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Ancient text said to suggest Christ was married

Sept. 18, 2012
Courtesy of B.D. Colen/Harvard University
and World Science staff

Four words on a pre­vi­ously un­known pa­py­rus frag­ment pro­vide the first ev­i­dence that some early Chris­tians be­lieved Je­sus had been mar­ried, a Har­vard Uni­vers­ity pro­fes­sor says.

Ka­ren King, a pro­fes­sor of di­vin­ity at the uni­ver­sity, told the 10th In­terna­t­ional Con­gress of Cop­tic Stud­ies on Sept. 18 in Rome that she is await­ing fur­ther test re­sults to help con­firm the ob­jec­t’s au­then­ti­city.

Papyrus frag­ment said to re­fer to the wife of Je­sus. (Cour­tesy Kar­en L. King)


The four words on the frag­ment trans­late to, “Je­sus said to them, my wife.” The words, writ­ten in Cop­tic, a lan­guage of an­cient Egyp­tian Chris­tians, are on a pa­py­rus frag­ment of about 1½ by three inches.

“Chris­tian tra­di­tion has long held that Je­sus was not mar­ried, even though no re­li­a­ble his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence ex­ists to sup­port that claim,” King said. “This new gos­pel does­n’t prove that Je­sus was mar­ried, but it tells us that the whole ques­tion only came up as part of vo­cif­er­ous de­bates about sex­u­al­ity and mar­riage. From the very be­gin­ning, Chris­tians dis­a­greed about wheth­er it was bet­ter not to mar­ry, but it was over a cen­tu­ry af­ter Je­sus’s death be­fore they be­gan ap­peal­ing to Je­sus’s mar­i­tal sta­tus to sup­port their po­si­tions.”

Rog­er Bag­nall, di­rec­tor of the In­sti­tute for the Study of the An­cient World in New York, said he be­lieves the frag­ment to be au­then­tic based on ex­amina­t­ion of the pa­py­rus and the hand­writ­ing, and Ar­i­el Shisha-Halevy, a Cop­tic ex­pert at He­brew Uni­vers­ity in Je­ru­sa­lem, con­sid­ers it likely to be au­then­tic on the ba­sis of lan­guage and gram­mar, King said. 

Fi­nal judg­ment on the frag­ment, King said, de­pends on fur­ther ex­amina­t­ion by col­leagues and fur­ther test­ing, es­pe­cially of the chem­i­cal com­po­si­tion of the ink.

One side of the frag­ment con­tains eight in­com­plete lines of hand­writ­ing, while the oth­er side is badly dam­aged and the ink so fad­ed that only three words and a few in­di­vid­ual let­ters are still vis­i­ble, even with in­fra­red pho­tog­ra­phy and com­put­er pho­to en­hance­ment. De­spite its ti­ny size and poor con­di­tion, King said, the frag­ment pro­vides tan­ta­liz­ing glimpses in­to is­sues about fam­i­ly, dis­ci­ple­ship, and mar­riage that con­cerned an­cient Chris­tians.

King and col­league Anne­Ma­rie Lui­jendijk, an as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor of re­li­gion at Prince­ton Uni­vers­ity, be­lieve that the frag­ment is part of a newly disco­vered gos­pel. Their anal­y­sis of the frag­ment is sched­uled for pub­lica­t­ion in the Jan­u­ary 2013 is­sue of Har­vard The­o­log­i­cal Re­view.

King has posted a draft of the pa­per, an ex­ten­sive ques­tion-and-answer on the frag­ment and its mean­ing, and im­ages of it, on a page on the Di­vin­ity School web­site.

The brownish-yellow, tat­tered frag­ment be­longs to an anon­y­mous pri­vate col­lec­tor who con­tacted King to help trans­late and an­a­lyze it, King said. The col­lec­tor pro­vided King with a let­ter from the early 1980s in­di­cat­ing that Pro­fes­sor Ger­hard Fecht from the fac­ul­ty of Egyp­tol­o­gy at the Free Uni­vers­ity in Ber­lin be­lieved it to be ev­i­dence for a pos­si­ble mar­riage of Je­sus.

King said that when the own­er first con­tacted her about the pa­py­rus, in 2010, “I did­n’t be­lieve it was au­then­tic and told him I was­n’t in­ter­est­ed.” But the own­er was per­sist­ent, so in De­cem­ber 2011, King in­vit­ed him to br­ing it to her at Har­vard. Af­ter ex­amining it, in March 2012 King car­ried the frag­ment to New York and, to­geth­er with Lui­jendijk, took it to Bag­nall to be au­then­ticated. When Bag­nall’s ex­amina­t­ion of the hand­writ­ing, ways that the ink had pen­e­trated and in­ter­acted with the pa­py­rus, and oth­er fac­tors, con­firmed its likely au­then­ti­city, work on the anal­y­sis and in­ter­preta­t­ion of the frag­ment be­gan in ear­nest, King said.

