(RNS) A year and a half after unveiling a slip of papyrus that she dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” Harvard Bible scholar Karen King on Thursday (April 10) released the results of long-delayed testing on the controversial fragment that appear to show it is not a modern forgery.

Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University holds a previously unknown ancient papyrus fragment from Egypt that has four words written in Coptic that provide the first unequivocal evidence that within 150 years of his death, some followers of Jesus, believed him to have been married. Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, holds an ancient papyrus fragment known as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” Photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

But a host of questions remain, with some experts still wondering whether it is a fake and others questioning the value of the tests. Still others are asking whether the “gospel” and its suggestion that Jesus could have had a flesh-and-blood wife have any bearing on Christian doctrine.

King said she feels vindicated because the tests show the fragment, which is about the size of a business card, and the writing on it are ancient and therefore authentic.

“I’m hoping now that we can turn away from the question of forgery and talk much, much more about the historical significance of the fragment and precisely how it fit into the history of Christianity and questions about family and marriage and sexuality and Jesus,” King told reporters.

Those theological questions have indeed stirred controversy since King presented the fragment at a conference in Rome in September 2012, and continued to do so in the wake of this latest announcement.

“Nearly every scholar believes that Jesus was unmarried. So do I,” the Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and author of a new book on Jesus, wrote on the website of America magazine, a Catholic weekly. “My faith,” Martin added, “does not rest on his being unmarried — but my reason tells me that he was.”

Martin listed some of the reasons Jesus was likely not married — one, it would be odd for the accounts of his life not to mention a wife if he had one, and the newly discovered papyrus was written centuries after the original Gospels.

The fragment consists of just eight lines and 33 words of an interrupted conversation likely snipped from a larger papyrus.

The fragment of papyrus that offers fresh evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.  Photo courtesy Karen L. King

The fragment of papyrus that offers fresh evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married. Photo courtesy of Karen L. King


This image is available for Web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

At two points Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife and a female disciple, one of whom may be identified as “Mary,” though it’s not clear if she would be Mary Magdalene, as some speculate, or another Mary. When the disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, Jesus states that “she can be my disciple,” an intriguing statement that might challenge Catholic doctrine about women as priests.

King has stressed that the fragment does not prove that Jesus was married, and she says the text is not in fact focused on that issue.

“The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus — a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” King explained.

But beyond the debates over faith and history, the latest news about the papyrus continued to prompt questions about its validity. Not everyone was satisfied with the answers.

“The papyrus fragment seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch,” Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University, writes in a blistering rebuttal to King. His analysis is in one of a series of articles on the papyrus published in the new edition of the Harvard Theological Review.

Depuydt also continues to maintain that the Coptic language used in the papyrus contains “a couple of fatal grammatical blunders” that render it “patently fake.”

Critics also say the fragment violates the “too good to be true” rule of biblical archaeology: that if a relic emerges that seems to address exactly the concerns of a modern audience — such as sex and women in Christianity — then skepticism is warranted.

They point to other outstanding issues as well:

  • The testing indicates that the papyrus could be as recent as 859, which is 400 years later than King first thought and much later than the accounts from the New Testament;
  • Tests on the composition of the ink showed that it was of a type used between 400 B.C. and as late as A.D. 800, a very wide window;
  • While the ink appears to be of a type and pattern used by ancient writers, the ink itself could not be tested without destroying the papyrus;
  • The language Jesus uses about a wife could be metaphorical and may indicate he was referring to the church as his bride, not a real woman.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, King acknowledged those criticisms but said they did not affect the validity or import of the fragment.

She said the later dating did not matter too much because she has always believed the writing was copied from a much earlier document, probably from the second or third century. She said an analysis of the writing showed it falls in the range of the papyrus itself, and she said there are other examples of similar grammatical errors in other ancient writings.

“There’s a limited amount of takeaway you can do from something that small,” she said.

King also acknowledged that the uncertain sourcing of the document was unfortunate but could not be helped. The owner of the fragment remains anonymous; he only told her that he bought it and five other papyri in 1999 from a collector who said he acquired them in what was then communist East Germany in 1963.

King said Thursday that Harvard Divinity School has the papyrus and that over the weekend the owner — who will not reveal his identity — wrote her an email proposing that it remain there on permanent loan. Harvard is considering the idea, she said.

King originally unveiled the papyrus at a scholarly conference in Rome, the Vatican’s backyard, as it were, and by dubbing it the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” she practically guaranteed the kind of viral coverage that the discovery received.

But she said she was still surprised at the public fascination with the topic and did not account for how quickly the media “wave” would run with the story before all the testing and deliberation could take place. Her original research article on the fragment was put on hold, as was a Smithsonian Channel documentary, which will now air with updated information.

