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The "Mary" in the controversial text, King says, may be Mary Magdalene, who was present at the Crucifixion. (Ryan Reed)

UPDATE: The Reaction to Karen King’s Gospel Discovery

When a divinity scholar unveiled a papyrus fragment that she says refers to Jesus’ “wife,” our reporter was there in Rome amidst the firestorm of criticism

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This story is an update of the news broken by Smithsonian magazine on September 18, 2012.

Up a cobblestone driveway in the heart of Rome, across from the soaring Tuscan columns of St. Peter’s Square, juts a narrow building watched over by a heavy-lidded statue of Saint Augustine. The Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum was founded in 1970, in the shadow of the Vatican, to renew the teachings of Church fathers. On most days, its glinting marble halls echo with the footsteps of theology students immersing themselves in doctrine, canon law and sacred Scripture.

On September 18, however, the building played host to a secular gathering that some would soon see as profane: the International Congress of Coptic Studies, a quadrennial academic conference that this year drew more than 300 scholaars from 27 countries.

Karen L. King, who is Harvard’s Hollis professor of divinity, one of the most rarefied perches in religious studies, had spent months preparing her paper. Its humdrum title in the conference program—“A New Coptic Gospel Fragment”—gave no hint of the jolts it would soon send through the Christian world.

A few minutes before 7 p.m., I took my seat along with nearly three dozen scholars in a fourth-floor classroom adorned with faded maps of the Roman Empire. The air outside was balmy and clear, and through the windows the sun dipped toward the great dome of St. Peter’s Basilica. King, wearing rimless oval glasses, loose black slacks and a white blouse, her gray-streaked hair held in place with bobby pins, got up from a seat beside her husband and strode to the raised desk at the front of the room. A plain wooden crucifix hung on the wall behind her.

With just half an hour to speak, she wasted no time: She had come upon an ancient scrap of papyrus on which a scribe had written the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . . ’”

“She will be able to be my disciple,” says the next line. Then, two lines later: “I dwell with her.”

The words on the fragment, scattered across 14 incomplete lines, leave a good deal to interpretation. But in King’s analysis, the “wife” Jesus refers to is probably Mary Magdalene, and Jesus appears to be defending her against someone, perhaps one of the male disciples.

The papyrus was a stunner: the first and only known text from antiquity to depict a married Jesus.

The writing was in the ancient Egyptian language of Coptic, into which many early Christian texts were translated in the third and fourth centuries, when Alexandria vied with Rome as an incubator of Christian thought. But King made no claim for its usefulness as biography, saying instead the text was probably composed in Greek a century or so after the Crucifixion, then copied into Coptic two centuries later. As evidence that the real-life Jesus was married, it is scarcely more dispositive than Dan Brown’s controversial 2003 novel, The Da Vinci Code.

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