(CNN) — A newly revealed, centuries-old papyrus fragment suggests that some early Christians might have believed Jesus was married. The fragment, written in Coptic, a language used by Egyptian Christians, says in part, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …”
Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King announced the findings of the 1 1/2- by 3-inch honey-colored fragment on Tuesday in Rome at the International Association for Coptic Studies.
King has been quick to add this discovered text “does not, however, provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married,” she wrote in a draft of her analysis of the fragment set to appear in the January edition of Harvard Theological Review. The divinity school has posted a draft of King’s article to which AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University, contributed.
“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,” King said in a conference call with reporters.
“What I’m really quick to say is to cut off people who would say this is proof that Jesus was married because historically speaking, it’s much too late to constitute historical evidence,” she continued. “I’m not saying he was, I’m not saying he wasn’t. I’m saying this doesn’t help us with that question,” she continued.
In the accounts of Jesus’ life in the Bible, there is no mention of his marital status, while the accounts do mention Jesus’ mother, father and siblings. The four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – tell the story of Jesus’ birth and early childhood then skip to his short, three-year ministry before detailing his death and resurrection.
The idea that Jesus was married is not a new one.
In other writings about the life of Jesus from antiquity suggest Jesus may have been married to Mary Magdalene, a disciple who was close to Jesus. Author Dan Brown also used the idea of Jesus being married as a jumping off point for the fictional novel “The Da Vinci Code.” King dismissed that notion in her call with reporters.
“There’s no indication we have that Jesus was married,” said Darrell Bock, a senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary. “One could say the text is silent on Jesus’ marital status is because there was nothing to say.”
Initial dating for the honey-colored fragment by the team of scholars puts the papyrus piece coming out of the middle of the second century.
King is referring to the fragment as the “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” or “GosJesWife” as a short hand for reference, and noting that the abbreviation does not mean this scrap has the same historical weight as the canonical Gospels.
Biblical scholars often use the term gospel to refer to a genre of ancient writings featuring dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, King notes in her paper. The Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas are just a few of the ancient accounts about the life of Jesus that Christians do not consider canonical.
At the conference, King said another professor suggested the fragment could have come from the text of a homily, or sermon, where the writer was using this phrase as a literary device. She told reporters that while she will consider that as a possibility, the fragment is “probably a gospel. Probably from the second century and most close to the Gospels of Mary, Thomas and Philip.”
Bock agreed with the notion that the text fragment shared similarities with those gospels, called the Gnostic Gospels, which were the writings of an early outlier sect of Christians. He said the text could be referring to a gnostic rite of marriage but “it’s a small text with very little context. We don’t know what’s wrapped around it to know what it’s saying.”
Bock said it’s likely to be a gnostic text if it proves to be authentic. “The whole text needs vetting. She’s doing the right thing to release it and let scholars take a look at,” he said, adding “it’s a little bit like trying to analyze the game in the first quarter.”
“It’s a historical curiosity but doesn’t really tell us who Jesus was,” Bock said. “It’s one small speck of a text in a mountain of texts of about Jesus.”
The owner of the fragment has been identified by King as a private collector who has asked to stay anonymous. The owner brought the fragment to Harvard have King examine it in December 2011.
King then brought it to the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. Roger Bagnall, the institute’s director and an expert on papyrus, examined it and determined it to be authentic, Bangall confirmed to CNN.
Ariel Shisha-Halevy, professor of linguistics at Hebrew University, Jerusalem, who was asked to examine the authenticity, according to the draft of the article, told King via e-mail, “I believe – on the basis of language and grammar – the text is authentic. That is to say, all its grammatical ‘noteworthy’ features, separately or conjointly, do not warrant condemning it as forgery.”
Little is known about the origin of the text. Because both sides of the fragment have writing on them, King said it could have come out of a book rather than a scroll.
“Just like most of the earliest papyri of the New Testament and other literary and documentary papyri, a fragment this damaged could have come from an ancient garbage heap,” the King says building on prior research by Luijendijk.
King writes “the importance of the ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ lies in supplying a new voice within the diverse chorus of early Christian traditions about Jesus that documents that some Christians depicted Jesus as married.”
The Smithsonian Channel also announced Monday that it will air a special on King’s findings on September 30.