Crowdsourcing Proof for an Ancient Artifact, Suggests Jesus Was Married

BY Aisha Turner and Ellen Rolfes  September 20, 2012 at 1:49 PM EDT


Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Channel.

Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, announced a rather controversial finding on Tuesday: a fragment of papyrus, no bigger than a credit card, that could provide evidence that Jesus was married.

The text, pictured below, is written in Coptic and likely translated from a 2nd century Greek text, contains a line of dialogue in which Jesus refers to “my wife.”


Photo courtesy of Smithsonian Channel.

In the first 200 years after Jesus’ death, there were many texts written by early Christians with contradictory accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings. In the 2nd century, the early Christian Church leader Iraneaus of Lyon imposed a strict canon of four Gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — to be included in the New Testament, while rejecting many others. These rejected texts were deemed heretical, and are now commonly referred to as the Gnostic gospels.

The Gnostic gospels, written by early Christians in ancient Coptic, depicted the relationship of Jesus and Mary Magdalene as very intimate, though not overtly sexual. The texts tell of Jesus kissing Mary Magdalene on the lips, say that Jesus loved her more than any of the other disciples, and call her Jesus’ “companion.”

At a international conference on Coptic studies in Rome — a stone’s throw away from the Vatican — King presented her document that, if authenticated, could call into question centuries of Church teachings on the roles of women and sexuality in Christianity. It also could re-frame debate in contemporary Christianity on subjects such as celibacy, marriage, and family within the context of the faith.

“[W]hat is exciting about this fragment,” King said, “is that it’s the first case we have of Christians claiming that Jesus had a wife.” She cautioned that the text does not offer evidence that Jesus was actually married, only that some early Christians may have thought so.

One day after King announced the discovery, many scholars challenged the authenticity of the document — questioning the script, grammar, and context of the small slip of paper. “There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things,” said Wolf-Peter Funk, a Coptic linguist in Quebec.

King herself has said the fragment still needs to be tested to make sure the chemical components of the ink match those used in antiquity.

And scholars have questioned whether King should have waited until the fragment was more thoroughly vetted before going public with her findings. King has welcomed the criticism and has encouraged other scholars to assist in the vetting process. In a sense, she is attempting to crowdsource additional scholarship on the origins, text and authenticity of the artifact.

Jeff Brown talked with Ariel Sabar from Smithsonian Magazine. Sabar has been covering the story behind the scenes for weeks and he told us that while King’s approach was unconventional, he found it “courageous.”


The Smithsonian channel will air a documentary Sept. 30 at 8 p.m. ET on the papyrus fragment.