Tests Suggest 'Gospel of Jesus' Wife' Is Authentic

A newly discovered scrap of 4th-century papyrus written in ancient Egyptian Coptic containing four words that provide the first tangible evidence that within centuries of his death, some followers of Jesus believed him to have been married.
A newly discovered scrap of 4th-century papyrus containing a reference to Jesus' wife. (Image credit: © Karen L. King 2012)

A small scrap of brown papyrus paper, about the size of a business card, has ignited a red-hot argument that spans all of Christendom.

The papyrus document, known as the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," was unveiled in 2012 and instantly set off a debate over its authenticity. Perhaps its most controversial elements are lines that suggest Jesus had a wife.

But a recent announcement from the Harvard Divinity School that the document is probably genuine has rekindled the disagreement over its provenance and meaning. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

In one segment of the papyrus's text, the words "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" appear in a crude, hand-lettered Coptic script. (Coptic is an ancient language used by Christians living in Egypt.)

In another segment, the words "she will be able to be my disciple" have led some to argue that Jesus was promoting a woman to hold a position in the early Christian church — a controversial position then as now.

The existence of the papyrus document was first announced in 2012 by Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity and a professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School. King first examined the privately owned fragment in 2011, and has since been studying it with a group of biblical scholars.

But is it real?

Since its discovery, the document has been dismissed as a forgery by some historians. "It is very probable that it's a fake," Christian Askeland, a Coptic scholar based in Germany, said in a widely disseminated YouTube video.

First, the writing is sloppy, according to Askeland. Compared with authentic Coptic papyri, in which letters are written with varying thickness and subtle curves and details, the letters in the Gospel of Jesus' Wife are formed by rigid, straight strokes of equal thickness. 

Some experts have also noted that the scribe does not seem to have used either of the writing instruments common to the time period: a stylus (Roman metal pen) or a calamus (Egyptian reed pen). Additionally, the textual content raises questions, because even though much of the manuscript's text is cut off, its meaning is "too easy" to decipher, Askeland said.

No evidence of fraud

Further testing of the papyrus, the ink, the handwriting and the grammar, however, all point to the document's authenticity, according to a recent statement from the Harvard Divinity School.

A technique called micro-Raman spectroscopy, which measures the scattering of light from a sample, revealed that the carbon in the ink matched samples of other papyrus documents that date from the first to eighth centuries A.D.

"The main thing was to see, did somebody doctor this up?" Timothy M. Swager, a chemistry professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times. "And there is absolutely no evidence for that. It would have been extremely difficult, if not impossible."

Swager used infrared spectroscopy, which analyzes the low-frequency light from an object, to see if the ink showed any inconsistencies or variations that would suggest it was a recent forgery. None were found.

A "Monty Python" sketch?

Not all skeptics, however, are dissuaded by these recent findings. Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University, said in a statement in the Harvard Theological Review that the fragment is so obviously fake that it "seems ripe for a 'Monty Python' sketch."

The papyrus also contains "gross grammatical errors," Depuydt said, adding that "an undergraduate student with one semester of Coptic can make a reed pen and start drawing lines."

Nonetheless, the document has renewed questions about the role of women and married men in the church — in both ancient and modern times.

"This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what the role claims of Jesus' marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy and family," King said in a statement.

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Marc Lallanilla
Live Science Contributor
Marc Lallanilla has been a science writer and health editor at About.com and a producer with ABCNews.com. His freelance writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times and TheWeek.com. Marc has a Master's degree in environmental planning from the University of California, Berkeley, and an undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin.