When Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, unveiled last week a fragment of papyrus, on which Jesus says the words my wife, she was greeted with a mix of excitement and dismay. Could a tiny strip of barely legible papyrus call into question some of the church’s most well-known teachings? King spoke to TIME about the controversial fragment’s authenticity, its relation to the New Testament and Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code.
How would you sum up the significance of what you’ve found on this papyrus fragment?
Assuming, of course, that it’s authentic, it gives us a portrait of discussions that were happening at the end of the 2nd century, about 150 years after the death of Jesus, concerning marriage, sexuality, reproduction, family and discipleship. Those issues are still obviously of considerable contemporary concern.
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Experts you consulted, in New York and in Israel, found no evidence of forgery. And yet since then, many, including a lot of the experts at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome, where you presented it, have been quick to challenge the fragment’s authenticity. What do you make of that discrepancy?
Part of the reason for making it public at the Coptic conference in Rome was to engender a discussion about the fragment, about its authenticity, about its meaning, and to raise questions before we went to publication with it. So I actually welcome a lot of the comments that have been made. I’ve had great discussions with colleagues about what kind of fragment this might be, questions about handwriting, about the meaning of the text, its place in Christianity.
What’s been the most thought-provoking reaction you’ve received?
The fragment has writing on both sides. I’m not a papyrologist, but I thought it was a codex. Other persons who are papyrologists have suggested that perhaps it was some kind of private communication or perhaps a reused piece of papyrus. They weren’t questioning the authenticity, but they were asking what kind of fragment it is.
Do you have doubts on the authenticity of the fragment?
Oh, yes, absolutely. I think something like this needs to be questioned further. We are going ahead with tests about the chemical composition of the ink that won’t absolutely resolve the issue but will certainly give us one more piece of evidence.
You chose the phrase the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” to refer to this. What does gospel mean in this context?
There has been considerable misunderstanding about this, partly because people think of a gospel as a genre of the New Testament canon. But for those of us who work in the literature of the 2nd century, we have the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Philip and many, many other early Christian gospels. My suggestion in calling it a gospel is that it fits into this kind of genre. It’s not a claim for authority or canonicity at all.
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Doesn’t its length disqualify it from being called a gospel?
With regard to the New Testament, for example, from this period we have tiny fragments of the New Testament gospels, John and Matthew, dating from the 2nd and 3rd century. These are actually the earliest physical existing pieces of these gospels that still remain, and they are tiny fragments like this one. The size of the fragment doesn’t actually indicate the size of the work it comes from.
Much has been made of the phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” Some have offered alternative explanations, pointing out that in other writings the term my wife could have referred to the church or that Jesus could have been speaking in parables. What made you conclude that the author of the text was referring to Jesus’ real wife?
Of course, one needs to consider all the possibilities. The notion of the church or a sister-wife [a female Platonic companion] or the bride in the Book of Revelations, these are all possibilities. But the next extant line says: “She will be able to be my disciple.” That doesn’t strike me as something one would say, for example, about the church. But, of course, we can’t exclude any of those possibilities, precisely because the fragment itself is so tiny.
Do you see this as a challenge to Vatican policies, specifically to the celibacy of priests in imitation of the unmarried Christ of tradition?
My position is that of a historian, so I don’t certainly intend to raise a challenge. It’s up to them to see if this is a challenge and how to deal with it.
What’s next? What are the unanswered questions about this fragment that you find most exciting?
Well, it would be great to have more discussions about what this fragment means, what its significance is. It would be lovely if we could find more of the text to which it belongs.
What did Dan Brown get right?
Well, there’s so much that Dan Brown got wrong. Jesus and Mary Magdalene married — there’s no evidence that they were. There’s no evidence that they had a child. There’s no evidence of a Catholic conspiracy. What Dan Brown did for us as scholars was to provide a teaching moment, an opportunity when the public was actually interested in these questions.
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