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A hotly debated piece of papyrus at Harvard that could help answer whether Jesus had a wife has been largely accepted as a forgery by the media and the woman who championed its cause.
But for that same woman, a professor who has spent the past four years studying the small scrap of papyrus, the frenzy has distracted from the broader issues.
Four years ago, a man named Walter Fritz approached Harvard Divinity professor Karen L. King with a scrap of papyrus containing a line written in Coptic that read, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife… she is able to be my disciple.’” King named the scrap the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” and publicly introduced it at a 2012 conference in Rome.
The discovery caused an immediate and international sensation, making the front page of various newspapers. However, while the discovery was widely covered, media outlets questioned the authenticity of the papyrus.
King defended the papyrus against allegations of forgery for years until The Atlantic published an investigative story in June questioning the papyrus’ provenance, or record of ownership.
In an interview with King, the first woman to hold the University’s oldest endowed professorship chair, she said reading The Atlantic article led her to relief. “Truth makes me calm,” she said.
“My first impulse was to say that the preponderance of evidence weighs towards it being authentic,” King said. “Now it weighs toward it being a modern production.”
At Harvard, the issue of the scrap’s authenticity is still up for debate. According to William P. Stoneman, curator of early books and manuscripts at Houghton Library, where the papyrus will be stored for 10 years for research, “the Harvard Library has not taken a position on its authenticity or meaning.”
The reason the fragment is “the most studied piece of papyrus in existence,” as King called it, relates to the implications many believe it has for Christian history.
“The public perception is that if the text is ancient, Jesus was married. If not, he wasn’t,” King said.
But, according to King, the issue is not that simple.
“The New Testament simply does not say whether Jesus was married or not,” she said. “It isn’t until the second century that you have the first evidence of somebody saying Jesus was not married. Those people were called heretics.”
King said the scroll, which indicates Jesus was married, has been contested because it opens up a dialogue on patriarchy, whether women could serve as disciples, priestly celibacy, and the value of virginity.
“It’s about the nature of sexuality and men having authority—only men can be disciples and followers of Jesus, be ordained, and provide leadership,” she said.
According to King, “the most significant development” resulting from the papyrus was the formation of the Ancient Ink Laboratory at Columbia University and that lab’s subsequent discovery of a nondestructive technique to date ancient inks.
Director of the Ancient Ink Laboratory Jim T. Yardley said the lab created a “totally unprecedented” method of dating manuscripts by analyzing tiny ink samples with a “scanning electron microscope.”
Typical radiocarbon dating involves cutting off an actual portion of the document and measuring the isotopic ratios of carbon atoms found in the carbon dioxide.
Both tests were performed on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” and conflicting results emerged.
“There’s a problem,” Yardley said. “The ink is from 200 AD, while the carbon 14 test says the document is from 700 AD. The age of the ink could be younger than the substrate, but it can’t be older.”
King said she regrets the story is “turning into a popular hot story of scandal,” and hopes the scrap will broaden dialogue of its pertinent topics.
“Focus on whether it’s a forgery or not is taking attention off the things that really matter, which are the issues about authority, women’s roles, sexuality, and everything attached to them,” she said.
—Staff writer Bonnie K. Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @bonniekbennett.
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