“My intent from the beginning was to do this in a responsible way,” King said. But, she continued, “I’m not sure it” — the controversy — “could have been avoided, actually.”

YS/MG END GIBSON

21 Comments

  1. ““The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus”

    I do not understand this. Of course women can be and are disciples of Jesus. We all are disciples of Jesus — duh!

    So, what exactly is King getting at here?

    • “Of course women can be and are disciples of Jesus. We all are disciples of Jesus — duh!
      So, what exactly is King getting at here?”
      – Just what he said. Of course, we all know *now* what you affirm. In ancient times, however, many people did not know, or not surely, because of the widespread low opinion of women. Writings like this may have helped spread the gospel message you proclaim.

  2. Of course, said document is a fake, not only considering its date very long after the death of Jesus in 33 C.E., but also considering what the entire Word of God, the Holy Bible, has to say about Jesus and his life. Jesus had a prehuman existence with his Father, Almighty God (Colossians 1:13-16; Proverbs 8:22-31), and became a human to give his life as a perfect ransom sacrifice for imperfect mankind to obtain everlasting life (John 3:16). Not only was this God’s purpose for Jesus, his Son, but also Jesus’primarily focused on preaching the “good news of God’s kingdom” or heavenly government (Matthew 9:35) as the only hope to rule over mankind (Daniel 2:44). Besides that, Jesus is a mediator between imperfect men and God (1 Tim. 2:5) and Jesus is also King of God’s kingdom (1 Corinthians 15:25), which will soon bring great blessings to meek mankind (Psalms 37:10,11; Isaiah 11:1-9; Revelation 21:1-4). It is very evident from Holy Scriptures that God’s purpose for Jesus was not for him to get married and have a family; that is a common purpose for mankind in general. God’s most important goal, through the life and death of his son, Jesus, was the eternal salvation of humans on earth, along with the destruction of all evil elements, and Jesus lovingly did his Father’s will in all respects, all done because of their intense love for us.

  3. Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I’m puzzled. Are the standards of authenticity in the archaeological academic world so much lower than that of the academic art world?
    As I recall art works of unknown provenance are automatically considered suspect. But, apparently, because the topic of the paper fits so nicely with today’s hotly debated topics it gets reported on with breathless wonder and treated in the media as some sort of startling revelation
    But as Marie rightfully wrote–women and all Christians are disciples–Duh.
    However it gives chance for questioning or attacking the Catholic-Orthodox ancient Tradition of an all male fatherly priesthood in our sexually confused
    modern culture.

      • If the comments on this story are any indication, the answer appears to be no.

        You have Fran screeching that it has to be a fake because her interpretation of the Bible tells her so. Never mind that the Bible she cites to is a work which was specifically edited down to its current form. One which erased an oral tradition which existed in early Christianity.

        You have Deacon John just casting aspersions and innuendo for its own sake.

        IMO, given the date between 400 to 800 AD, my guess is it is from some long forgotten sect or offshoot of Christianity. You are talking about a period when churches were just getting organized and centralizing Christian dogma. Splinter groups, unorthodox versions of the faith would have the lifespan of a mayfly.

  4. My comment is this and that Jesus was a popular name back then and since it does not stated as Jesus the Christ it could be almost anyone. We are always trying to find ways to look at Jesus the Christ as a man and we push aside His deity. It was his deity that renewed our relationship through His sacrifice on the cross.

  5. If we require “originals” to certify authenticity, then 100% of the Bible is suspect. There are no existing “original” gospels, no letters of Paul or Peter or James, no Psalms, no prophecies of Isaiah or Micah. Unlike art, ancient writings rely on the examination and comparison of copies to determine authenticity. For Scripture, it also relies on the movement of God’s Spirit in those who read and meditate on them.

    What I don’t get is the super-defensive stands taken by “traditionalists.” There seems to be a lot of reading-into the discovery of this fragment that somehow it will cause the downfall of millennia of doctrine and faith tradition. But it’s just been discovered – what it really means and those implications are yet to be discerned. This irrational fear of anything “new” is most un-Christ-like. His most common admonition in the Gospels is “Do not be afraid”!

  6. Robert Landbeck

    It seems wholly logical to me that Jesus should have a wife. If the ‘ Fall’ of humanity happened within a covenant of marriage, one might conclude that our ‘restoration’ to grace would obversely be found again within some insight into the nature of human spiritual union. Jesus would hardly be credible or able to teach such an insight as a celibate man. http://www.energon.org.uk

  7. Regarding Marie’s comment: I think the argument (in the Middle Ages and now) for having an all-male priesthood rests on the idea that all of Jesus “official” disciples in the four canonical gospels were male. If you could say this was not true, based on another verified source from the time, you’d have more ammo to argue women could be priests. So this fragment could be a bombshell.

