A Harvard historian has unveiled a fourth-century fragment of Coptic writing that suggests that some early Christians might have believed Jesus was married.

Karen L. King, a historian at Harvard Divinity School, has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says contains a phrase that never appears on any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, 'My wife…’”

In her paper, presented at a meeting of Coptic scholars Tuesday, King notes that this Coptic Gospel Papyrus was the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus referring to a wife.

“It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century,” King’s paper on the new discovery says.

“Nevertheless, if the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus’s marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship,” the paper said.

Little is known about the circumstances of the papyrus fragment’s discovery, believed to have come from Egypt because it is written in Coptic and is currently in the possession of a private collector who wishes to remain anonymous.

The brownish-yellow tattered fragment is about one and a half inches by three inches with eight lines on one side in black ink.

King, who received the papyrus scrap from the owner, sought expert advice regarding its authenticity and has come to believe that the piece is unlikely to have been forged.

The collector provided King with a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it as evidence of a possible marriage of Jesus.

"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," King was quoted saying in a statement released by Harvard Divinity School. “From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus's death before they began appealing to Jesus's marital status to support their positions."

Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, believes the fragment to be authentic, based on examination of the papyrus and the handwriting. Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, considers it likely to be authentic on the basis of language and grammar, King says.

The news has brought back the debate surrounding Jesus’s marital status. In a sensational documentary aired on the Discovery channel in March 2007, it was claimed that the last resting place of Jesus, his wife and son was a suburb in Jerusalem.

The documentary director, Simcha Jacobovici, claimed mitochondrial DNA analysis showed that the occupants of the boxes inscribed "Jesus" and "Mariamne" (said to be a name for Mary Magdalene) were not related on the mother's side and that the two were probably husband and wife.