NEW YORK – A faded fragment of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” which caused an uproar when unveiled by a Harvard Divinity School historian in 2012, has been tested by scientists who conclude in a journal published Thursday that the ink and papyrus are very likely ancient, and not a modern forgery.
Skepticism about the tiny scrap of papyrus has been fierce because it contained a phrase never before seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife...’ ”
Too convenient for some, it also contained the words “she will be able to be my disciple,” a clause that inflamed the debate in some churches over whether women should be allowed to be priests.
The papyrus fragment has now been analyzed by professors of electrical engineering, chemistry and biology at Columbia University, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who reported that it resembles other ancient papyri from the fourth to the eighth centuries.
The test results do not prove that Jesus had a wife or disciples who were women, only that the fragment is more likely a snippet from an ancient manuscript than a fake, the scholars agree. Karen L. King, the historian at Harvard Divinity School who gave the papyrus its name and fame, has said all along that it should not be regarded as evidence that Jesus married, only that early Christians were actively discussing celibacy, sex, marriage and discipleship.
“I took very seriously the comments of such a wide range of people that it might be a forgery,” King said in an interview this week. She said she is now very confident it is genuine.
King says she obtained the text in 2011 from a donor who wants to remain anonymous. That owner had purchased the text in 1999 from a collector who, in turn, had acquired it in East Germany around 1963.
The new information may not convince those scholars and bloggers who say the text is the work of a rather sloppy forger keen to influence contemporary debates.
The Harvard Theological Review, which is publishing King’s long-delayed, peer-reviewed paper online Thursday, is also publishing a rebuttal by Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University, who declares the fragment so patently fake that it “seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.”
King presented the fragment with fanfare at a conference in Rome in September 2012, but was besieged by criticism because the content was controversial, the lettering was suspiciously splotchy, the grammar was poor, its provenance was uncertain, its owner insisted on anonymity and its ink had not been tested.
An editorial in the Vatican’s newspaper also declared it a fake. New Testament scholars claimed the text referred to the “bride of Christ,” which is the church – an interpretation King said was entirely possible.