Jesus Christ, the only son of God, famed miracle worker, prophet and husband? Professor Karen L. King, a religious scholar from Harvard University, recently unveiled an ancient piece of a papyrus scroll dating back to the fourth century. Scrawled on the scroll in Coptic script were fragments of writing describing Jesus speaking to his disciples about his wife, as well as a female disciple who may or may not be the same person. Dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” this discovery is the first of its kind. No writing describing Jesus as married had ever been found and it could potentially change the current rule in the Catholic Church of priestly celibacy.
Last Tuesday in Rome, King revealed the piece of scroll, no larger than a business card, at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. According to the New York Times, where the scripture originated is a mystery and the owner has requested anonymity. This has led to much debate on the authenticity of the scroll, with skeptics claiming that it could be a forgery.
King holds the Hollis Chair of Divinity, which, according to Harvard University’s website, is the oldest endowed chair in the United States, dating back to 1721. Until King’s appointment, the Hollis Chair had never been occupied by a woman. An expert in religious studies, she currently teaches several courses on early Christianity in Cambridge, Mass.
Until the Coptic Studies Congress, King had only shown the scroll to a small circle of trusted colleagues, who are experts in papyrology and Coptic studies. According to the New York Times, the experts who have viewed the scroll agree with King that the paper is most likely not a forgery. Last Thursday, King gave an interview to several news outlets from her Harvard office.
“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” she said to reporters from the New York Times, Boston Globe and Harvard Magazine. “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.”
According to an article in Agence France-Presse, King also mentioned that despite the discovery of the scroll, this “doesn’t prove that Jesus was married.” Although she stated that the papyrus was not damning evidence, King alluded to the fact that Jesus’ marital status is something that should be questioned.
Jesus’ marital status has always been a heatedly-debated issue. According to Reuters, “King said that it was not until around 200 A.D. that claims started to surface, via the theologian known as Clement of Alexandria, that Jesus did not marry.” The notion of Jesus being celibate was adopted by religious leaders to back up their stance on Christians marrying and having sex, according to King. In a Q&A article published on the Harvard University website by King, she writes how Christians have debated this topic for centuries, noting that the only surviving claim in the Christian tradition is that Jesus was unmarried. With the discovery of “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife”, King says that Jesus being married was a topic long before Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code.
On the other side of the issue, many scholars believe that the scroll could be a forgery, or that it is being taken out of context. Professor Jacques-Noel Peres from the Protestant Faculty of Theology in Paris and Professor Ben Witherington III from Asbury Theological Seminary in Kentucky both claim that the term “wife” doesn’t always refer to marriage. Both men claim that “wife” could be describing a spiritual relationship Jesus may have had with one of his female followers. The Vatican has also responded to King’s discovery, in its traditionally rigid Catholic manner.
Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi talked to the AFP and while he refused to question King’s credibility, he stated, “We do not really know where this little scrap of parchment came from…this changes nothing in the portrayal of Christ and the gospels. This is not an event that has any influence on Catholic doctrine.”
So what are the implications for believers? The discovery of “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” does not change the fact that Jesus Christ was a hugely important historical figure, who taught goodwill and the importance of faith throughout the Roman Empire during times of religious and racial turmoil. Jesus was not a fraud and the papyrus scrap doesn’t call into question his divinity, it only states that some early Christians believed that he was married. This belief will hopefully lead to pleasant changes in the way some sects of Christianity operate, namely the Catholic Church.
The Roman Catholic Church has refused members of its clergy the right to marriage, citing Jesus and Saint Peter’s celibacy as their reasons. With new writings that state Jesus was married, perhaps the Catholic Church will lift this ban and priests will be able to marry. I see this discovery as a positive event, reinforcing the sacredness of marriage, not as an indictment on the divinity of Christ. Whether or not you believe in Christianity, Jesus was a real historical figure who preached about faith in God and living life in a meaningful way. His abstinence or lack thereof does not change what he taught or how he lived.