Lit­tle is known about the disco­very of the frag­ment, but it is thought to have come from Egypt be­cause it is writ­ten in Cop­tic, the form of the Egyp­tian lan­guage used by Chris­tians there dur­ing the Ro­man im­pe­ri­al pe­ri­od. Lui­jendijk sug­gested that “a frag­ment this dam­aged probably came from an an­cient gar­bage heap like all of the ear­li­est scraps of the New Tes­ta­men­t.” Since there is writ­ing on both sides of the frag­ment, it clearly be­longs to an an­cient book, or co­dex, not a scroll, she said.

The gos­pel of which the frag­ment is but a small part, which King and Lui­jendijk have named the Gos­pel of Je­sus’s Wife for ref­er­ence pur­poses, was probably orig­i­nally writ­ten in Greek, the two pro­fes­sors said, and only lat­er trans­lated in­to Cop­tic for use among con­grega­t­ions of Cop­tic-speaking Chris­tians. King dat­ed the time it was writ­ten to the sec­ond half of the sec­ond cen­tu­ry be­cause it shows close con­nec­tions to oth­er newly disco­vered gos­pels writ­ten at that time, es­pe­cially the Gos­pel of Thom­as, the Gos­pel of Mary, and the Gos­pel of Phil­ip.

Like those gos­pels, it was probably as­cribed to one or more of Je­sus’s clos­est fol­low­ers, but the ac­tu­al au­thor would have re­mained un­known even if more of it had sur­vived. As it stands, the re­main­ing piece is too small to tell us an­y­thing more about who may have com­posed, read, or cir­cu­lat­ed the new gos­pel, King said.


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Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, a Harvard University professor said. Karen King, a professor of divinity, told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies on Sept. 18 in Rome that she is awaiting further test results to help confirm the object’s authenticity. The four words on the fragment translate to, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” The words, written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, are on a papyrus fragment of about one and a half inches by three inches. “Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said. “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’s marital status to support their positions.” Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, said he believes the fragment to be authentic based on examination of the papyrus and the handwriting, and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, considers it likely to be authentic on the basis of language and grammar, King said. Final judgment on the fragment, King said, depends on further examination by colleagues and further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink. One side of the fragment contains eight incomplete lines of handwriting, while the other side is badly damaged and the ink so faded that only three words and a few individual letters are still visible, even with infrared photography and computer photo enhancement. Despite its tiny size and poor condition, King said, the fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians. King and colleague AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, believe that the fragment is part of a newly discovered gospel. Their analysis of the fragment is scheduled for publication in the January 2013 issue of Harvard Theological Review, a peer-reviewed journal. King has posted a draft of the paper, an extensive question-and-answer on the fragment and its meaning, and images of it, on a page on the Divinity School website. The brownish-yellow, tattered fragment belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted King to help translate and analyze it, King said. The collector provided King with a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus. King said that when the owner first contacted her about the papyrus, in 2010, “I didn’t believe it was authentic and told him I wasn’t interested.” But the owner was persistent, so in December 2011, King invited him to bring it to her at Harvard. After examining it, in March 2012 King carried the fragment to New York and, together with Luijendijk, took it to Bagnall to be authenticated. When Bagnall’s examination of the handwriting, ways that the ink had penetrated and interacted with the papyrus, and other factors, confirmed its likely authenticity, work on the analysis and interpretation of the fragment began in earnest, King said. Little is known about the discovery of the fragment, but it is believed to have come from Egypt because it is written in Coptic, the form of the Egyptian language used by Christians there during the Roman imperial period. Luijendijk suggested that “a fragment this damaged probably came from an ancient garbage heap like all of the earliest scraps of the New Testament.” Since there is writing on both sides of the fragment, it clearly belongs to an ancient book, or codex, not a scroll, she said. The gospel of which the fragment is but a small part, which King and Luijendijk have named the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife for reference purposes, was probably originally written in Greek, the two professors said, and only later translated into Coptic for use among congregations of Coptic-speaking Christians. King dated the time it was written to the second half of the second century because it shows close connections to other newly discovered gospels written at that time, especially the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip. Like those gospels, it was probably ascribed to one or more of Jesus’s closest followers, but the actual author would have remained unknown even if more of it had survived. As it stands, the remaining piece is too small to tell us anything more about who may have composed, read, or circulated the new gospel, King said.