Boston-area Roman Catholics had mixed reactions Sunday to reports that a Harvard professor identified what appears to be a scrap of fourth-century Egyptian papyrus bearing the first known explicit reference to Jesus’ having been married.
Speaking to reporters after Masses in Boston and Newton, some parishioners scoffed at the idea that the man Christians regard as the Messiah had a wife, a notion considered heretical by the Roman Catholic Church, which allows only celibate men to be priests.
“I don’t believe it,” said Frank Kelley, 78, outside St. Vincent De Paul Church in South Boston. “I have seven children and 18 grandchildren, and none of them believe it.”
Karen McEachern of Dennis, who had also attended Mass at St. Vincent with her husband and grandson, was unsure what to make of the reports but drew a connection to priestly celibacy.
“I’m not sure [if Christ was married],” said McEachern, a South Boston native. “I wish he was, though. Finally, we could have priests marry.”
McEachern’s husband, Larry, said he was familiar with some unsubstantiated theories that Jesus had children, but reference to a wife was new to him.
“I hadn’t heard anything like [marriage], but nothing surprises me,” he said. “They’re always coming up with new theories.”
The Globe reported last week that Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, had identified the papyrus fragment, which has been preliminarily authenticated but must undergo further testing.
King stressed that the text, in which Jesus also mentions a woman who will be able to be his disciple, does not prove he was married. However, she said, it does show that some early Christians believed Jesus had a wife, probably Mary Magadalene.
King briefed the Globe, The New York Times, and Harvard Magazine on her research before she made a presentation Tuesday to a gathering of Coptic scholars in Rome. She theorizes that the fragment is a translation of a Greek text written during the second century, long after Christ’s death.
After the initial reports of King’s research, some scholars at the conference questioned the authenticity of the papyrus in interviews with the Associated Press, with one calling it a forgery.
Two of three anonymous scholars who reviewed King’s paper for the Harvard Theological Review also cast doubt on the fragment’s authenticity. Those experts, however, viewed only low-resolution images.
In Newton Sunday, Arline MacCormack, 84, who was at Our Lady Help of Christians Church , said the concept of a married Jesus contradicts what she learned as a Catholic.
“I really don’t believe [Jesus was married], probably because of my 84 years,” she said. “The history I’ve learned in the Catholic Church does not state it.”
MacCormack said she would not object to priests marrying if the pope allowed it
In Dorchester, some parishioners at St. Christopher’s Church on Mount Vernon Street said they were not familiar with the details about the discovery of the papyrus fragment, but they do not believe Scripture contains any evidence that Jesus had a wife.
“At least that’s not how we [were] brought up,” said Cindy Diaz, 33, of Dorchester. “You could go by the Bible and read it. Everything’s there.”
Justin Ogbonna, 34, said he has read nothing in the Bible that would cause him to wonder whether Jesus had married. “If I did, it would hold more weight for me,” he said.
But Thalia Vitikos, 57, of Waltham, had a different take at Our Lady Help of Christians in Newton.
She said she believes it is possible that Jesus married, because the gospels were written long after he died and much of his life is not documented.
“What if he loved a woman? I think it’s a beautiful thing,” said Vitikos, who normally attends Mass at St. Paul Church in Cambridge. “I wouldn’t have had a problem with it if he was gay.”