A piece of papyrus dating to the fourth century, no bigger than the palm of a hand, provides the earliest and most definitive evidence yet that some early Christians believed Jesus was married, Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen L. King announced at a conference in Rome Tuesday.
The fragment, which King refers to as the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,’ contains four words in Coptic, an ancient script of Egyptian Christians, that translate to, “Jesus said to them, my wife...” While the statement does not prove that Jesus was married, it does contradict the orthodox Christian belief that Jesus remained unmarried and celibate.
“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said in a statement. “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.”
The announcement, which was made during a conference of Coptic scholars held across the street from Vatican City in Rome, is expected to reignite an age-old Christian debate over the role of women and married men in religious life.
The Roman Catholic Church, one of the oldest and the largest of Christian denominations, has faced criticism in recent decades because of its policies barring women and married men from priesthood. In defending its position, the Church has long pointed to the four Gospels, which portray Jesus as unmarried and celibate.
The first recorded statement that Jesus was unmarried dates from the second century. Other so-called gnostic gospels in circulation at this time, that were unrecognized by the Church, claimed that Jesus was indeed married.
King’s finding—which goes on to read, “She will be able to be my disciple”— is expected to prompt more intense scrutiny of the Church’s position.
“I think it’s going to lead people to delve much more into the early historical evidence and the theologians to ask why did things come out the way they did,” King said in a conference call with reporters Tuesday afternoon.
Princeton University professor Elaine Pagels, an expert on early Christian history, echoed King and said that issues of Church policy often require well-documented historical evidence for argumentation.
“Christian tradition is very conservative and people often think to make any change they have to go back to something ancient, so this might help them do that,” Pagels said.
The fragment’s owner, who has remained anonymous, first approached King in December 2011. She turned to Roger Bagnall, the director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, and then Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, to help authenticate the the papyrus. King later partnered with Princeton University professor AnneMarie Luijendijk to analyze the text.
King said the seven-line text was likely first written in Greek during the mid-to-late second century and then translated into Coptic as Christianity spread to Egypt. She believes the text, though truncated, is likely discussing family and discipleship, an issue of particular interest to early Christians struggling to balance their earthly families with the message of the Gospels.
Though King thinks the fragment is a piece of another larger, lost gospel, other early Christian scholars have questioned the conclusion, saying the fragment could be a non-gospel religious dialogue or the text of a parable within a larger gospel. King said she is cautious about drawing conclusions from the text, and will explore alternative claims and conclusions.
“I find it hard to evaluate the significance of something that is fragmentary at this point,” Pagels said.
King said she plans to publish her findings later this year, but that she and other researchers will continue to authenticate the fragment and explore other possibilities raised by its text.
—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.