Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, Harvard Professor Karen King told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies today.
King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the existence of the ancient text at the Congress’s meeting, held every four years and hosted this year by the Vatican’s Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome. The four words that appear on the fragment translate to, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” The words, written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, are on a papyrus fragment of about one and a half inches by three inches.
“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said. “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’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, and 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 said. Final judgment on the fragment, King said, depends on further examination by colleagues and further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink.
One side of the fragment contains eight incomplete lines of handwriting, while the other side is badly damaged and the ink so faded that only three words and a few individual letters are still visible, even with infrared photography and computer photo enhancement. Despite its tiny size and poor condition, King said, the fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians.
King and colleague AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, believe that the fragment is part of a newly discovered gospel. Their analysis of the fragment is scheduled for publication in the January 2013 issue of Harvard Theological Review, a peer-reviewed journal.
King has posted a draft of the paper, an extensive question-and-answer on the fragment and its meaning, and images of it, on a page on the Divinity School website. Click here to read the article