Video: Was Jesus married? New evidence raises questions

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updated 9/19/2012 4:00:25 PM ET 2012-09-19T20:00:25

Is a scrap of papyrus suggesting that Jesus had a wife authentic?

Scholars on Wednesday questioned the much-publicized discovery by a Harvard scholar who said a fourth-century fragment of papyrus provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.

And experts in the illicit antiquities trade also wondered about the motive of the fragment's anonymous owner, noting that the document's value has likely increased amid the publicity of the still-unproven find.

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Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, announced the finding on Tuesday at an international congress on Coptic studies in Rome. The text, written in Coptic and probably translated from a second-century Greek text, contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary.

King's paper, and the front-page attention it received in some newspapers that got advance word about it, was a hot topic of conversation at the conference on Wednesday.

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried, although there is no reliable historical evidence to support that, King said. Any evidence pointing to whether Jesus was married or had a female disciple could have ripple effects in current debates over the role of women in the church.

'Not completely convincing'
Stephen Emmel, a professor of Coptology at the University of Muenster who was on the international advisory panel that reviewed the 2006 discovery of the Gospel of Judas, said the text accurately quotes Jesus as saying "my wife." But he questioned whether the document was authentic.

"There's something about this fragment in its appearance and also in the grammar of the Coptic that strikes me as being not completely convincing somehow," he said in an interview on the sidelines of the conference.

Another participant at the congress, Alin Suciu, a papyrologist at the University of Hamburg, was more blunt.

"I would say it's a forgery. The script doesn't look authentic" when compared to other samples of Coptic papyrus script dated to the fourth century, he said.

King acknowledged Wednesday that questions remain about the fragment, and she welcomed the feedback from her colleagues. She said she planned to subject the document to ink tests to determine if the chemical components match those used in antiquity.

"We still have some work to do, testing the ink and so on and so forth, but what is exciting about this fragment is that it's the first case we have of Christians claiming that Jesus had a wife," she said.

She stressed that the text, assuming it's authentic, doesn't provide any historical evidence that Jesus was actually married — only evidence that some two centuries after he died, some early Christians believed he had a wife.

Context lacking
Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist, said there was no way to evaluate the significance of the fragment because it has no context. It's a partial text and tiny, measuring 4 centimeters by 8 centimeters (1.5 inches by 3 inches), about the size of a small cellphone.

"There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things," said Funk, co-director of a project editing the Nag Hammadi Coptic library at Laval University in Quebec. "It can be anything."

He, too, doubted the authenticity, saying the form of the fragment was "suspicious."

Ancient papyrus fragments have been frequently cut up by unscrupulous antiquities dealers seeking to make more money.

An anonymous collector brought King the fragment in December 2011, seeking her help in translating and understanding it. In March, she brought it to two papyrologists who determined it was very likely authentic.

On Tuesday, Harvard Divinity School announced the finding to great fanfare and said King's paper would be published in January's Harvard Theological Review. Harvard said that the fragment most likely came from Egypt, and that its earliest documentation is from the early 1980s indicating that a now-deceased professor in Germany thought it evidence of a possible marriage of Jesus.

Financial interest?
Some archaeologists were quick to question Harvard's ethics, noting that the fragment has no known provenance, or history of where it's been, and that its current owner may have a financial interest in the publicity being generated about it.

King has said the owner wants to sell his collection to Harvard.

"There are all sorts of really dodgy things about this," said David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk and author of the Looting Matters blog, which closely follows the illicit trade in antiquities. "This looks to me as if any sensible, responsible academic would keep their distance from it."

He cited the ongoing debate in academia over publishing articles about possibly dubiously obtained antiquities, thus potentially fueling the illicit market.

The Archaeological Institute of America, for example, won't publish articles in its journal announcing the discovery of antiquities without a proven provenance that were acquired after a UNESCO convention fighting the illicit trade went into effect in 1973.

Similarly, many American museums have adopted policies to no longer acquire antiquities without a provenance, after being slapped with successful efforts by countries like Italy to reclaim looted treasures.

Archaeologists also complain that the looting of antiquities removes them from their historical context, depriving scholars of a wealth of information.

Problems with papyrus
However, AnneMarie Luijendijk, the Princeton University expert whom King consulted to authenticate the papyrus, said the fragment fit all the rules and criteria established by the International Association of Papyrologists. She noted that papyrus fragments frequently don't have a provenance, simply because so many were removed from Egypt before such issues were of concern.

She acknowledged the dilemma about buying such antiquities but said refraining from publishing articles about them is another matter.

"You wouldn't let an important new text go to waste," she said.

Hany Sadak, the director general of the Coptic Museum in Cairo, said the fragment's existence was unknown to Egypt's antiquities authorities until news articles this week.

"I personally think, as a researcher, that the paper is not authentic because it was, if it had been in Egypt before, we would have known of it and we would have heard of it before it left Egypt," he said.

Maggie Fick in Cairo contributed to this report.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The archaeology of Christianity

  • Ahmed Ali  /  EPA

    An estimated 2 billion Christians around the world celebrate the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. While those believers take the stories of Jesus as told in the New Testament on faith, archaeologists have scoured the Holy Land and beyond in search of clues about the real life of Jesus and his followers. Click the "Next" arrow above to learn about eight of their finds.

    — John Roach, msnbc.com contributor

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    Does the world's first known reference to Christ refer to him as a magician? An inscription on a bowl uncovered from the underwater ruins of Alexandria in Egypt reads "DIA CHRSTOU O GOISTAIS," which archaeologists translate to mean either "by Christ the magician" or "the magician by Christ." The bowl dates to between the late second century B.C. and the early first century.

    If the word "Christ" does indeed refer to the biblical Jesus Christ, then it would be the first known written reference to Christ and might provide evidence that Christianity and paganism at times intertwined in the ancient world. The archaeologists who discovered the bowl think that a magus could have practiced fortune telling rituals with the bowl and used the name Jesus to legitimize his supernatural powers. At the time, the people of Alexandria were likely aware of stories about Jesus' miracles, such as turning water into wine and multiplying loaves of bread.

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    Analysis of the remains revealed that the feet of the crucifixion victim really were nailed to the cross — one of the foot bones, in the center of this image, has a nail driven through it from the side. The nail is bent, which is perhaps why it was left intact instead of being removed, according to archaeologists. The hand bones, however, showed no signs of being nailed to the cross, suggesting this practice often depicted in crucifixion artwork may not have always occurred.

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    A long piece of cloth, or a shroud, kept under close guard at a cathedral in Turin, Italy, is believed by many to be the burial cloth that was wrapped around the crucified Jesus. Scientific interest in the shroud began in earnest when negatives from a 1898 photograph revealed the image of man who appears to have suffered a crucifixion. Since then, biblical scholars, archaeologists and the faithful have hotly debated the authenticity of the so-called Shroud of Turin.

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  • Early worship in Israel

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