— Daniel Burke (@BurkeCNN) April 10, 2014
A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, “Jesus said to them, my wife” is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE. Its contents may originally have been composed as early as the second to fourth centuries.
The fragment does not in any way provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, as Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, has stressed since she announced the existence of the fragment in the fall of 2012. Rather, the fragment belongs to early Christian debates over whether it was better for Christians to be celibate virgins or to marry and have children. The fragment is weighing in on this issue, according to King.
“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 hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” King explained.
King first announced the existence of the fragment on September 18, 2012, at the International Coptic Congress in Rome, and dubbed it “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” The use of the word “gospel” makes no claim to canonical status. The title refers to the fragment’s most distinctive claim (that Jesus was married), and serves as a short-hand reference to the fragment.
Nothing is known about the discovery of the fragment—which measures only about one-and-a-half inches by three inches—but it is assumed to have come from Egypt because it is written in Coptic, the form of the Egyptian language used by Christians there starting in the Roman imperial period.
Twice in the tiny fragment, Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife, and a female disciple—one of whom may be identified as “Mary.” The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that “she can be my disciple.”
The real author of the fragment is not known and would likely remain unknown even if more of the text of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife had survived. This remaining piece is too small to know anything definite about who may have composed, read, or circulated it, except that they were Christians.
“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,” King said.
Like Professor King, I am excited about the theological implications of such discoveries.