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A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a papyrus fragment in Coptic that she says contains the first known statement saying explicitly that Jesus was married. (Karen L. King / Harvard) A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a papyrus fragment in Coptic that she says contains the first known statement saying explicitly that Jesus was married. (Karen L. King / Harvard)  

Papyrus fragment references Jesus’ wife

A Harvard Divinity School professor presented a papyrus fragment believed to contain two clauses that could reignite centuries-old debates within the Christian community: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’ she will be able to by my disciple.”

Dr. Karen L. King made her discovery public on Tuesday in Rome at the International Congress of Coptic Studies. Before then, King had only shared the papyrus with select colleagues in the fields of papyrology and Coptic linguistics, as well as reporters from three major newspapers.

King, a historian of early Christianity who specializes in Coptic literature, claims the clauses were written in Coptic and date back to the fourth century. The fragment was given to King by a private collector in December 2011. The collector wishes to remain anonymous.

Jesus’ position on marriage and female roles in ministry have long been contentious topics of debate within the Christian community. Scripture does not say whether or not Jesus was married or if he had any female disciplines. And until now, there has never been any substantiated historical discoveries to suggest otherwise.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Dr. King told The New York Times. “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.”

The papyrus fragment is the first historical evidence found to explicitly state Jesus was married. It also references a female disciple, although it is missing significant portions of text, which may have provided context to the phrases, and only five words are still visible on the back side.

Two papyrologist experts, Roger Bagnall and AnneMarie Luijendijk, have examined the scrap of papyrus and concluded it is genuine. According to the New York Times, “her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.”

The Harvard Theological Review has asked three scholars to review King’s paper. The paper is currently scheduled to be published in the January issue of the Review.

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