considered him also to have called to the worship of false gods. In a reference to both “son of Pantera” and “son of Stada,” one Rabbi claims that Stada was Mary’s husband and Pantera was here paramour (Miller, 2003: 217).
Commenting on linking “son of Stada” to Jesus, France accepts that “it is not unlikely that later Rabbis identified Ben Stada with Jesus,” but he voices caution of “assuming that any Ben Stada tradition originated as a historical reminiscence of Jesus” (France, 1999: 38).
One modern variation on these stories which tries to preserve Mary’s chastity yet allow for the possibility that Jesus was an illegitimate son is the suggestion that Mary was raped by a Roman soldier. Such a scenario actually requires a considerable amount of creative imagination to stitch together a number of ancient stories of unknown reliability using a good amount of convenient assumptions, as can be seen in Miller’s (2003: 220-222) version.