'Jesus' wife' papyrus doubted

It's "not completely convincing somehow," said one scholar at a conference in Rome.

Posted: September 20, 2012

ROME - Is a scrap of papyrus suggesting that Jesus had a wife authentic?

Scholars on Wednesday questioned the much-publicized discovery by a Harvard scholar that a fourth-century fragment of papyrus provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.

Experts in the illicit antiquities trade also wondered about the motive of the fragment's anonymous owner, noting that the document's value has likely increased amid the publicity of the still-unproven find.

Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the finding Tuesday at an international congress on Coptic studies in Rome. The text, written in Coptic and probably translated from a second-century Greek text, contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary.

King's paper, and the attention it got in the media, was a hot topic of conversation Wednesday at the conference.

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried, although there is no reliable historical evidence to support that, King said. Any evidence pointing to whether Jesus was married or had a female disciple could have ripple effects in current debates over the role of women in the church.

Stephen Emmel, a professor of Coptology at the University of Muenster in Germany who was on the international advisory panel that reviewed the 2006 discovery of the Gospel of Judas, said the text accurately quotes Jesus as saying "my wife." But he questioned whether the document was authentic.

"There's something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow," he said.

Another participant at the congress, Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg in Germany, was more blunt.

"I would say it's a forgery. The script doesn't look authentic" when compared with other samples of Coptic papyrus script dated to the fourth century, he said.

King, who had consulted experts about the document's authenticity, acknowledged Wednesday that questions remained about the fragment, and she welcomed the feedback from colleagues. She said she planned to subject the document to ink tests to see if the chemical components match those used in antiquity.

"We still have some work to do," she said. "But what is exciting about this fragment is that it's the first case we have of Christians claiming that Jesus had a wife."

She stressed that the text, assuming it's authentic, doesn't provide any historical evidence that Jesus was married, only that some two centuries after he died, some early Christians believed he had a wife.

Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist in Canada, said there was no way to evaluate the significance of the fragment because it has no context.

"There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things," Funk said.

He, too, doubted the authenticity, saying the form of the fragment was "suspicious."

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