Papyrus fragment with reference to Jesus’ ‘wife’ stirs debate
By Carol Glatz
Catholic News Service
ROME (CNS) — Scholars are unlikely to agree anytime soon on the authenticity of a newly published text containing a reference to Jesus’ “wife.”
The fragment of papyrus with eight lines of Egyptian Coptic
writing is the “only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as
referring to a wife,” wrote Karen L. King, historian of Christianity
at Harvard Divinity School, in an academic paper she delivered Sept.
18 at an international Coptic studies conference in Rome.
“It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was
married,” she wrote, “given the late date of the fragment and the
probable date of original composition,” at the end of the second
The best source of evidence giving an account of Jesus’ life and
ministry is still the Gospels in the New Testament, King told reporters
the next day, “and they are silent about his marital status.”
But she said the fragment is “direct evidence” that
early Christians started debating in the second century whether Jesus
could have been married or not.
Rev. Juan Chapa, a New Testament scholar at the University
of Navarra in Spain, told Catholic News Service that the “Gospels don’t
mention marriage, not because they wanted to hide something, but because
it was clear that Jesus did not get married, and it’s consistent
in the church’s tradition.”
He also noted that the gnostic gospel genre to which the
fragment evidently belongs is one of stories about Jesus that mainly
take place after the resurrection, using language that is heavily allegorical.
Thus, he said, the fragment’s relevant words —”Jesus said to them, ‘My
wife’ ’’ — were likely not meant as a literal
assertion about the life of the historical Jesus.
King said that the significance of the fragment lies in the light it
might shed on debates in the early church over the necessity of celibacy
to living a holy life.
According to Michael Peppard, a professor of theology and Coptic language
at Fordham University, a belief in asceticism saw rapid development in
the second to fourth centuries, especially in Egypt where Christian monasticism
Some bishops at the time “were saying that the highest ideal was
asceticism,” which included renouncing “all the trappings
and worries of material life,” including marriage.
But Peppard said other bishops in the same period “were figuring
out how to give everyone their space,” and letting it be known
it was all right for Christians to live in the world.
The new text published by King may be a sign of early Christians “pushing
back” against asceticism and moving closer to mainstream Jewish
attitudes “of blessing sex and procreation,” Peppard said.
Catholic teaching, Chapa said, holds that “Jesus’ celibacy,
by differentiating him from other rabbis, underlines his unique mission
to fulfil the kingdom of God, and shows how he embodied the love of God” by
renouncing conjugal love.
King said the reference to Jesus’ wife could just
be a symbol of the church, akin to the Gospel allegory of Jesus as bridegroom
of the church.
“What if what’s missing is saying, ‘My wife is the church?’ ’’ King
ANCIENT PAPYRUS — A previously unknown scrap of ancient papyrus written in ancient Coptic is pictured in this undated handout photo. The fourth-century text provides the first known piece of evidence that some early followers of Jesus proposed that he was married. CNS/King
The “wife” in question could be a “spiritual wife,” Peppard
said. Other texts from the same period uphold “the image of an
unconsummated spiritual marriage where the best kind of husband and wife
live celibately,” he said.
King acknowledged that there would be continued debate over the authenticity
of the fragment, whose paper trail goes back only to the 1980s.
“I would say it’s a forgery,” Alin Suciu, a papyrologist
at the University of Hamburg who was attending the conference with King, told
the Associated Press. “The script doesn’t look authentic” compared
to other fourth-century Coptic papyri.
But Roger Bagnall, a papyrologist and director of the Institute for the
Study of the Ancient World at New York University, studied the handwriting,
the grammar and how the ink was absorbed by the plant fibres, and concluded
it was likely to date from the period between AD 350 and 400.
“We can’t ever know or be 100 per cent sure if it’s authentic
or a forgery,” Peppard said.
King said any properly accredited scholar in the world is welcome to
study the papyrus, and that criticism of her findings is part and parcel
of any historical study.
“We want to do the best job we can with new historical data,” she
Copyright (c) 2012 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops