has so much paper been devoted to such a little scrap of papyrus — a
scrap that suggests some Christians thought Jesus was a married man.
the bottom line from more than 60 pages of studies focusing on a piece
of papyrus inscribed with a text quoting Jesus as referring to "my
wife": Months of lab tests show that document is not a modern-day
forgery, as skeptics had claimed. The papyrus and the ink go back at
least 1,100 years. But despite all that, some of the skeptics will never
The studies, published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review, represent the latest chapter in the years-long saga surrounding what Harvard theologian Karen King has dubbed the Gospel of Jesus' Wife. King brought the text into the global spotlight in September 2012,
at a symposium in Rome, but the publication of her analysis was held up
for more than a year when questions were raised about the text's
For King and other
scholars, the point is not to determine whether the historical Jesus was
actually married. That's an impossible task. Rather, scholars are
interested in how the various versions of the gospel story influenced
the lives of early Christians. Such issues could affect contemporary
debates as well: For example, if the early Christians saw nothing wrong
with married church leaders, why should we?
do hope that the very good work that scientists have done on this will
help turn the conversation away from the issue of forgery, and toward
the papyrus itself," King told NBC News.
fragmentary text, written in an Egyptian Coptic language, is
controversial not only because Jesus appears to refer to his wife, but
also because it discusses the worthiness of a woman named Mary for what
might have been a leadership role. Here are a couple of other intriguing
phrases: "she will be able to be my disciple" ... "I am with her," as
in "I dwell with her."
Science addresses the skepticism
papyrus fragment was purportedly acquired by an East German collector
in the 1960s, sold to its current owner in 1999, and made available to
King for study in 2011. The owner has remained anonymous, adding to the
mystery surrounding the scrap's origins.
including Vatican officials, insisted that the text was a modern-day
forgery because the phrases were ungrammatical and appeared to be
inexpertly cribbed from other apocryphal scriptures in circulation.
settle the argument, researchers subjected the business-card-sized
scrap of papyrus to radiocarbon tests and micro-Raman spectroscopy. One
of the carbon-dating tests indicated that the papyrus went back
somewhere between the year 659 and 869, with the most likely date around
741. Other tests showed that the chemical makeup of the ink was
consistent with inks that were used between the first and the eighth
radiocarbon dates are centuries later than King initially thought, but
they do suggest that the papyrus is authentic. In one of the papers
published Thursday, Macquarie University's Malcolm Choat, an expert on
ancient writing, said he saw no "smoking gun" suggesting that the Coptic
script was an elaborate forgery. However, he emphasized that he
couldn't prove it was genuine.
scriptural scholar at Brown University, Leo Depuydt, declared in a
different paper that he was still "100 percent convinced" the text was a
forgery. He said it was assembled from words and phrases taken from the
Gospel of Thomas. That gospel is part of the early church's Gnostic
tradition, which is not accepted as part of the canonical New Testament.
Women, marriage and the church
speculated that the forger "wanted to put his or her own spin on modern
theological issues," such as priestly celibacy and female priesthood.
issues aren't exclusively modern. King noted that the early Christians
argued over how they should adapt their lives to their newfound beliefs.
Some suggested that men and women should no longer marry or reproduce,
but try to remain celibate and wait for the end times. Others complained
that such teachings came from "hypocritical liars."
on both sides of the argument quoted scripture to support their case.
Gnostic scriptures in particular promoted the idea that Jesus had a
close companionship with Mary Magdalene — an idea that novelist Dan
Brown incorporated into the plot for "The Da Vinci Code."
Gnostic groups in the second, third and fourth centuries did think of
Mary as Jesus' companion. We just didn't have that word 'wife.'"
a religious scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte,
said it wouldn't be surprising if the Gospel of Jesus' Wife echoed other
Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip.
kinds of texts are notoriously repetitious," he told NBC News. "The
problem is, this gets sensationalized. What it proves is something we
already knew, that certain Gnostic groups in the second, third and
fourth centuries did think of Mary as Jesus' companion. We just didn't
have that word 'wife.'"
the papyrus itself goes back only as far as the eighth century or so,
King said it appears to reflect the "pro-reproductive" side of the early
Christian debate, going back to the second century. "The date of the
manuscript is not the date of composition," she noted.
the Gospel of Jesus' Wife was copied onto the papyrus in the eighth
century, it could have been in circulation among Egyptian Coptic
Christians just as Islam was on the rise in the region. Muslims would
have had no problem with a married Jesus. After all, even the Prophet
Muhammad was married with children.
Might there have been an interfaith dialogue over the issue? "How interesting that could potentially be," King said.