For centuries, historians and biblical scholars have debated whether or not Jesus was married. Now, according to a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, a recently uncovered piece of papyrus that is being attributed to the fourth century, may help shed new light on the controversy.
The small papyrus fragment, which is only 4 by 8 centimeters, purportedly reads: “Jesus said to them [his disciples], my wife … She will be able to be my disciple.” Those two surprisingly short phrases almost promise to shake up the long debate about Jesus’ marital status, especially in the Roman Catholic Church, where the conviction that Jesus was abstinent is the basis for the rule that priests may not marry and must adhere to a lifelong vow of celibacy.
Karen L. King, 58, who holds Harvard’s prestigious post of Hollis Professor of Divinity and specializes in Coptic literature, unveiled the discovery in a recent paper. “This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife,” she wrote.
While King emphasized that the relic does not yet offer any conclusive proof that Jesus was in fact married, she wrote that, “the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’ marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship.”
“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” said King. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”
Until Tuesday, King had deliberately kept the existence of the scrap of papyrus to herself and a small group of colleagues, while quietly trying to ascertain whether or not it was a forgery. The artifact was loaned to her by a private collector who has asked to remain anonymous, because according to King, “He doesn’t want to be hounded by people who want to buy this.” Its origins are presently unknown.
King said that she first learned of the existence of the artifact, when its owner, who acquired it in 1997, emailed her with a request to translate the text, reported the New York Times.
After consulting with experts in Coptic linguistics and papyrology, King concluded that the mysterious artifact was mostly likely authentic and went forward with her discovery during a presentation of her research at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome.
King has said that the artifact has not been carbon tested because it would be impossible to do so without damaging it, but she does intend to test it using spectroscopy.
AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, who worked with King on her research paper, corroborated its authenticity, saying “It would be impossible to forge.”
Even after all of her research, King said that she still intends to show the piece of papyrus around to other scholars to gather more information about the artifact.