Today, in Rome, researcher Karen King announced a discovery of a 1600-year old piece of papyrus, no bigger than an ATM card, that will likely shake up the world of biblical scholarship.
Smithsonian magazine reporter Ariel Sabar has been covering the story behind the scenes for weeks, tracing King’s steps from when a suspicious email hit her inbox to the nerve-wracking moment when she thought the entire presentation would fall apart. When Karen L. King, the Hollis professor of divinity, the oldest endowed chair in the United States and one of the most prestigious positions in religious studies, first translated the Egyptian language of Coptic on the scrap of paper, a few lines jumped out:
The fragment’s 33 words, scattered across 14 incomplete lines, leave a good deal to interpretation. But in King’s analysis, and as she argues in a forthcoming article in the Harvard Theological Review, the ‘wife’ Jesus refers to is probably Mary Magdalene, and Jesus appears to be defending her against someone, perhaps one of the male disciples.
‘She will be able to be my disciple,’ Jesus replies. Then, two lines later, he says: ‘I dwell with her.’
The papyrus was a stunner: the first and only known text from antiquity to depict a married Jesus.
But King is quick to pump the brakes on assigning any biographical importance to these words—the text was most likely written in Greek a century or so after Jesus’ crucifixion before being copied into Coptic a few centuries later. The author is unknown. King will also be the first to admit that her theories about the text’s meaning are based on the assumption of the document’s authenticity—something she is sure will be a hot topic of debate in the coming months. No chemical analysis has been run on the fragment and until then, King’s article, provocatively titled, “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” will operate under the assumption that the document is unaltered and genuine.
What’s most important about this discovery, King says, is not whether the historical Jesus was actually married, but what it tells us about early groups of Christians:
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 having a wife. And not just any wife, but possibly Mary Magdalene, the most-mentioned woman in the New Testament besides Jesus’ mother.
The questions a text like this raise are where the revelation lies: Why is it that only the literature that said he was celibate survived? Were texts written in Coptic by early Christians whose views had become less popular lost in the shuffle or were they silenced? And how does this factor into longstanding Christian debates about marriage and sexuality? The article continues:
“Though King makes no claims for the value of the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ as, well, a marriage certificate, she says it ‘puts into greater question the assumption that Jesus wasn’t married,’ she told . It casts doubt ‘on the whole Catholic claim of a celibate priesthood based on Jesus’ celibacy. They always say, ‘This is the tradition, this is the tradition.’ Now we see that this alternative tradition has been silenced.”
Read more from Smithsonian’s exclusive coverage: “The Inside Story of the Controversial New Text About Jesus“