A fourth-century text indicating Jesus Christ said “my wife” could open new questions for the religious community in a finding Harvard University announced Tuesday.
“This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife,” wrote Karen King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, in a paper detailing the discovery. “It does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married, given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition only in the second half of the second century.”
The document, a piece of papyrus written in Coptic, belongs to an anonymous private collector that approached King to translate, according to a Harvard press release.
King, who could not translate Coptic, brought the papyrus to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York from a private owner, where Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie Luijendijk translated it.
“It doesn’t confirm that the historical Jesus had a historical wife,” said David Frankfurter, a professor of religion at Boston University. “It suggests that people in the late second century, who were discussing the value of celibacy, might have speculated that Jesus himself had a wife, or called Mary Magdalene his wife.”
One side of the papyrus contains eight incomplete sentences written in hand, while the backside only displays three words and a few random letters, according to the press release.
“Its language [Sahidic Coptic] as well as the conditions for the preservation of organic material indicate that it was found in Egypt,” wrote King in her paper.
King also wrote that researchers seriously considered whether the piece of parchments was a forgery.
“It would be very difficult to reproduce the kind the damage from insects or moisture that the fragment indicates,” she wrote, “but it could have been penned on a blank piece of ancient papyrus, which are available for purchase on the antiquities market.”
There are many other facts that indicate authenticity, King wrote, including that it would be very difficult to forge the ink’s specific preservation on the material.
Frankfurter said the manuscript is important because “wife” is an unusual word for Jesus to use toward a disciple.
“I think that like most discoveries of ancient manuscripts, it will give us more information about the diversity of Christian opinions in the second century and that it won’t say much about the historical Jesus and his circle,” Frankfurter said.
Anthony Petro, assistant professor of Modern Christianity at Boston University, said there are a lot of questions surrounding this “exciting find.”
Petro said if the fragment were proven authentic, it would have repercussions on the role of women in the priesthood and the question of whether priests can marry.
The discovery could help people build arguments about whether or not priests should be allowed to marry, he said.
“The Catholic Church is a very old institution, and change would come very slowly, so I don’t imagine there would be much reaction immediately to this,” he said.
Both Petro and Frankfurter said that even if authenticated, the document is an interpretation and came after the death of Christ.
Cody Brotter, a senior in the College of Communication, said this discovery could be significant for religious followers.
“I think it’s a huge scandal that the Christians’ messiah was married,” Brotter said. “I’d like to know who this woman was. Behind every great man is an even greater woman.”
Emelia Thompson, a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she was raised Catholic and although she does not still attend services regularly Catholicism is still a large part of her life.
“My opinion of Jesus isn’t at all affected by this new discovery,” she said. “The teachings and the tenants of my faith can withstand the alleged change in marital status of the person I believe suffered and died to save me from myself.”
Ashley Acuña, a COM junior, said she is not religious and that this story does not seem entirely legitimate.
“I think a lot of people will be in disbelief,” she said. “They are going to think, ‘how many years have gone by and I’ve never heard this story?’ It seems a bit suspicious.”
Acuña said if Jesus did in fact have a wife, it would change the Bible’s stories for her.
“I think it would change a lot of the stories had he had a female counterpart to spread the message,” she said. “She would have been essential or at least he [Jesus] would have paid more attention to women.”