Another book of revelations: the carpenter took a wife
BOSTON: A Harvard professor has unveiled a 4th-century fragment of papyrus she says is the only existing ancient text quoting Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife.
Karen King, an expert in the history of Christianity, said the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to ‘‘my wife’’, whom he identifies as Mary.
Professor King said the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.
Professor King helped translate and unveiled the tiny fragment at a conference of Coptic experts in Rome. She said it does not prove Jesus was married but speaks to issues of family and marriage that faced Christians.
Four words in the 3.8-centimetre x 7.6-centimetre fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, she said. Those words, written in a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, translate to ‘‘Jesus said to them, ‘my wife’ ,’’ Professor King said in a statement. In the dialogue the disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy and Jesus says ‘‘she can be my disciple’’.
Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried even though there was no reliable historical evidence to support that, Professor King said.
The new gospel ‘‘tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage’’.
‘‘From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’s marital status to support their positions.’’
Professor King presented the document at a six-day conference being held at Rome’s La Sapienza University and at the Augustinianum institute of the Pontifical Lateran University.
The fragment belongs to an anonymous private collector. Nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery, but it had to have come from Egypt.
Professor King repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
But the find is exciting, she said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides evidence there was discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.
‘‘This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married. There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.’’