Scholar: Ancient Text Mentions Jesus’ Wife

An 4th century papyrus fragment could call centuries of celibacy into question.

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Karen L. King

On Tuesday, Harvard historian Karen L. King presented to the world a small papyrus fragment, which she calls The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. It could suggest Jesus was indeed married: “Jesus said to them, my wife … she will be able to be my disciple” reads a part of the fragment of a Coptic codex dating back to the fourth century A.D. ” This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife,” King, who is the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard’s Divinity School, wrote in a draft paper presented at a conference in Rome.

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“It’s not evidence for us historically that Jesus had a wife,” King stresses in a video posted on  YouTube. “It’s clear evidence that some Christians, probably in the second half of the second century, thought that Jesus had a wife.” The text is written in a dialect of the Coptic language, which today survives only in the liturgy of the Egyptian Coptic Christian church. The text should be considered part of the “vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage” among early Christians, as King was quoted as saying in a Harvard press release — debates that still persist nearly two millennia later. “Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married,” she said. “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise.”

The paper was presented at a scientific congress hosted in the Vatican’s Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum, an institution dedicated to the study of the founding fathers of the Catholic Church. The Holy See has not yet commented on the discovery, the Washington Post reported.  The issue is an important one to the Church: for at least a millennium, Catholic and Orthodox priests have taken vows of celibacy to conform with Jesus’ example of bachelorhood.

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King obtained the fragment from an anonymous collector, along with a note, written in the 1980s by a German professor of Egyptology, which suggested that the fragment contained a reference to Jesus’ wife. King said she was first hesitant in believing in its authenticity. But according to the school a papyrologist, a Princeton theologian and a Coptic language expert examined the fragment’s material, handwriting and syntax and could not find evidence of forgery.

An article on the fragment will be published in the Harvard Theological Review in January.

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