CAMBRIDGE — A Harvard professor has identified what appears to be a scrap of fourth-century Egyptian papyrus containing the first-known explicit reference to Jesus as married, a discovery that could stoke millennia-old debates about marriage and sexuality in the Christian church.
The fragment, which has been preliminarily authenticated but must undergo further testing, also portrays Jesus as referring to a woman as his disciple.
The text is not evidence that Jesus was married, said Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, who presented her discovery at a gathering of Coptic scholars in Rome Tuesday. But she said it may cast light on the formation of Christian views of celibacy and whether women were in Jesus’ inner circle
“It’s going to lead people to delve much more into the early historical evidence and theological evidence, and ask, ‘Why did it come out the way it did?’ ” King said in a call with reporters from Rome.
Terrence C. Donilon, spokesman for the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, said in an e-mail Tuesday that the news “demonstrates that a scholarly discussion has been begun.”
“Maybe someday that will have a conclusion,” he wrote. “In the meantime, we are content to follow the millennial teaching of the church.”
The fragment is smaller than a business card, and appears to have been torn from a page of a codex, or primitive book, written in a southern Egyptian dialect. Its owner, who declines to be identified publicly, does not know where it was found.
The legible side contains just eight broken lines, scrawled in a crude Coptic hand.
The fourth says: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ .”
The next line reads: “She will be able to be my disciple.”
King theorizes that the fragment is actually a translation of a Greek text written two centuries earlier, meaning that it still would have been composed long after the Jesus’s death. The earliest and most reliable information about the historical Jesus is silent on his marital status, King said.
“It’s not saying we’ve got the smoking gun that Jesus is married,” she said.
But the fragment — which King provocatively calls “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” — does show that some early Christians believed Jesus was married, King said, probably to Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus who the gospels say was the first person to see him after his resurrection. The text refers to a Mary, who King said is probably Mary Magdalene.
And it contains echoes of other early Christian writings, suggesting to King that it may have been part of a debate about the spiritual importance of celibacy.
“The entire question about whether Jesus was married or not first arose only 150 years after Jesus died in the context of Christians discussing . . . whether Christians should marry or remain celibate,” she said. “And that’s interesting.”
The fragment appears to underscore the diversity of Christian ideas about Jesus’ life when the faith was still in its infancy, before the New Testament canon had been set and religious councils convened to resolve differences over beliefs.
“It helps to remind us that practically everything that later generations told about Jesus was put together and edited by somebody well after his death, and represents the view of Jesus that they were trying to get across,” said Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World and professor of ancient history at New York University, who helped King authenticate the papyrus.
“It’s not going to change history in a dramatic way,” he said, “but it does give us a much sharper view of one little corner of Christianity we couldn’t see into before.”
The notion that Jesus may have been married, considered heretical by the Catholic Church, has long captivated artists and conspiracy theorists. The success of Dan Brown’s 2003 international bestseller, “The Da Vinci Code,” which posits that the Catholic Church covered up the marriage and progeny of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, testifies to its potency in the popular imagination.
The news of the discovery spread swiftly as researchers gathered with King at the Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, across the street from the Vatican, for the International Association for Coptic Studies’ Coptic Conference.
Darrell Bock, a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, said he was intrigued, but cautious.
“Any historian would be interested in a text that comes from the fourth century and gives us another angle on what some people may have believed about Jesus,” he said. “But it’s tempered . . . because it’s a late text and it’s a small text and it’s not entirely clear what the text” says.
Aware of the incendiary nature of her finding and its potential for being dismissed as a forgery or distorted as evidence that Jesus was married, King has handled it a bit like academic dynamite.
Reporters for three publications — the Globe, the New York Times, and Harvard Magazine — were invited to a joint advance interview last week in King’s office, a book-lined nook with arched, leaded-glass windows on the top floor of Andover Hall.
Each publication agreed to wait to publish until King’s presentation.
King decided to publicize her discovery before completing testing on the composition of the fragment’s ink. Such testing, which she plans to finish before the scheduled publication of her article in the January issue of the Harvard Theological Review, would not definitively date the fragment but could ensure that the chemicals in the ink matched what scribes in southern Egypt used in the fourth century.
But because so many people involved in the authentication process have seen the fragment, King feared word could leak out about its existence in a way that sensationalized its meaning. A more controlled release, she surmised, might raise the level of discussion. Major discoveries are often brought forth at the Coptic Conference, which meets every four years, this year, by happenstance, in Rome.
Evidence of authenticity was strong enough to make her think it was time to invite other scholars to weigh in. In any case, she added, she stood to gain little if she was wrong.
“This is not a career maker,” said King, a tenured professor at Harvard. “If it’s a forgery, it’s a career breaker.”
Two of three anonymous scholars tapped by the Harvard Theological Review to review King’s 52-page paper cast doubt on the fragment’s authenticity. But both saw only low-resolution images and did not know King had already taken it to Bagnall. One of the reviewers also raised some questions about its grammar, but King said she and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic linguist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, addressed those.
“I have no competence at all to decide whether this fragment is authentic or not,” Shisha-Halevy said in a phone interview. But, he said, a couple of linguistic constructions pointed to by the reviewer “do not warrant considering this fragment a fake. Even if they are not usual . . . they are good Coptic.”
“Reflex to be suspicious”
It was a stranger’s e-mail that alerted King to the existence of the fragment. The man wanted to know whether the professor could help translate an ancient Coptic papyrus in his collection.
