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Ancient Papyrus Suggests Some Early Christians Thought Jesus Was Married

September 20, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
A Coptic text by early Christians on a fragment of ancient papyrus has been revealed, which makes reference to Jesus having a wife. Jeffrey Brown talks to Smithsonian Magazine's Ariel Sabar for more on whether this is a biographical statement on Jesus or a commentary on some early Christians' beliefs on Jesus' marital status.
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MARGARET WARNER: Finally tonight, A new piece of a possibly very old text is raising questions about whether Jesus was married.

Jeffrey Brown recorded this story yesterday.

JEFFREY BROWN: On this scrap of papyrus no bigger than a credit card are words sure to ignite new debate among Christians the world over.

KAREN KING, Harvard University: So, Jesus said to them — that would be his disciples — “my wife.”

This is, of course, the most remarkable thing about our papyrus. It is the only extant piece of early Christian literature where Jesus talks about having a wife.

JEFFREY BROWN: Karen King is a Harvard professor who’s translated and studied the text, written in Coptic, an Egyptian language, and presented her findings to a Coptic studies conference in Rome yesterday.

If authenticated — and King herself said more work needs to be done — the fragment could raise new questions about beliefs among early Christians about Jesus and his relationship with Mary Magdalene.

KAREN KING: We have had these other texts, especially a text called the Gospel of Philip, and, in addition to that, the Gospel of Mary, that have talked about this close relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.

And yet scholars have consistently — and, I must say, myself included you know, in the past — have argued that, oh, no, that language is all spiritual.

JEFFREY BROWN: Still, the announcement met with some skepticism from fellow scholars.

STEPHEN EMMEL, University of Munster: There is something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow.

JEFFREY BROWN: King and other scholars have dated the papyrus to the 4th century, but still plan to chemically test it to further verify its age.

And joining me to discuss the text is author and journalist Ariel Sabar. He has a long piece on the finding is an upcoming issue of “Smithsonian” magazine. It’s currently online. He joins us from Rome.

Well, first I want to ask you about the fragment itself. There’s a lot — there’s really a lot that isn’t known about this papyrus fragment, right, such as even where it came from? So what can you tell us?

ARIEL SABAR, “Smithsonian”: Well, what we know is that back in the summer of 2010, a private collector emailed professor Karen King at Harvard, saying, I have got this small papyrus fragment. I’m not sure exactly what it says. Can I send you some photographs for you to take a look at?

And she sort of blows him off for a little while, but eventually she does take a look at it and is quite intrigued, because there’s this sort of bombshell phrase in the middle of the papyrus in the ancient Egyptian language of Coptic that says, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife.’”

But it’s a very, very small fragment. If you look at it, it’s actually smaller than an ATM card.

JEFFREY BROWN: So if written in the fourth century, of course long — that would be still long after the death of Jesus. So are scholars looking at this as possibly telling us about him and his life as a sort of biography?

Or is it more — just for context, is it more thinking about how the early Christian communities thought about Jesus?

ARIEL SABAR: Yes, that’s a great question.

Karen King is very explicit, and she’s said over and over again, because there is sort of a temptation to sort of sensationalize this as sort of saying something about the real-life Jesus — that’s not the claim she is making. This was simply written too late to have any bearing on the life of Jesus Christ.

What is interesting about this, if we assume for the moment that it is authentic, is that it tells us that there were a group of Christians in the early years of Christianity who believed Christ was married, who thought that there was something important about portraying Jesus as married, and that’s sort of the bigger takeaway for Professor King.

JEFFREY BROWN: And all of that of course fits into a lot of modern-day scholarship and debates within the scholarship about those early Christian communities and their beliefs, particularly vis-a-vis the role of women.

ARIEL SABAR: Absolutely.

I mean, one of the things that we’re discovering from all of these kind of — these texts that didn’t make it into the canonical New Testament.

