Never has so much paper been devoted to such a little scrap of papyrus — a scrap that suggests some Christians thought Jesus was a married man.
Here's the bottom line from more than 60 pages of studies focusing on a piece of papyrus inscribed with a text quoting Jesus as referring to "my wife": Months of lab tests show that document is not a modern-day forgery, as skeptics had claimed. The papyrus and the ink go back at least 1,100 years. But despite all that, some of the skeptics will never be convinced.
The studies, published Thursday in the Harvard Theological Review, represent the latest chapter in the years-long saga surrounding what Harvard theologian Karen King has dubbed the Gospel of Jesus' Wife. King brought the text into the global spotlight in September 2012, at a symposium in Rome, but the publication of her analysis was held up for more than a year when questions were raised about the text's authenticity.
For King and other scholars, the point is not to determine whether the historical Jesus was actually married. That's an impossible task. Rather, scholars are interested in how the various versions of the gospel story influenced the lives of early Christians. Such issues could affect contemporary debates as well: For example, if the early Christians saw nothing wrong with married church leaders, why should we?
"I do hope that the very good work that scientists have done on this will help turn the conversation away from the issue of forgery, and toward the papyrus itself," King told NBC News.
The fragmentary text, written in an Egyptian Coptic language, is controversial not only because Jesus appears to refer to his wife, but also because it discusses the worthiness of a woman named Mary for what might have been a leadership role. Here are a couple of other intriguing phrases: "she will be able to be my disciple" ... "I am with her," as in "I dwell with her."
Science addresses the skepticism
The papyrus fragment was purportedly acquired by an East German collector in the 1960s, sold to its current owner in 1999, and made available to King for study in 2011. The owner has remained anonymous, adding to the mystery surrounding the scrap's origins.
Skeptics, including Vatican officials, insisted that the text was a modern-day forgery because the phrases were ungrammatical and appeared to be inexpertly cribbed from other apocryphal scriptures in circulation.
To settle the argument, researchers subjected the business-card-sized scrap of papyrus to radiocarbon tests and micro-Raman spectroscopy. One of the carbon-dating tests indicated that the papyrus went back somewhere between the year 659 and 869, with the most likely date around 741. Other tests showed that the chemical makeup of the ink was consistent with inks that were used between the first and the eighth century.
The radiocarbon dates are centuries later than King initially thought, but they do suggest that the papyrus is authentic. In one of the papers published Thursday, Macquarie University's Malcolm Choat, an expert on ancient writing, said he saw no "smoking gun" suggesting that the Coptic script was an elaborate forgery. However, he emphasized that he couldn't prove it was genuine.
A scriptural scholar at Brown University, Leo Depuydt, declared in a different paper that he was still "100 percent convinced" the text was a forgery. He said it was assembled from words and phrases taken from the Gospel of Thomas. That gospel is part of the early church's Gnostic tradition, which is not accepted as part of the canonical New Testament.
Women, marriage and the church
Depuydt speculated that the forger "wanted to put his or her own spin on modern theological issues," such as priestly celibacy and female priesthood.
Such issues aren't exclusively modern. King noted that the early Christians argued over how they should adapt their lives to their newfound beliefs. Some suggested that men and women should no longer marry or reproduce, but try to remain celibate and wait for the end times. Others complained that such teachings came from "hypocritical liars."
Christians on both sides of the argument quoted scripture to support their case. Gnostic scriptures in particular promoted the idea that Jesus had a close companionship with Mary Magdalene — an idea that novelist Dan Brown incorporated into the plot for "The Da Vinci Code."
"Certain Gnostic groups in the second, third and fourth centuries did think of Mary as Jesus' companion. We just didn't have that word 'wife.'"
James Tabor, a religious scholar at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, said it wouldn't be surprising if the Gospel of Jesus' Wife echoed other Gnostic texts, such as the Gospel of Thomas or the Gospel of Philip.
"These kinds of texts are notoriously repetitious," he told NBC News. "The problem is, this gets sensationalized. What it proves is something we already knew, that certain Gnostic groups in the second, third and fourth centuries did think of Mary as Jesus' companion. We just didn't have that word 'wife.'"
Although the papyrus itself goes back only as far as the eighth century or so, King said it appears to reflect the "pro-reproductive" side of the early Christian debate, going back to the second century. "The date of the manuscript is not the date of composition," she noted.
If the Gospel of Jesus' Wife was copied onto the papyrus in the eighth century, it could have been in circulation among Egyptian Coptic Christians just as Islam was on the rise in the region. Muslims would have had no problem with a married Jesus. After all, even the Prophet Muhammad was married with children.
Might there have been an interfaith dialogue over the issue? "How interesting that could potentially be," King said.