Six words on a scrap of papyrus threaten to contradict the Gospels, the New Testament, and the foundation of Christianity as we know it.
Karen King, Hollis professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the discovery of the text Sept. 18, at a meeting of the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome. She said that a German collector had provided her with the fragment of ancient Coptic text, but could provide her with no details as to when or where it was found.
The text is so controversial, or “problematic”—as the Vatican described it—because it contains words that translate to, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” King has publicly referred to the text with the attention-grabbing title, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” to the criticism of many who believe it is too short and too unsubstantiated to maintain the authority of a gospel.
“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King told the Harvard Gazette. “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’ death before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to support their positions.”
Christians have always disagreed about whether they should marry or be celibate. The end the view that triumphed claimed celibacy as the purest form of Christian sexual virtue, while conceding marriage solely for the purpose of procreation. In the tiny fragment of papyrus, Jesus speaks of his mother and of his wife three separate times. One of these refers to his wife as “Mary.” The disciples discuss Mary’s worth, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.” It is therefore possible that by portraying Jesus as married, the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife conveys a positive theological message about marriage and the sexuality therein.
Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute of the Study of the Ancient World in New York City, said he 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, said she considers it likely to be authentic on the basis of language and grammar, according to King. Final judgment on the legitimacy of the fragment, King said, depends on further examination and testing—specifically of the chemical composition of the ink.
However, King said that the fragment is no proof at all that Jesus was married. If authentic, it would have been written at least 350 years after his death. Her decision to publicize the scrap of papyrus, therefore, was not motivated by a desire to prove that Jesus was not celibate.
“The discovery of this new gospel,”King said, “offers an occasion to rethink what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus’ marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family. Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married. The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise.”