Coptic Scholars Doubt and Hail a Reference to Jesus’ Wife

When Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity, announced this week that she had identified a fragment of ancient Coptic text in which Jesus utters the words “my wife,” she said she was making the finding public — despite many unresolved questions — so that her academic colleagues could weigh in.

And weigh in, they have. A few said that the papyrus must be a forgery. Others have questioned Dr. King’s interpretation of its meaning. Some have faulted her for publishing a paper on an item of unknown provenance. And many have criticized her decision to give the scrap of papyrus the attention-getting title “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” as if it had equal weight to other, lengthier texts that are known as Gospels.

But even some of those casting doubt are also applauding her work. Many scholars said in interviews that they were excited by the discovery, because if it is genuine, it suggests at least one community of early adherents to Christianity believed that Jesus was married.

“It’s obviously an important find,” said Carl R. Holladay, professor of New Testament studies at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University.

However, he added, “The circumstances in which it’s come to light really require all scholars to be really cautious about how we proceed.”

Dr. King has reiterated that the fragment is not proof that Jesus was married because it was most likely written three and a half centuries after his death, making it historically unreliable. She has emphasized that the fragment is merely a glimpse of a discussion among early Christians about whether their savior was married or celibate.

Despite her cautions, the finding has prompted “Jesus Was Married” headlines around the world — and jokes about Mrs. Jesus’ “honey-do” list.

The papyrus fragment, which measures only about 1 ½ by 3 inches, is written in Coptic that Dr. King says is consistent with writing seen in fourth-century Egypt. It is roughly rectangular, torn on all four sides, so that each line of text is incomplete. The ink on the front side contains eight lines, dark enough to be legible. Line 4 purportedly says, “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’ ”

Other phrases in the text suggest that it is an account of a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, Dr. King maintains. According to her translation, Line 3 includes the words “Mary is worthy of it.” Line 5, immediately after the line about Jesus’ wife, says, “...she will be able to be my disciple.” Line 7 says, “As for me, I dwell with her in order to...”

Dr. King, who holds a chair at Harvard Divinity School, has written extensively about the Gospels of Mary, Judas and Philip, relatively recent discoveries that are not a part of the established biblical canon. Even before this week, Dr. King was a favorite target of religious leaders who consider the Bible the literal word of God.

Two years ago, Dr. King said, she received an e-mail from a collector who asked her to translate a piece of papyrus that contained a reference to Jesus’ wife. She said that the owner does not know the provenance of the fragment, and has asked to remain anonymous.

In Rome, Dr. King presented a paper on the papyrus on Tuesday at a meeting of the International Association of Coptic Studies. The Associated Press quoted several of her colleagues there as saying that the handwriting, grammar and shape of the fragment made them suspect it was forged. (Several of those scholars did not respond to e-mails or to phone messages.).

Reached at her hotel in Rome, Dr. King said that as soon as she returns to the United States, she plans to have the ink on the fragment tested to determine whether it is truly ancient.

“The testing won’t be definitive, but it will be one more piece” of evidence, she said. She already had it examined by two papyrologists and a Coptic linguist, who deemed it most likely authentic.

Several scholars said in interviews that Dr. King should not have agreed to study the fragment without verifying that it was not obtained illegally.

Jennifer Sheridan Moss, president of the American Society of Papyrologists and an associate professor of classics at Wayne State University in Detroit, said that the society would probably not publish a paper on a piece of papyrus without knowing its provenance. “But if something this interesting came up, I suspect we would pursue more information on its provenance,” she said.

Aside from questions about the fragment’s authenticity and provenance, some scholars have questioned Dr. King’s interpretation, since the fragment lacks context. Echoing others, Darrell L. Bock, senior research professor of New Testament studies at Dallas Theological Seminary, said in an interview that “my wife” could be a metaphorical reference to “the church,” which in the Bible the apostle Paul calls “the bride” of Christ.

But Dr. Holladay disagreed, saying: “The papyrus seems to reflect some kind of conversation between Jesus and his disciples in which he’s talking about real people. The language is not being used metaphorically.”