A fragment of papyrus suggesting some early Christians believed Jesus was married made an international media splash last week, but the Harvard University professor who unveiled it is now facing questions about its authenticity.
At a conference for Coptic scholars in Rome on Tuesday, Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King produced a 1.5-by-3-inch fragment containing eight lines of script. Part of the Coptic fragment translates as, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” It also says, “She can be my disciple.”
King said the fragment is the only ancient text in which Jesus refers to a wife. It doesn’t prove that he was married, she added, but it speaks to how early Christians addressed issues of family and marriage.
She titled her article on the fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife?” In hours, headlines like “Ancient papyrus fragment refers to Jesus’ ‘wife’” circled the globe.
Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried. "From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry," King said, "but it was over a century after Jesus' death before they began appealing to Jesus' marital status to support their positions.”
According to King, evidence that Jesus was married, or that he had a female disciple, would fuel debate over the role of women in the church.
Some Coptic scholars have already examined the document and raised red flags about its grammar, form, and content. Harvard also has declined to name the fragment’s owner, raising questions about its provenance. Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany, flatly called it a "forgery." Other scholars believe it may be authentic.
Daniel B. Wallace, director of the Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts in Plano, Texas, said the writing “doesn’t look like any Coptic writing I’ve ever seen before.”
He added that “it’s too early to tell whether it is authentic or not. It’s very interesting, but we don’t have enough information yet.”
Even if the document is authentic and its writer was referring to Mary Magdalene, Wallace said, “All it tells us is some individuals in the fourth century believed that Jesus was married.”
“I really don’t think it’s significant at all,” said Richard Sorensen, a historian and author of Unholy Grail. He noted that the fragment comes from a secondary source written 200 to 300 years after Jesus lived, and was probably composed by a Gnostic or Arian author.
Aside from this fragment, there is little secondhand evidence of Jesus marrying, and no firsthand accounts. According to Sorensen, Jews were usually euphemistic about sex, but they certainly didn’t hide it. “If anything had happened, there would have been something written about it,” he said. “But there is nothing.”
Whether it’s The Da Vinci Code or a papyrus fragment, documents and theories challenging Jesus’ traditional character consistently draw attention.
“The truth, or fallacy, of Christianity hangs on this issue,” said Sorensen. “Some people don’t like Christianity, and they want to discredit it.”
“The document is presenting an unorthodox view of the faith,” Wallace added. “It gives the world a vindication for what they’ve been doing.”
Another problem: In the initial media releases, Harvard officials indicated that an article on the fragment was scheduled for an upcoming issue of the Harvard Theological Review, suggesting King’s research had been peer-reviewed. The journal’s editor said Friday that the review was still in process.