History Stories

In September 2012, Harvard University divinity professor Karen L. King made a stunning announcement, revealing the existence of an Egyptian papyrus fragment that contains the first-known explicit reference to Jesus being married. The fragile relic, measuring only 1.6 inches by 3.2 inches, appears to have been cut from a larger document and contains eight incomplete lines of Coptic script scribbled by a nubby pen. The fourth line of the text contains the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,” followed in the next line by “she is able to be my disciple.”

King’s revelation of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” generated instant controversy. (The use of the word “gospel” is a shorthand reference by scholars and not a claim of canonical status.) Although initial assessments indicated the fragment was indeed ancient, fellow scholars and the Vatican newspaper were among the critics who declared the document to be a modern-day forgery. Now, according to an article published last week in the Harvard Theological Review, scientific testing of the ink and papyrus and an analysis of its handwriting and language has determined the controversial fragment to be authentic with no evidence of fabrication.

Microscopic imaging revealed no suspicious ink pooling on the document’s lower fibers that would have indicated a modern-day application. The scientific analysis dates the papyrus to the seventh or eighth century A.D., and the carbon composition of the ink was found to be consistent with that time period. Researchers believe, however, that the date of the fragment is unlikely to be the date when the gospel was first composed. That date could have been as early as the second century A.D.

King stresses, as she has done since revealing the existence of the papyrus in 2012, that the artifact does not provide any evidence at all that the historical Jesus in fact had a wife, just as no historical proof exists to support claims that he never married. The fragment is too small and was written too far removed from Jesus’s time to have evidentiary value. Rather, the relic demonstrates that early Christians debated the roles of marriage, sexuality and family in spiritual life, and some believed that Jesus was married. “The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” King said.

The identity of the fragment’s author is unknown, and researchers believe it would have remained that way even if more of the text had survived. Nothing is known about the relic’s original discovery, although it is believed to have come from Egypt because it is written in Coptic, the form of the Egyptian language used by the region’s early Christians starting in the Roman imperial period, and because the region’s dry climate would have allowed the fragment to be preserved for centuries. The earliest documentation connected to the artifact is a 1999 bill of sale, and the fragment’s owner, a private collector who contacted King in 2011 to determine its contents, remains anonymous.

The scientific testing has not quelled all the critics, however, some of whom published their rebuttals in the same edition of the Harvard Theological Review. Some academics argue that the text contains grammatical errors that native Coptic speakers would never have committed. Others believe the fragment to have been copied from another ancient text, the Gospel of Thomas.

Still, King hopes that the results of the scientific analysis will now shift the discussion surrounding the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” She told the Boston Globe, “I’m basically hoping that we can move past the issue of forgery to questions about the significance of this fragment for the history of Christianity, for thinking about questions like, ‘Why does Jesus being married, or not, even matter? Why is it that people had such an incredible reaction to this?’”

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