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Does the scrap of papyrus pictured above reveal that Jesus was married? Discovered by Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, the fragment of Coptic writing features a phrase never seen before: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”

The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple.”

… The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.

Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple. These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage.

While this news will no doubt re-ignite the debate whether Jesus had a wife, King has no desire for her discovery to be lumped in the Da Vinci Code basket: “At least, don’t say this proves Dan Brown was right.” She also cautioned that the text should not be taken as proof that Jesus was actually married, given it was probably written a number of centuries after his time. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said. According to King though, it does appear to show that there was at least an early Christian tradition that Jesus was married.

Other scholars have urged caution, including New Testament scholar Ben Witherington, who noted that the importance of the news might depend on your perspective:

[King] does have a dog in this hunt… She’s an advocate for the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas, telling us of early Christian experiences of various kinds, particularly of the Gnostic kind… In view of the largely ascetic character of Gnosticism, it is likely that we are dealing with the ‘sister-wife’ phenomenon, and the reference is to a strictly spiritual relationship, which is close but does not involve sexual intimacy,

Me, I’m just waiting for the conspiracy theories, and hopefully a Twitter hashtag of “#JesusSaid to them, ‘My wife…'”, to fill us in on the rest of the sentence.

Link to download the paper.