21st September, 2012
Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, a Harvard University professor says.
Karen King, a professor of divinity at the university, told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies on September 18 in Rome that she is awaiting further test results to help confirm the object’s authenticity.
The four words on the fragment translate to, “Jesus said to them, my wife.” The words, written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, are on a papyrus fragment of about 1½ by three inches.
“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said. “This new gospel doesn’t prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’s marital status to support their positions.”
Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, said he believes the fragment to be authentic based on examination of the papyrus and the handwriting, and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, considers it likely to be authentic on the basis of language and grammar, King said.
Final judgment on the fragment, King said, depends on further examination by colleagues and further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink.
One side of the fragment contains eight incomplete lines of handwriting, while the other side is badly damaged and the ink so faded that only three words and a few individual letters are still visible, even with infrared photography and computer photo enhancement. Despite its tiny size and poor condition, King said, the fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians.
King and colleague AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, believe that the fragment is part of a newly discovered gospel. Their analysis of the fragment is scheduled for publication in the January 2013 issue of Harvard Theological Review.
King has posted a draft of the paper, an extensive question-and-answer on the fragment and its meaning, and images of it, on a page on the Divinity School website.
The brownish-yellow, tattered fragment belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted King to help translate and analyze it, King said. The collector provided King with a letter from the early 1980s indicating that Professor Gerhard Fecht from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus.
King said that when the owner first contacted her about the papyrus, in 2010, “I didn’t believe it was authentic and told him I wasn’t interested.” But the owner was persistent, so in December 2011, King invited him to bring it to her at Harvard. After examining it, in March 2012 King carried the fragment to New York and, together with Luijendijk, took it to Bagnall to be authenticated. When Bagnall’s examination of the handwriting, ways that the ink had penetrated and interacted with the papyrus, and other factors, confirmed its likely authenticity, work on the analysis and interpretation of the fragment began in earnest, King said.
Little is known about the discovery of the fragment, but it is thought to have come from Egypt because it is written in Coptic, the form of the Egyptian language used by Christians there during the Roman imperial period. Luijendijk suggested that “a fragment this damaged probably came from an ancient garbage heap like all of the earliest scraps of the New Testament.” Since there is writing on both sides of the fragment, it clearly belongs to an ancient book, or codex, not a scroll, she said.
The gospel of which the fragment is but a small part, which King and Luijendijk have named the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife for reference purposes, was probably originally written in Greek, the two professors said, and only later translated into Coptic for use among congregations of Coptic-speaking Christians. King dated the time it was written to the second half of the second century because it shows close connections to other newly discovered gospels written at that time, especially the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip.
Like those gospels, it was probably ascribed to one or more of Jesus’s closest followers, but the actual author would have remained unknown even if more of it had survived. As it stands, the remaining piece is too small to tell us anything more about who may have composed, read, or circulated the new gospel, King said.
Courtesy of B.D. Colen/Harvard University and World Science staff
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