A Harvard professor has identified what appears to be a scrap of fourth century Egyptian papyrus that contains the first known explicit reference to Jesus as married, a discovery that could fuel the millennia-old debate about priestly celibacy in the Catholic church.
The fragment, which has been preliminarily authenticated but still must undergo further testing, portrays Jesus as referring to a woman as his legitimate disciple -- most likely his wife, whom the text's author probably believed to be Mary Magdalene.
The text is not evidence Jesus was married, said the professor, Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, who is scheduled to discuss her discovery at an international gathering of Coptic scholars in Rome on Tuesday. But she said it may cast new light on the history of early Christianity, including the formation of Christian views of celibacy and whether women were members of Jesus's inner circle, issues still intensely relevant to the Catholic church, which allows only celibate men to be priests.
"The issue has far from gone away," King said.
The fragment is smaller than a business card, and appears to have been torn from the middle of a page of a codex, or primitive book, written in a southern Egyptian dialect. Its owner, who declines to be identified publicly, does not know where it was found.
It contains just eight broken lines, scrawled in a crude Coptic hand.
The fourth says: "... Jesus said to them, 'My wife...."
The next line reads: "...she will be able to be my disciple."
The text does not prove that Jesus had a wife, King emphasized. Even if it is actually a translation of a second century Greek text, as King theorizes, it would have been composed more than a century after the death of Jesus. The earliest and most reliable information about the historical Jesus is silent on the question of his marital status, King said.
"It's not saying we've got the smoking gun that Jesus is married," she said.
But the fragment -- which King provocatively calls "The Gospel of Jesus's wife" -- does show that some early Christians believed Jesus was married, probably to Mary Magdalene, a follower of Jesus who the gospels say was the first person to see him after his resurrection .