Was Jesus Married? 'Gospel Of Jesus' Wife' Shows No Sign Of Forgery

By Ben Wolford on April 10, 2014 2:11 PM EDT

This papyrus fragment mentioning Jesus' wife was written in eighth century Egypt, according to a new analysis. (Photo: Karen L. King)

This papyrus fragment mentioning Jesus' wife was written in eighth century Egypt, according to a new analysis. (Photo: Karen L. King)

A new analysis of a scrap of papyrus that refers to the wife of Jesus attempts to confirm it was not a forgery, but rather an ancient document scrawled more than six centuries after Jesus' death. The manuscript has been controversial since Harvard professor Karen L. King revealed it in Rome in 2012, where the Vatican immediately dismissed it as "a clumsy forgery."

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King and colleagues from Columbia University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently revisited the papyrus with microscopic and multispectral imaging. Close examination of the ink convinced King that it was not forged. "For now," she wrote in her paper, published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review, "I would judge the weight of evidence to fall on the side of dating the ["Gospel of Jesus' Wife"] papyrus as a material artifact to antiquity, probably the seventh to eighth centuries."

The scrap is unique because it includes the phrase, "Jesus said to them," and then the words: "my mother," "Mary," "my [female] disciple," and "my wife." No reference to Jesus being married appears in any of the four gospels of the Bible, which were written closer to Jesus' lifetime and are taken to be historically reliable. Nothing is known of the authors of this text except that they were Christians and that the language is a dialect of Coptic, spoken in Egypt into the 17th century. Much of the context is lost to the dimensions of the fragment, but it clearly concerns an early Christian debate over "marriage, celibacy, and family," King says. She nicknamed it the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" only as a working reference.

The papyrus belongs to an anonymous donor who purchased it in 1999. The ownership record goes back only to Germany in the 1960s; before that, no one knows how it weathered the centuries. King speculates that it may have been discovered in a "rubbish dump or a burial site," but no one can be certain.

Vatican authorities weren't the only ones to refute the authenticity of the text. "It's possible to get hold of an old bit of un-written-on papyrus and write some new stuff on it," University of Durham Professor Francis Watson told Reuters in 2012. "There is a market for fake antiquities throughout the Middle East ... I would guess that in this case the motivation might have been a financial one." Other academics have noted the poor use of Coptic grammar and the fact that the text — save the one reference to "my wife" — is substantially similar to passages from the Gospel of Thomas.

"If one considers the forger's presumed motives, it is easy to see why this phrase specifically is the only one that is definitely an addition," wrote Leo Depuydt, of Brown University, in a rebuttal to King's paper. The rebuttal was also published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review. He goes on to conclude that, "An ancient native speaker of Coptic who could select and combine words and phrases from the Gospel of Thomas with understanding would not possibly have produced said grammatical blunders."

King, however, supposed the author may have simply been uneducated. And if it was a forgery, then the forger was incredibly skilled at mimicking ancient methods of preparing soot for ink. "In my judgment, such a combination of [grammatical] bumbling and [technical] sophistication seems extremely unlikely," she wrote. One foolproof method of determining the age of the document is radiocarbon dating; but this would require the destruction of part of the text. New dating methods may someday resolve the controversy.

King cautions, though, that the text does not prove Jesus was married. The eight-line fragment says: "And Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... she will be able to be my disciple.'" "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 said in a statement.

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