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.
What it does seem to reveal is more subtle and complex: that some group of early Christians drew spiritual strength from portraying the man whose teachings they followed as being married. All of this assumes, however, that the fragment is genuine, a question that as of press time was far from settled. That her announcement would be taken in part as a provocation was clear from the name she’d given the text: “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”
King had planned to project images of the papyrus onto the classroom wall, but her laptop—with her paper and PowerPoint presentation—went on the fritz on the transatlantic flight. She’d reconstructed her lecture notes largely from memory, and now directed her audience to a Harvard website where the images were posted. The fragment itself was locked up at the Harvard Divinity School library.
“Even a tiny fragment of papyrus,” she said in closing, “can offer surprises with the potential to significantly enrich our historical reconstruction of the range of ancient Christian theological imagination and practice. I await very eagerly your response.”
The room erupted in applause. Einar Thomassen, a religious historian at the University of Bergen, in Norway, stood up. “Thank you, Karen, this is truly sensational,” he said.
At almost the precise moment King began her talk, Harvard issued a press release, launching news reports and commentary around the world. Theologians clashed over the discovery’s significance. Twitter gave birth to the hashtag #jesuswife. The comic Stephen Colbert, a devout Catholic, worried, in jest, whether confession would remain confidential: “You know he’s going to tell her. You can’t have secrets in a marriage.” A Vatican spokesman said “this little scrap of parchment...does not change anything in the position of the Church, which rests on an enormous tradition” of Jesus’ celibacy. (A week later the Vatican newspaper would denounce the papyrus as a “fake.”)
The next day at the Coptic studies conference, the early enthusiasm turned sour. Scholars had by then examined images of the fragment, and several told me that its size, handwriting and grammar left them with serious doubts about its authenticity. Even King’s interpretation was called into question.
“Some guy in the first or second century decided to write the words ‘my wife’ and put them in Jesus’ mouth,” Wolf-Peter Funk, a professor at Laval University in Quebec and an authority on early Christian manuscripts, told me while taking a smoking break on the institute’s front steps. “There’s no evidence it’s any real gospel text or literary manuscript, and that’s all there is to be said.”
By that afternoon, so many European journalists had shown up that the conference organizer threw together an impromptu press conference. King walked in as a CBS camera crew was setting up lights. A correspondent for the newspaper La Repubblica grilled King on her decision to make the announcement in the Eternal City. “That is sort of a symbol,” he said.