A new report claiming to support the authenticity of a papyrus fragment that quotes Jesus as saying the surprising words “my wife” set off new debate Thursday over what can be definitively known about Jesus and how early Christians saw matters of gender and sex.
Two years ago, Harvard Divinity School historian Karen King announced the discovery of the fragment. In the meantime, experts on subjects ranging from ancient script to carbon ink to early Christianity have discussed whether it could be a modern forgery and, if not, what significance its words might have.
On Thursday, the Harvard Theological Review’s April edition included several articles on the document’s composition, saying it probably dated from between the sixth and ninth centuries and might be even older.
King said authenticating what she calls “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” doesn’t prove that Jesus was married but sheds light on early Christians’ discussions about whether “the ideal mode of Christian” life was a celibate one, King wrote in the Review.
It’s not known who wrote the fragment, which is in Coptic, but in it Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife and a female disciple called “Mary,” King wrote. “The main point of the [fragment] is simply to affirm that women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples,” King wrote.
Experts on ancient and contemporary Christianity saw the conversational value in the fragment, even if they disagreed on its historical import.
Hal Taussig — a New Testament professor who worked with King on the fragment and has written about other ancient Christian writings found in recent decades — said the words on the fragment are “breathtaking” and support the idea that Mary Magdalene “was a major leader in the early Jesus movement.”
Taussig said he believes the document is ancient and ostensibly as important as documents that make up the accepted New Testament.
“Everything we have is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. We have no original documents,” he said Thursday. “What you have are traditions of writing.”
Taussig said that even considering a non-celibate Jesus would be a “huge shift” for some. “This is where people will take the most offense,” he said. “But for many married people, this might make Jesus feel closer.”
The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit who last month came out with a travelogue based on Jesus’s life, said there is a lot of evidence that Jesus was single.
“It’s incredible that the four Gospel writers wouldn’t have mentioned Jesus’s wife if he had one. They mentioned everyone else in his family,” Martin said. “There are Gospels that talk about Jesus turning stones into birds. ... There is a natural desire to know as much as we can about Jesus.’’
Martin added: “But funnily enough, people who are quick to accept the veracity of this” appear to be liberal Christians who question the veracity of other biblical accounts, including that of the Resurrection, Martin said.
The Harvard Review included an article by a Brown University Egyptologist, Leo Depuydt, who said the document looked fraudulent and “hilarious.” He said he had never seen ancient Coptic manuscripts with boldface letters before.
“The effect is something like: ‘My wife. Get it? MY wife. You heard that right.’ The papyrus fragment seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch,” he wrote.