Newly revealed papyrus fragment mentions Jesus's wife

Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, is claiming that a small, faded scrap of papyrus dating back to the fourth century contains a phrase never before seen before in Scripture: "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'"

Written in the archaic Coptic language, an Egyptian language that uses Greek characters, King is claiming that the ancient document is the real deal, and that a forgery is highly unlikely. Could everything we knew about Jesus be wrong?

King unveiled the remarkable artifact in Rome today at an international meeting of Coptic scholars. The owner of the fragment has asked to remain anonymous, but is allowing King and other linguistic experts and historians to study it. The unknown collector claims to have received it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from its previous owner, a German.

Newly revealed papyrus fragment mentions Jesus's wife

Now that this fragment has gone public, it's expected that many other scholars will take a look for themselves in order to determine its authenticity.

King isn't saying the fragment proves that Jesus actually had a wife — but if that part turned out to be true, the implications would be sweeping. Late last week, a select group of reporters were granted access to the glass-encased fragment, including Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times. In her report, Goodstein noted that the document contains the words, "she will be able to be my disciple," a phrase that's sure to send shockwaves through various Christian communities, most especially the Roman Catholic Church.

The phrase will be of particular interest to religious scholars and practitioners by virtue of its suggestion that Jesus was welcoming of female disciples — something that Catholics have vehemently maintained was never the case, and by virtue of that belief, have prohibited women from becoming priests. Moreover, because Jesus may have had a wife, it will also throw the idea that priests cannot get married into serious doubt.

Further, the document is sure to rekindle discussions about Jesus's relationship with Mary Magdalene and the question of whether or not the two were married.

In terms of its authenticity, King is convinced it's real. Goodstein writes:

What convinced them it was probably genuine was the fading of the ink on the papyrus fibers, and traces of ink adhered to the bent fibers at the torn edges. The back side is so faint that only five words are visible, one only partly: "my moth[er]," "three," "forth which."

"It would be impossible to forge," said Dr. Luijendijk, who contributed to Dr. King's paper.

Dr. [Roger] Bagnall reasoned that a forger would have had to be expert in Coptic grammar, handwriting and ideas. Most forgeries he has seen were nothing more than gibberish. And if it were a forgery intended to cause a sensation or make someone rich, why would it have lain in obscurity for so many years?

"It's hard to construct a scenario that is at all plausible in which somebody fakes something like this. The world is not really crawling with crooked papyrologists," Dr. Bagnall said.

King submitted her paper for review at The Harvard Theological Review where its authenticity was questioned by two of the three reviewers (who only had access to photographs). That said, an expert papyrologist has studied the fragment and judged it to be real. It's expected that further tests will be conducted on the artifact, including a spectroscopic analysis to determine its age by its chemical composition.

Of course, it must be said — just because this is a real fourth-century document, doesn't mean it's factually correct. People presumably made things up in the fourth century, just as they do now.

Read all of Goldstein's account at the New York Times.

Images via New York Times/Karen L. King.