The man told King he had an inkling from a previous owner that it might say something about Jesus being married. When King looked at the photo he sent, the words leapt out at her immediately.
But was it authentic? Or a fraud?
“In this field, we keep having these things appear,” she said. “So I think it’s almost a reflex to be suspicious.”
King put it aside; she was busy with other projects. Last summer, the owner asked her a second time to take a look.
She stared at the photos again. This time, she spotted textual similarities to two other early Christian writings, the Gospels of Mary and Thomas.
She had to see the actual artifact. In December 2011, the man hand-delivered the papyrus to Harvard.
King needed as much information as possible about its origins, but the owner did not have much. He did not know, he said, where the fragment was found. All he had were a letter and a note to the former owner, an H.U. Laukamp, which suggested a German Egyptologist had seen the fragment and thought it might be the only example of a text in which Jesus mentions having a wife.
King sent photos of the papyrus to Bagnall, who showed it to a small group of papyrologists he meets with regularly.
“We put it up on the screen, and we all sort of said, ‘Eeew,’ ” said Bagnall, one of the world’s leading papyrologists. “We thought it was ugly. And it is ugly. The handwriting is not nice — thick, badly controlled strokes made by somebody who didn’t have a very good pen.”
Was it genuine? Bagnall, too, needed to see it.
In March 2012, King tucked the papyrus into her red leather bag along with her iPad and boarded a train to New York, where she and AnneMarie Luijendijk, a papyrologist and religion professor at Princeton University who contributed to King’s paper, met Bagnall at his office. They sat for several hours around a table, looking at the fragment under magnification and different kinds of light, noticing different details and talking through possible scenarios.
The fibrous, dual-layered material was clearly papyrus, an ancient Egyptian precursor to paper made of the pith of a plant that grew along the Nile. It seemed to be ancient; the pith, which makes the writing surface smooth, had worn off, along with the ink, on one side. They could see a spot where a tiny insect appeared to have nibbled.
Ancient papyrus is available for purchase on the antiquities market, however, so King and her colleagues had to figure out whether the ink was applied in ancient times or by a modern forger.
Infinitesimal details suggested it was genuine: Tiny fibers shredding from the sides of the paper contained almost invisible traces of ink from lost letters. Damage to fibers after they had been inscribed suggested the ink had been laid on the surface long ago.
The handwriting, workmanlike and laid on with a nubby pen, seemed to date to the fourth century. Its irregular, blocky script is more common in private letters and quite unusual for a literary text, Bagnall said. But it could also be the work of an unskilled scribe with a poor pen.
“The preponderance of evidence is clearly in favor of authenticity, both because it is so hard to imagine who could have faked it and how, but also because there is nothing inherently suspect about it,” Bagnall said. “You’ve got the physical object, the handwriting, the language, and the content. There’s not a single one of those that seems to me suspect.”
King said the owner of the papyrus wishes to remain anonymous because he does not want to be hounded by people who wish to buy the papyrus, which he has now offered to Harvard as part of a purchase of his collection of Greek, Coptic, and Arabic papyri. Harvard has not decided whether to pursue the offer.
When King and Luijendijk emerged from Bagnall’s office on that day in March, they headed toward the subway. King joked: “The fragment gets a cab.”
As they drove down Fifth Avenue, King paused.
“Let’s stop,” she recalled telling Luijendijk, “and just notice this moment.”
King had begun to believe she had stumbled across something extraordinary.
On her way back to Cambridge, she was a little more careful with her red leather bag.
Echoes of other writings
King’s next task was to determine what the papyrus said and what it meant. Because the text has no margins, each line is missing a beginning and ending. King used other ancient Christian texts as guides.
The context of the eight lines on the front side of the papyrus seemed to be a discussion Jesus was having with his disciples about the “the cost of discipleship,” or how becoming a Christian may affect family bonds, similar to passages in Matthew and Luke.
This, she said, was a preoccupation of Christians at a time when followers of Jesus risked persecution, King said.
“Becoming a Christian means joining a new family, and that may mean leaving your natal family behind,” she said.
The papyrus contains echoes of other writings about Jesus dated to the second century, including the Gospels of Mary, Thomas and, especially, Philip. Those texts also discuss discipleship and seem to hint that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
King said she and other scholars have argued previously that these references were metaphorical, meant to suggest that Jesus had a close spiritual bond with Mary Magdalene.
But the fragment’s explicit reference to Jesus’s wife suggests to King that the second century writers may not have been speaking figuratively.
Rather, King hypothesizes, they might have been arguing about Jesus’s marital status as part of a debate about whether one had to be celibate to be a good Christian.
None of this, King said, affects what scholars know about the marital status of the historical Jesus. The gospels of the New Testament, the best sources of information about his life, say nothing about that.
If Jesus did marry, King added, it is unlikely his wife would have been Mary of Magdala. Although she is portrayed in the gospels as a close follower, women during that period were almost always identified by their relationship to a man, and Mary Magdalene is always identified by her hometown.
But the issue may still be important to Christians today, in discussions, for example, about the Catholic priesthood. King said she believes some may “say this allows us to speak theologically about . . . marital sexuality in a more positive way.”
Luijendijk said the papyrus paints a fuller picture of the variety of beliefs among early Christians, illustrating that Orthodox Christianity did not proceed in a neat line from the birth of Jesus to the present day. And theological differences over marriage, asceticism, and sexuality had important implications that still resonate today.
“I expect that people will use this new text to bring up those questions again,” she said.