'Jesus's Wife' Parchment Continues to Ignite Controversy

Gospel of Jesus' Wife
Courtesy of Karen L. King

Professor Karen L. King is shown holding the fragment of ancient papyrus that contains four words suggesting that early Christians believed Jesus was married.

The Harvard Theological Review continues to hold off on publishing the long-awaited article on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a scrap of papyrus that if authenticated would provide evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.

The article was originally slated to be printed in the publication’s January 2013 edition, but was held as scientific testing of the controversial papyrus continued.

First announced at a September conference in Rome by Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King, the papyrus fragment contains a Coptic phrase that translates to “Jesus said to them, my wife...”

Since then, the Vatican and academics have denounced the artifact as a forgery, pointing to the grammatical similarities between the fragment and another ancient document, the gnostic Gospel of Thomas. These similarities, scholars argue, suggest that the papyrus was not written in the fourth century.

According to Kathryn Dodgson, director of communications at HDS, the publication is waiting to print King’s article while the papyrus undergoes scientific analysis.

Once she receives the results of that analysis, King will incorporate them into the article for the Harvard Theological Review, Dodgson wrote in an email.

Currently analysts are testing the ink on the fragment to confirm that it dates from the fourth century like the papyrus itself, which has already been tested.

King could not be reached for comment on this article.

Scholars said that even if the scientific analysis confirms the ink’s age, questions about the authenticity of the artifact may remain.

Gregory E. Sterling, dean of Yale Divinity School, said problems arise from the fact that little is known about the circumstances of the fragment’s discovery. Because the papyrus comes from the collections of an anonymous donor, rather than from an archaeological dig, authentication is more difficult, he said.

Other scholars pointed out similarities between King’s papyrus and the Gospel of Thomas.

“It really is unbelievably close to the Gospel of Thomas,” said Mark S. Goodacre, an associate professor at Duke University and an expert on early Christian texts. “We’re talking about literally every word, with a few gender changes.”

Janet A. Timbie, an expert in Coptic language and literature who teaches at the Catholic University of America, said that although the two texts are extremely similar, their resemblance does not necessarily disprove the fragment’s authenticity because “people often rework material in the ancient world.”

Even so, Timbie said she thought the text was likely faked.

Scholars and King agree that even if the academic community does eventually accept the authenticity of the fragment, because it comes from the fourth century the papyrus would not give definitive information about what Jesus did in his time.

“It would tell us something about the fourth century, but not about the first century,” said Sterling. “This just shows how people later thought about this.”

—Staff writer John P. Finnegan can be reached at johnfinnegan@college.harvard.edu.

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