Jesus Married? New Documentary Highlights Controversial Gospel

papyrus fragment of the Gospel of Jesus's wife
This papyrus, said to be from ancient times, says that Jesus had a wife. Its discovery was announced in 2012 and new information uncovered by Live Science casts doubt on its origins. (Image credit: Karen L. King, 2012)

A controversial scrap of parchment no bigger than a business card seems to suggest that Jesus Christ was married. A new documentary gives the full story of this so-called "Gospel of Jesus's Wife."

Revealed in 2012, the papyrus, written in the ancient Egpytian language Coptic, includes a line that says, "Jesus said to them, 'My wife...'" Karen King, a professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School, made the announcement; the owner of the papyrus remains anonymous.

However, a recent Live Science investigation traces the papyrus to its previous owner, a man named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp who supposedly bought the scrap along with five others in 1963 in East Germany. René Ernest, representative of Laukamp's estate after his death in 2002, told Live Science that Laukamp was not a collector of antiquities and that he lived in West Berlin in 1963, separated from East Germany by the Berlin Wall. Another acquaintance of Laukamp's confirmed that he was not an antiquities collector or dealer. [Religious Mysteries: 8 Alleged Relics of Jesus]

Forged fragment?

The authenticity of the scrap remains in dispute. Test results released in April 2014 suggest that the papyrus is not a recent forgery, but those tests have not convinced all critics. One cause for skepticism is the style of the message: There are mistakes in the Coptic that seem very unlikely to have been made by a native scribe, according to a 2013 article in the journal Harvard Theological Review. The controversial phrase "my wife" is also written in heavier letters than the surrounding text, which strikes some as suspicious.

"If the forger had used italics in addition, one might be in danger of losing one's composure," Brown University Egyptologist Leo Depuydt wrote drily in the Harvard Theological Review.

The new documentary, which premiers on the Smithsonian Channel on Monday (May 5) at 8 p.m. ET/PT, follows the story from the first email King received from an anonymous collector asking her to look at the papyrus to the ensuing media storm, which included disavowals of the papyrus from the Vatican.

History and the gospels

The documentary is careful to explain that by calling the fragment a "gospel," King and her colleagues don't intend to say the contents are true. Even if the text is authentic and refers to Jesus's wife, that doesn't mean it is accurate; instead, the text might reflect debates in the early Christian church about the role of women. Another segment of the text refers to the possibility of a female disciple.

The text also refers to a woman named Mary, which could refer to Mary Magdalene, a woman mentioned in the Bible in the story of Jesus' death and resurrection, though King warns that Mary was a very common name at the time. The implications for the church could be far-reaching, said the Rev. Robin Griffiths-Jones, an Anglican priest and theologon from the Temple Church in London. [Read Translation of Papyrus]

"If evidence were to be taken seriously that Jesus was married, vast branches of Christian thought and discipline and life and observance would just evaporate," Griffiths-Jones said in the new documentary.

The documentary delves into church history in explaining the potential importance of the tiny papyrus scrap. Other fragments of the scrap are also translated: The phrase "my mother," and later, "deny Mary is worthy." King sees the scraps as part of a larger story in which Jesus might be defending his female follower — who is perhaps also his wife.

Other texts showing Jesus as a husband may have been destroyed as the early Christian church took on celibacy as a requirement for priesthood, King said.

Still, a single documentary can't resolve the real burning question: Is the papyrus fake or not? Given the focus on King and her colleagues, viewers might come away from the Smithsonian's documentary feeling more confident in the fragment than some researchers would prefer. For now, however, the question of whether Jesus really had a wife remains a mystery. 

Editor's note: This article was updated on Monday (May 5) to correct the date of the documentary's premiere.

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Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.