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Tests prove Gospel of Jesus’ Wife authentic

Sept. 5, 2012, photo released by Harvard University shows the papyrus fragment.
Sept. 5, 2012, photo released by Harvard University shows the papyrus fragment.
Photo Karen L. King/Harvard University

The Harvard Theological Review announced Thursday, April, 10, 2014, a wide-range of tests deem the “Jesus’ Wife” papyrus is authentic and not a modern forgery. The fragment has been dated to between the sixth and ninth centuries CE, though they believe its contents might possibly date back as early as the second to fourth centuries CE.

Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the discovery of the papyrus in the fall of 2012 at the International Coptic Congress in Rome, and dubbed it "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife." The Hollis Professor of Divinity is Harvard University’s oldest endowed professorship (1721), and King is the first woman to hold this chair. King has stressed since the beginning, the fragment does not prove Jesus was married.

Nothing is known about the origin of the fragment, the owner told King he bought it and five other papyri in 1999 from a collector who said he acquired them in the 1960s in East Germany. It is thought to have come from Egypt since it is written in Coptic, a form of the Egyptian language used by Christians in the Roman imperial period. Professor King first received the fragment in December 2011 from the owner. She took the papyrus to New York to be examined by the director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University, Roger Bagnall. After the initial examination of the handwriting and other features, the fragment seemed to be ancient and deeper analysis began.

For two years, the papyrus and the carbon ink were extensively tested and analysis of the handwriting and grammar was done. No evidence was found that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery. According to King, the fragment dates to the time of early Christian debates over whether it was better for Christians to be celibate virgins or to marry and have children. This fragment addresses this issue of if becoming a Christian meant giving up one’s family to join a spiritual family.

King explained, “The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus, a topic that was debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued. This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what the role claims of Jesus's marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family.”

The dialogue on the tiny fragment, which measures only about one-and-a-half inches by three inches, is between Jesus and his disciples and focuses on family and discipleship. Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife, and a female disciple. The disciples express some concerns, though what they are is not mentioned. There is an indication of something or someone being rejected. The line goes on to question whether Mary is worthy. Jesus says, "She can be my disciple."

In an interview King said, “I’m basically hoping that we can move past the issue of forgery to questions about the significance of this fragment for the history of Christianity, for thinking about questions like, ‘Why does Jesus being married, or not, even matter? Why is it that people had such an incredible reaction to this?’ ”

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