Ancient papyrus mentions Jesus's wife

Tuesday , September 18, 2012 - 5:14 PM

US Scholar Jesus Wife

This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows a fourth century fragment of papyrus...

Elizabeth Lopatto

A scrap of papyrus dated to the fourth century has written on it in the ancient Coptic language, "Jesus said to them, my wife," reopening the debate about whether Jesus was married, as some early Christians believed.

The words on the honey-colored fragment are the first to show Jesus referring to a wife, according to Karen King, a professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who presented the finding Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome. The writing in black ink is in the language of Egyptian Christians on a fragment of about 1.5 by 3 inches (4 by 8 centimeters).

The fragment likely is authentic, based on the papyrus and handwriting, Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York said in a statement from Harvard. Early Christians didn’t agree about whether they should marry or remain celibate, and the earliest claim Jesus didn’t marry is from A.D. 200, King said.

"One of the things we do know is that very rarely in ancient literature was the marital status of men discussed," King said in a conference call with reporters. "Silence in marital status is normal."

Women were identified only in terms of family relationships, as someone’s sister, mother, or wife, King said. The question of whether Jesus married came up later when people wanted to use him as a model for their lives, she said.

Though the Christian religion is sometimes referred to as Jesus’ bride in scriptural interpretation, the other words around "my wife," including references to his mother and someone named Mary, suggest he is talking about family. It isn’t clear in the fragment whether Mary refers to his mother or his wife, King said.

King declined to name the owner of the papyrus fragment in the Harvard statement. The fragment belonged to a scripture dubbed "Gospel of Jesus’s Wife" by King for reference, and was probably originally written in Greek and translated into Coptic for the local Christians.

One side of the papyrus has eight lines of writing, and the other is damaged, with only three words and a few letters visible even with computer enhancement. The fragment’s poor condition suggests it was found in a garbage heap, according to another religion professor, AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University in New Jersey. Fragments are also found in burial sites, though those papyri usually are in better condition.

In the draft of their paper, King and Luijendijk say that the fragment doesn’t provide evidence that Jesus was married, since it was probably originally composed in "in the second half of the second century." Nor is there any evidence that if Jesus was married, it was to Mary Magdalene, according to the paper.

"I do not think Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene," King said. "Whether or not he was married, I don’t know."

The owner of the papyrus contacted King by e-mail, asking her to translate the fragment; when she agreed, the owner delivered the papyrus by hand to Harvard Divinity School in December 2011. An analysis showed the pen used by the ancient scribe was probably blunt, as the handwriting is legible, if clumsy.

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