Jesus’ Wife Mentioned on Fourth-Century Papyrus Fragment

By: Elizabeth Lopatto, Bloomberg Email
By: Elizabeth Lopatto, Bloomberg Email

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 evidence of that belief, according to Karen King, a professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who presented the finding today 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 Bagnell, 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 ought to marry or remain always celibate, and the earliest claim Jesus didn’t marry is from 200 A.D., King said in the statement.

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.

Eight Lines

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.

Instead, it’s more likely that the fragment reflects the views of early Christians that depicted Jesus as married. The context of the fragment suggests that the topic being discussed were questions about family and discipleship.

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 likely blunt, as the handwriting is legible, if clumsy.

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