The centuries-old debate about whether or not Jesus Christ was married has resurfaced again recently, thanks to a small fragment of text sent to Harvard’s Hollis professor of divinity, Karen King.
Clearly written on the papyrus scrap are the words “Jesus said to them ‘My wife…'” with a reference to ‘Mary’, presumably Mary Magdalene. Another phrase, “she will be able to be my disciple” is also visible. Two lines later, translators have identified the words “I dwell with her.” In the text Jesus seems to be defending Mary, possibly from a male disciple.
Written in Coptic in the 4th century, the tiny fragment was made public in Rome yesterday, and the mystery surrounding it reads like something from a Dan Brown novel.
King was first contacted in 2010 by the fragment’s owner via email asking her to translate the text and to keep their identity secret. It was found amongst a bunch of papyrii, and had lain undiscovered for an unknown amount of time before being bought from a previous German collector.
King aquiesced, and presented her findings of what she has called “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” at a six-day international conference of Coptic scholars at La Sapienza university yesterday amidst 60 other papers. Only a small group of experts in Coptic linguistics and papyrology had previously given access to the fragment, and all were in agreement that it is most likely not a forgery although they are inviting further experts to help substantiate or refute the find.
Despite it is usual for the Vatican to cover such academic conferences, no mention of the discovery has been made in Vatican media to date.
The fragment is the size of a business card, with 33 words across 14 incomplete lines. It is the first piece of concrete evidence, the only surviving ancient text to suggest that Jesus was in fact married to Mary Magdalen. But Professor King warns that the fragment cannot be taken on face value, as it was probably first written in Greek a century after Christ’s crucifixion before it was copied two centuries later into Coptic, the language of the ancient Egyptian Christians.
In an interview for Smithsonian magazine King said, “The question the discovery raises is, why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? And all of the texts that showed he had an intimate relationship with Magdalene or is married didn’t survive? Is that 100 percent happenstance? Or is it because of the fact that celibacy becomes the ideal for Christianity?”
More information about “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment is available from the Harvard Divinity School website.