New Christian gospel indicates Jesus may have had a wife (+video)

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 19 2012 7:35 a.m. MDT

This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows a fourth century fragment of papyrus that divinity professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. King, an expert in the history of Christianity, says the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identified as Mary. King says the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.

Harvard University, Karen L. King, Associated Press

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A fourth century fragment of papyrus that contains the statement: "Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,’” suggests some early Christians believed Jesus was married.

But the author of a paper on the new find says the ancient document about the size of a business card does not validate the marital status of Jesus.

"This fragment, this new piece of papyrus evidence, does not prove that (Jesus) was married, nor does it prove that he was not married. The earliest reliable historical tradition is completely silent on that. So we're in the same position we were before it was found. We don't know if he was married or not," said Harvard divinity professor Karen L. King in a conference call with reporters.

King told Harvard Magazine this new "Gospel of Jesus’s Wife" is too old — like others dated to the second century that make the claim Jesus was celibate — to provide reliable historical evidence of Jesus' marital status.

"But the fragment does suggest that 150 years or so after Jesus’s birth, Christians were already taking positions on such questions. Significantly, this new text pushes the date at which some Christians were asserting that Jesus was married back to a time contemporaneous with the earliest assertions that he was celibate," the magazine stated.

The provenance of the papyrus is unclear. Huffington Post reported that the owner who showed it to King found it in 1997 in a collection of papyri that he acquired from the previous owner, who was German. The papyri included a handwritten German description that had the name of a now-deceased professor of Egyptology in Berlin who called the fragment a "sole example" of a document that claims Jesus was married.

King was skeptical of its authenticity when the anonymous collector first approached her in 2010. The next year, King put the papyrus, sandwiched between two pieces of glass, in her purse and took it to New York City where she and AnneMarie Luijendijk, a papyrologist and scholar of New Testament and Early Christianity at Princeton, met with Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, and one of the world’s two or three leading papyrologists.

"She and Luijendijk left Bagnall’s office believing the fragment was real. Rather than taking the subway as she had planned, they hailed a taxi. ('The fragment deserves a cab,'” she recalls thinking.)," Harvard Magazine reported.

Ariel Shisha-Halevy, professor of Linguistics at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, also examined high-resolution photographs of the fragments and said the text appeared authentic based on its grammar and language.

King said further tests will be made on the chemical composition of the ink. King's research paper will be published in the January 2013 issue of the Harvard Theological Review, a peer-reviewed journal.

King, a scholar of early Christianity, presented her paper on the “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” on Tuesday at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, across the street from the Vatican.

Other writings about the life of Jesus from antiquity suggest Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene, a disciple who was close to Jesus, CNN reported. But Christian denominations largely accept that Jesus was unmarried and chaste and that position is a reason for the practice of celibacy among Roman Catholic priests.

King’s own analysis of the papyrus is concerned with interpretation, which is extremely difficult due to the fragmentary nature of the text, according to Harvard Magazine. The first line reads, “My mother gave to me,” and what follows is probably the word “life.” Line two reads “the disciples said to Jesus.” The third line reads “deny. Mary is worthy of it.” It is the fourth line, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife,’” that is most clear. “Those words can mean nothing else,” says King. Line five reads “She will be able to be my disciple,” but it is unclear whether Jesus is referring to Mary, to his wife, or to someone else.

"The discovery of this new gospel," King said, "offers an occasion to rethink what we thought we knew by asking what role (the) 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's Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise."

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