Question: The early church father Origen addressed Celsus's accusation that Jesus' mother Mary had an affair with a soldier named Panthera who was really Jesus' father. I don't believe the Celsus tale, but can you tell me if this was a false rumor made by Jews as an attach on the miraculous birth of Jesus?
Answer: I am glad that you do not think that Celsus’s second-century story about Mary and Panthera is true — especially since Origen (AD 184-253) did not present it as such. But the precise origins of and the reasons for these false claims are lost to history, and we are left with speculation. One thing seems certain, though: the story gained some traction. Why else would Origen have taken the time to respond? Fortunately, traction does not equal truth, and Origen took Celsus to task. In so doing, he might have given us a hint as to the purpose of false story … but only a hint.
Celsus was a polemicist, not unlike today’s “New Atheists” (Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, [the late] Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett) who offer “intellectual criticism” to counter the Christian message through books, debates, talk-show appearances and the like. Such people (then and now) have power to persuade people against God. So Origen’s friends enlisted him to respond to Celsus, because they were afraid that his lies might cause people to lose their faith! We do not have Celsus’s original documents. In fact, the only reason we know that there was an issue is because of Origen’s response to it.
“[Celsus was] speaking of the mother of Jesus, and saying that ‘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)
But God’s enemies must continue to challenge the virgin birth of Jesus Christ ... or else ... or else ... accept the miracle! And then accept God himself! This is why these types of accusations continue to this day — they must. But they travel now as they traveled then: on the far-fringe of credibility.
Some observers have gleaned a similar story out of the Talmud (although, I have read the same words and simply do not see it). If this were true, however, then we would have some documentation that this story was born in the heart of Judaism. But what we have instead of facts are “interesting” books like Tony Bushby’s The Bible Fraud, which wends its way through conspiracies.
Bushby believes that the Talmud does indeed reference the Celsus account, but he does so by redirecting the Talmudic names to reference other persons (— and how is this not “just making stuff up?”) Perhaps this is the Judaic connection you are fishing around for, but it has no scholastic credibility.
(A special note to my readers:) Do not buy Bushby’s book — it would only encourage him! A commentator from Third Millennial Templar called it “a poorly written attack on the Christian faith” and a reviewer for The Divine Evidence said, “Though it is not my intention to single out individual authors for criticism, occasionally such a travesty of scholarship comes along that warrants such a review.” As I've said in many question responses, we should spend our time in positive study rather than in chasing-down ideas that are on the fringe — like conspiracy theories.
Another factor in understanding Origen’s response is that many ancients believed in (an extreme version of) physiognomy — where physical characteristics are necessarily related to moral characteristics. Many believed that the physical characteristics of the offspring of an adulterous relationship would reflect the moral defects involved in their creation. In an audience where this might be generally believed, Celsus could challenge the manner of Jesus’ birth, thereby discrediting it.
If we consider the great works of Christ, however, and if we were to judge his procreative cause only by these evidences, wouldn’t we have to conclude that he was indeed virginally conceived? Origen takes that tack in his argument.
“And if there be any truth in the doctrine of the physiognomists, whether Zopyrus, or Loxus, or Polemon, or any other who wrote on such a subject, and who profess to know in some wonderful way that all bodies are adapted to the habits of the souls, must there have been for that soul which was to dwell with miraculous power among men, and work mighty deeds, a body produced, as Celsus thinks, by an act of adultery between Panthera and the Virgin?! Why, from such unhallowed intercourse there must rather have been brought forth some fool to do injury to mankind, – a teacher of licentiousness and wickedness, and other evils; and not of temperance, and righteousness, and the other virtues!”
“Or is it not more in conformity with reason, that every soul, for certain mysterious reasons (I speak now according to the opinion of Pythagoras, and Plato, and Empedocles, whom Celsus frequently names), is introduced into a body, and introduced according to its deserts and former actions? It is probable, therefore, that this soul also, which conferred more benefit by its residence in the flesh than that of many men (to avoid prejudice, I do not say “all”), stood in need of a body not only superior to others, but invested with all excellent qualities.” (Origen, Against Celsus, Ch. 33 & 32)
I find it incredible that people have spent their time taking Celsus’s conspiracy idea and running with it — especially when we have two millennia of voices that sound more like Origen’s than like that of a conspiracy-nut who is determined to rail against Christianity and/or God. So, my plea for earnest seekers is (as it always is) to spend the majority of your time in positive study. It is more important for a Christian to understand the nature of the virgin birth than it is for him to understand one of its more obscure challenges.
Don't get me wrong; we must indeed defend God, the Bible and Jesus Christ against false accusations. But we need not respond to the many unreasonable challenges that steal our time and energy. If, however, you find that you cannot resist running down these theological or historical rabbit holes, do so as a sideline.