They’re known either as Gnostic texts — if you’re a true believer, you call them heretical gospels. All of these terms are in dispute.

But one of the things we have been able to see as these new gospels have come to light over the last century is that there were these kind of raucous debates in early Christianity over all kinds of things, including marriage and sexuality.

And one of the questions being debated is, did you have to be celibate to be a good Christian?

And in knowing that at least one group of Christians portrayed Jesus as married, here we have an example of sort of the leading figure of Christianity who himself has a wife, and not only a wife, but if you read this text the way Professor King does, a wife who is able to actually be a disciple.

So you have sort of a woman, and in King’s reading, very possibly Mary Magdalene, who is not only portrayed as a wife, but also someone who’s able to be a disciple. And certainly the question of women’s role in the church is one that’s still being debated today.

And, you know, the Catholic Church still only opens the priesthood to celibate men. And so this could have some bearing on those debates.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, to the extent that these subjects are still very sensitive, has there been an official reaction or reaction from the church? You’re there in Rome, from the Roman Catholic Church or from other scholars that might, I don’t know — help us see where this might be going in terms of what it does open up?

ARIEL SABAR: Yes. Certainly, one of the ironic things and one of the things that the Roman and Italian press raised today, as I was following Professor King around at the conference, was, you know, you chose to announce this directly across the street from the Vatican.

The institute where the conference was held was literally across the street from St. Peter’s Basilica. And, of course, that’s just sort of a matter of circumstance. But the appearance there is that, you know, there’s a claim being made about something that’s held very, very dear to the Catholic Church, this motion of Jesus’ celibacy.

And, in fact, today, I noticed that the Vatican did issue an official statement to one news organization saying that this changes nothing. There’s clear, long tradition stating that Jesus was celibate, and just because one professor decides to say that there’s a questionable document purporting to portray a married Jesus changes nothing for us.

So, I think the reaction will be very, very different for believers and for scholars. There’s a question of history, but there’s also a question of faith. And how precisely those things are reconciled is — remains to be seen.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, so what does happen next, particularly to the fragment itself? This authentication process continues, right?

ARIEL SABAR: Absolutely.

I mean, as Professor King said today, she said, my announcement is the first word on this, not the last word. And I think some people will be critical of her decision to sort of publicize this before all the I’s have been dotted and the T’s crossed.

Another way to look at is that she’s in a way kind of crowd-sourcing this. She already has two very, very big scholars, experts in papyrus and experts in the Coptic language, who have said this is legitimate, this doesn’t look like a forgery.

But there are other tests that remain to be conducted, including an analysis of the ink on the papyrus, which will tell us whether its chemical composition is compatible with inks from antiquity. So I think what she’s doing here, in a way, it’s kind of courageous.

She is saying, here’s what I think, here’s what my experts tell me, but now you have a look. And one of the things that she’s doing is — is — and that Harvard is doing is permitting other accredited scholars to come and have a look at this thing for themselves and decide whether this meets the smell test, if you will.

And I think that that process is very much continuing. When I went back to the conference today and spoke to some of her colleagues, some were very enthusiastic: This is exciting. This will open a whole new vein of scholarship.

Others had some very serious questions about not only its authenticity, but also about the handwriting, whether it could truly be dated to the fourth century. And another question is whether this was actually part of a gospel. It’s a tiny fragment. Who knows where it came from.

It’s hard to say precisely whether it came out of a codex, which means sort of a book, or whether it’s quite simply just a scrap, someone doing creative writing at some point 1,600 years ago.

And who knows how widely read it might have been.

So there are a lot of unanswered questions. But what we do know for now is that it’s a very provocative announcement and one that is likely to invite years of research and inquiry.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Ariel Sabar in Rome, thanks so much.

ARIEL SABAR: Thank you so much for having me.

MARGARET WARNER: In Jeff’s piece, you saw excerpts from an hour-long documentary examining the story of the papyrus. That premieres on The Smithsonian Channel September 30 at 8:00 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time.