A papyrus fragment from the fourth century contains a phrase in which Jesus refers to “My wife,” which a U.S. scholar says is the first evidence supporting the belief among early Christians that he was married, The New York Times reports.
The fragment consists of eight lines of black ink, written in Coptic, which include the phrase. “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ ” Below it is what the Times calls “a second provocative clause” that reportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”
Karen King, a Christian scholar at the Harvard Divinity School, presented the finding today in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. She said in a statement that the earliest claim that Jesus did not marry is from 200 A.D. Early Christians did not always agree on whether they should marry or be celibate.
The fragment does not prove that Jesus was married or that if he was that it was to Mary Magdalene, according to the draft paper.
Based on the faded papyrus and handwriting, the fragment is likely authentic, Roger Bagnell, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, said in a statement from Harvard, Bloomberg reports.
King did not identify the owner of the fragment, which is about the size of a business card.
King showed the fragment, enclosed in glass, to the Times,The Boston Globe and Harvard Magazine on Thursday.
In an interview, the Times writes, King “repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question,” she said.
“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” King told the Times. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”
The Times adds:
The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.
Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.
Princeton University religion professor AnneMarie Luijendijk, who co-authored the paper with King, said the fragment’s poor condition suggests it was found in a garbage heap, Bloomberg writes.
The Smithsonian Channel will air a special on the discovery Sept. 30, at 8 p.m. ET/PT.