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'Gospel Of Jesus's Wife' Papyrus Not A Forgery, Harvard Says

This Sept. 5, 2012, photo released by Harvard University shows the papyrus fragment.
Karen L. King
This Sept. 5, 2012, photo released by Harvard University shows the papyrus fragment.

A fragment of an ancient Egyptian papyrus known as the "Gospel of Jesus's Wife," unveiled in 2012, shows no evidence of being a modern forgery, as some critics had charged, according to an article published in the Harvard Theological Review.

The scrap of papyrus sparked controversy when it was presented at a conference in Rome some 18 months ago by Harvard professor of divinity Karen L. King.

Written in the Coptic language of Egypt, the fragment contains the phrases "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... ' " and "she will be able to be my disciple."

Since 2012, King has been besieged by criticism because of the papyrus' controversial content, and the Vatican's newspaper published an editorial declaring it a fake.

But the Harvard professor has taken pains to emphasize that the papyrus does not mean that Jesus in fact had a wife, "only that early Christians were actively discussing celibacy, sex, marriage and discipleship," according to The New York Times.

Harvard Theological Review says in the article published Thursday:

"Over the past two years, extensive testing of the papyrus and the carbon ink, as well as analysis of the handwriting and grammar, all indicate that the existing material fragment dates to between the sixth and ninth centuries CE [Common Era]. None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery."

Testing by a research scientist at Columbia University, using a technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy, determined that "the carbon character of the ink matched samples of other papyri that date from the first to eighth centuries CE," the Theological Review says.

By way of background, The Boston Globe notes:

"King began examining the fragment in 2011 at the request of its owner, who wishes to remain anonymous. Its provenance remains mysterious; the owner told King he bought it and five other papyri in 1999 from a collector who said he acquired them in the 1960s in East Germany. An undated, unsigned photocopied note in German accompanying the fragment said that a professor Fecht had examined the papyrus and thought it could be the only text in which Jesus speaks of having a wife.

"The fragment appears to be cut from the middle of a larger document; it contains just eight partial lines, written in a crude hand."

When the existence of the papyrus was announced in 2012, another scholar of early Christian texts, Princeton University religion professor Elaine Pagels told NPR that the papyrus suggests that at the time it was written "apparently, there were stories going around that [Jesus] may have been" married.

"[It] may also suggest that Jesus is using a symbolic language as he is in other Gospels that we know of from the second century, like the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip," Pagels told All Things Considered.

In the video below, King, New Testament scholar and author Bart Ehrman and Washington University, Saint Louis, distinguished professor Mark Jordan discuss the question: "Does It Matter If Jesus Was Married?"

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.

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