The Vatican joined a growing number of skeptics Friday in questioning the authenticity of a recently unveiled piece of papyrus said to demonstrate some early Christians believed that Jesus Christ was married. The fourth century fragment, which Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King unveiled last week, has come under increasing scrutiny as experts—and now the church newspaper—have called it a fabrication.
“Substantial reasons would lead one to conclude that the papyrus is indeed a clumsy forgery," an editorial in the Vatican newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano read Friday.
"In any case, it's a fake," the editorial, penned by editor Gian Maria Vian concluded.
King revealed the previously unknown fragment of papyrus, dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” at an academic conference in Rome last week. The fragment, dated to be from the fourth century, contains seven abbreviated lines written in the early Egyptian Christian language Coptic. The fourth line of text reads: “Jesus said to them, my wife...”
King’s finding immediately stirred debate within Coptic academic community and the Roman Catholic Church, which has long said Jesus was not married. While King cautioned that the fragment did prove definitively that Jesus was married, she said it did show that Jesus’s relationship status was a matter of debate among early Christians.
“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 last week. “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.”
Now, even that claim is under fire. The Vatican editorial discrediting the find comes days after a Coptic scholar at Durham University published a paper titled ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: How a fake Gospel-Fragment was composed.’ In that paper, Durham professor Francis Watson argues that the fragment-—which King and researchers say likely comes from a new gospel—borrows heavily from the Gospel of Thomas. Both gnostic texts are written in Coptic.
Specifically, Watson pointed to four words of phrases found in the Gospel of Thomas that have been rearranged and set in new contexts in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.
“The compiler has used a ‘collage’ or ‘patchwork’ compositional technique, and this level of dependence on extant pieces of Coptic text is more plausibly attributed to a modern author, with limited facility in Coptic, than to an ancient one,” Watson wrote in his article.
Other Coptic experts have raised questions about the unusual handwriting and grammatical mistakes in the text, according to Janet A. Timbie, an expert in Coptic language and literature at the Catholic University of America. All of which points to the likelihood that the text itself was fabricated sometime in the 20th or 21st century, she said.
“Getting a piece of old papyrus and writing on it is easy,” Timbie said. “And without further analysis, it is difficult to evaluate the document.”
Though King said the papyrus itself was thoroughly vetted and authenticated by outside experts, the ink has not yet been tested. She previously said she plans to publish her findings in a paper in January, after the ink of the text is authenticated. King did not respond to requests for comment for this article. The owner of the fragment has chosen to remain anonymous.
“Dr. King’s ‘marriage fragment’ paper, which Harvard Theological Review is planning to publish in its January, 2013, edition—if testing of the ink and other aspects of the fragment are completed in time—will include her responses to the vigorous and appropriate academic debate engendered by discovery of the fragment, as well as her report on the ink analysis, and further examination of the fragment,” a statement released by the Divinity School said Wednesday.
If authentic, scholars say the fragment could reignite a debate in the Church over the role of women and married men in the priesthood. The text later reads, “She will be able to be my disciple.” Church canon has long justified its policies by stating that Jesus was unmarried.
—Staff writer Nicholas P. Fandos can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.