A researcher at Harvard University has translated a 4th Century piece of papyrus that makes a reference to a conversation where Jesus describes a woman as “my wife.” The release of the translation has led to heated international debates on the authenticity of the fragment, the veracity of the claims there in, and what theological ramifications there may be.
Before fans of Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code” start claiming proof for the book, the researcher in charge of the translation said, “This fragment, this new piece of papyrus evidence, does not prove that (Jesus) was married, nor does it prove that he was not married. The earliest reliable historical tradition is completely silent on that. So we’re in the same position we were before it was found. We don’t know if he was married or not,” in a conference call with reporters. She also noted that the way the word “wife” was used may have had a different connotation than what we would assume in modern times.
An anonymous dealer brought the papyrus fragment to Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School so she could help with translation and analysis back in 2011. According to a New York Times report, the dealer hoped to get Harvard to buy the fragment if they were to buy a larger portion of his collection of Coptic fragments. Early fragments of Coptic Christian literature are relatively common; Professor King presented her translation notes at a conference on Coptic texts that is held every four years in Rome.
As Elaine Pagels from Princeton University noted in an interview with CNN, “You can find boxes filled with Coptic fragments.” But what makes this one significant is for the first time, it explicitly has Jesus referring to “my wife.”
International scholars have examined the documents and have found no evidence of forgery. A professor of linguistics at Hebrew University who is a leading expert in the Coptic language verified the text. The papyrus itself was examined by two institutes in America that confirmed the material and ink used were consistent with the documents purported age.
Despite the headlines, the translation doesn’t prove that Jesus was married. The fragment is a fourth-century translation of a second-century Greek text. Centuries old translations of events recorded centuries after they were supposed to have taken place hardly count as a first-hand account. But what King notes is that the document shows that the early Christians were talking about the subject. It suggests that discussions on the role of women in the church, the merits of celibacy, and other issues were just as poignant to the early foundation of the Christian faith.
“Let’s not neglect the fact this was written 300 years after Jesus’ death,” Hellen Mardaga, an assistant professor of New Testament at the Catholic University of America, told CNN. Mardaga says “the text may be real and not a forgery, but that doesn’t mean it belongs in with the Gospels.”
It is unlikely that the news will lead to any changes in mainstream Christianity. Even if the fragment were part of an unknown bible book, it would be a part of the Coptic Christian canon, which isn’t accepted as divine by most Catholic and Protestant scholars.
Biblical scholar Roland Meynet of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome advised caution with discoveries like these recalling previous frauds. He stated that even if the new papyrus “were proved true, it would mean that there is a new apocryphal text from that time, as there are many. It won’t reopen the debate and, anyway, we must wait for verification and be very cautious until we know the origin of the fragment.”
The discovery is not without its distractors as well, which is to be expected due to the controversial nature of the find and the limited amount of text it is based on. Two of the attendees of the conference where the translation was announced doubted the fragment’s authenticity.
“There’s something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow,” said Stephen Emmel, who reviewed the “The Gospel of Judas”, in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.
Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, bluntly stated, “I would say it’s a forgery. The script doesn’t look authentic.”
Was Jesus Married?
A papyrus fragment offers intriguing language about Jesus. Was Jesus married?
Jesus said to them, my wife
Four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, Harvard Professor Karen King told the 10th International Congress of Coptic Studies, September 18, 2012.