  8. Mary A believer

    My faith in Jesus would not be any less if it were to be proven he was married.I feel it would increase my beliefs knowing God our father truly wanted his only begotten son to live his short life on earth as a child and then a man who had the true human experience of being a son and a husband. Jesus was born a jew and most young Jewish males married, what is it so hard to imagine a prophet living a life that was common at the time he lived. Does it make one holier or more believable to be celibate.

    • Mary, it is hard to imagine Jesus having a wife, because most talk about him having a wife after his supposed resurrection and ascension to heaven. Him having a wife leads to suspicion about his deity, and resurrection. And it almost undoubtedly goes against the teachings in the bible, having never mentioned anything about a wife of Jesus. If he did have a wife, he married after the age of 33 and settled down to have a rather normal human existence after his religious adventures ended.

  9. Jesus Married?
    Some have suggested the possibility that Jesus of Nazareth was married. The following Scripture will examine that possibility.

    Luke 1:1-4, John 20:30-31, 21:24-25
    These references indicate clearly that there were many other teachings, experiences, miracles, and writings that were left out of the final gospels accounts because there were too many of them and they were repetitions of eyewitnesses accounts that were already included in the four apostolic authorized gospels.

    John 2:1-12
    Jesus was from the small town of Nazareth. Cana was a small town about 8 miles north. Jesus and his family and his disciples were invited guests. The bride and groom were unknown and had no contact with Jesus, his family, nor his disciples. Jesus has no wife, and took no wife with him when he left the small town.

    John 19:25-27
    During Jesus’ final hour on the cross, several people were with him, one man and a few women, including his mother, Mary, and Mary Magdelene. Jesus gave care of his mother to John the Beloved. Jesus did not give care of Mary Magdelene to John the Beloved. If Jesus was married, he would have given care of his wife to John the Beloved as well. Jesus was not married.

    Acts 1:9-15
    The resurrected Jesus appeared many times to many people over 40 days. After his resurrection appearances, Jesus ascended into heaven where he remains until his return to earth at his Second Coming. The is no mention of anyone as significant as his wife or children.

    Matthew 8:14-17; Mark 1:29-34; Luke 4:38-41; 1 Corinthians 9:5
    Apostle Peter’s wife is mentioned and he takes her on his missions as Apostle Paul noted.
    If Jesus had a wife, she would have been mentioned by both Apostles Peter and Paul. Jesus was never married, nor did he have any children.

    Jesus had blood brothers and sisters who did not believe him. Jesus’ mother, Mary, believed in him. Jesus’ disciples believed in him. Many people in the crowds did not believe in him, some hated him. Among an extremely diverse group of people, if Jesus was married (even secretly), someone would have mentioned this.

    Jesus on Nazareth was never married, nor did he have any children, nor did he ever make any reference to a wife, a girlfriend, or any children.

    • Using modern biblical texts to prove a point here is rather silly. You are citing a text which already has the edits and omissions built into it over the centuries.

      There were many works which did not make it into the Bible for one reason or another and a wealth of oral history which was dropped in favor of creating a central dogma.

      There is nothing to say the “Jesus Wife” writing came from a source which was never included into the official Post Nicaea New Testament or was from offshoot of Christianity which was erased by the passage of time.

    • If you believe in the Bible to a 100 percent literal degree, you are correct. However, there is also the possibility that Jesus was a man, didn’t die on the cross, or ascend to heaven, and had a wife after his religious endeavors were over.

  10. Let us say this is authentic and from the 3rd or 4th cenzury, and let us say this actually speaks of Jesus’ wife. So what? There were crazy Gnostic sects even in the 2nd Century that had heretical imaginations and teachings refuted by both the Scriptures and the early church!

  11. Jesus Christ didn’t achnowlege Mary the woman whose womb He came out of as any more special than any other person on earth. This is proven to us in Mathew 12:47-50 Then one said unto Him, ‘Behold, Thy mother and Thy brother stand without, desiring to speak with Thee. ‘. But He answered and said unto him that told Him, ” Who is My mother? And who are My brethren? “. And He stretched forth His hand toward His disciples, and said, ” Behold My mother and My brethren! For whosoever shall do the Will of My FATHER in Heaven is My brother, and sister, and mother. “. In no way does He acknowledge anyone as special to Him at all, except His FATHER in Heaven, and those who prove to do His FATHERS Will! And no mention of a wife is given at all here or anywhere else in The Bible. King acknowledges herself that this piece of manuscript was probably a copy of an earlier text. But how could she possibly think or believe this since no mention of an earlier text this could be copied from is given?

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