Photograph by Karen L. King, via the New York Times (see URL http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/19/us/historian-says-piece-of-papyrus-refers-to-jesus-wife.html?pagewanted=all)I’m sure this will throw a lot of Christians into hysterics, but it seems there’s this 4th century papyrus fragment, in the Coptic language, that quotes Jesus as having had a wife. The New York Times reports on a historian’s disclosure of this discovery (WebCite cached article):

A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

The finding is being made public in Rome on Tuesday at an international meeting of Coptic scholars by the historian Karen L. King, who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

There are a lot of caveats that go along with this. Among the foremost of them, is that the document’s nature is shaky:

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous.

Skepticism is definitely in order here. Prof King has had the fragment reviewed by papyrologists and they seem to have agreed it’s not a forgery, so it may just be what it seems to be.

Now, it’s possible to take this a bit too far, and I’m sure the media will do so. To be clear, though, this is a fourth-century document. It does not tell us whether or not Jesus had a wife — or that he ever really existed at all. At best, all this fragment does is show that at least one Coptic writer in the 4th century believed Jesus to have had a wife. But I must point out, there’s not enough context here to be sure even of that much. For all we know, Jesus’ mention of having a wife within this text had been intended as metaphorical, allegorical, or suppositional. We really need more of the text, in order to understand what the writer had been doing.

Despite Prof King’s work on it to date, the jury is still out as to the authenticity of this fragment, as well as its meaning. It’s possible that scholars may investigate this document for decades without arriving at any definitive answers. Where the real fireworks will be produced over this, is in the realm of pop culture. This is noted in the final paragraph of the Times article:

The notion that Jesus had a wife was the central conceit of the best seller and movie “The Da Vinci Code.” But Dr. King said she wants nothing to do with the Code or its author: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.”

While Prof King disavows any link to the insipid antihistorical tripe produced by Dan Brown, he’s got a lot of fans, many of whom will no doubt be quick to assert this fragment is “proof” than Brown was correct — even though The Da Vinci Code was demonstrably predicated on a hoax.

Photo credit: Karen L. King, via the New York Times.

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