On a humid afternoon this past November, I pulled off Interstate 75 into a stretch of Florida pine forest tangled with runaway vines. My GPS was homing in on the house of a man I thought might hold the master key to one of the strangest scholarly mysteries in recent decades: a 1,300-year-old scrap of papyrus that bore the phrase “Jesus said to them, My wife.”
The fragment, written in the ancient language of Coptic, had set off shock waves when an eminent Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome.
Never before had an ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s being married. The papyrus’s lines were incomplete, but they seemed to describe a dialogue between Jesus and the apostles over whether his “wife”—possibly Mary Magdalene—was “worthy” of discipleship.
Its main point, King argued, was that “women who are wives and mothers can be Jesus’s disciples.” She thought the passage likely figured into ancient debates over whether “marriage or celibacy [was] the ideal mode of Christian life” and, ultimately, whether a person could be both sexual and holy.
King called the business-card-size papyrus “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” But even without that provocative title, it would have shaken the world of biblical scholarship. Centuries of Christian tradition are bound up in whether the scrap is authentic or, as a growing group of scholars contends, an outrageous modern fake: Jesus’s bachelorhood helps form the basis for priestly celibacy, and his all-male cast of apostles has long been cited to justify limits on women’s religious leadership.
In the Roman Catholic Church in particular, the New Testament is seen as divine revelation handed down through a long line of men—Jesus, the 12 apostles, the Church fathers, the popes, and finally the priests who bring God’s word to the parish pews today.
King showed the papyrus to a small group of media outlets in the weeks before her announcement—The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and both Smithsonian magazine and the Smithsonian Channel—on the condition that no stories run before her presentation in Rome.
Smithsonian assigned me a long feature, sending me to see King at Harvard and then to follow her to Rome. I was the only reporter in the room when she revealed her find to colleagues, who reacted with equal parts fascination and disbelief.
Within days, doubts mounted. The Vatican newspaper labeled the papyrus “an inept forgery.” Scholars took to their blogs to point out apparent errors in Coptic grammar as well as phrases that seemed to have been lifted from the Gospel of Thomas. Others deemed the text suspiciously in step with the zeitgeist of growing religious egalitarianism and of intrigue around the idea, popularized by The Da Vinci Code, of a married Jesus. The controversy made news around the world, including an article in these pages.
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