RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And now to a scrap of ancient papyrus that raises an unusual question: Did Jesus have a wife? Scholars believe this fragment was written in the fourth century, and it's creating a sensation among New Testament experts. But even the historian who identified it says it's not evidence that Jesus was married. NPR's Barbara Bradley Hagerty has the story.
BARBARA BRADLEY HAGERTY, BYLINE: Karen King, a historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, received an intriguing email two years ago from a private collector. He had found a tiny piece of papyrus - no larger than a business card - that he wanted her to analyze. It was written in Coptic, an Egyptian language, and King specializes in Coptic literature. King was initially skeptical, but when she finally saw the fragment in December, she realized it represented a, quote, "new, previously unknown Gospel."
KAREN KING: Eight lines on the front, six lines on the back. The most exciting line in the whole fragment, however, is the sentence: Jesus said to them - to his disciples, that is - Jesus said to them, my wife.
HAGERTY: After that, the text is cut off. A little later, there are the words, quote, "she will be my disciple." King, who is an expert on the Gnostic Gospels, says at first she thought the papyrus was a forgery. After all, this is the first text ever to suggest, outright, that Jesus was married.
The collector, who wants to remain anonymous, found it in a batch of documents he bought in 1997, and not much is known about its origins. But King brought the fragment to two experts, who spent hours analyzing the papyrus and the ink.
KING: And at the end of that time, we concluded that it was authentic and probably fourth century.
HAGERTY: King says, let's be clear: This fragment does not mean that Jesus was married.
KING: It's not evidence for us, historically, that Jesus had a wife. It's quite clear evidence, in fact, that some Christians, probably in the second half of the second century - that's between about 150 and 200 A.D. - thought that Jesus had a wife.
HAGERTY: King says there was a raging debate about Jesus' marital state among early Christians, who were grappling with how they, themselves, should live.
KING: Should Christians marry, or should they be celibate? Is celibacy and virginity a higher form of spiritual practice than marriage and reproduction?
HAGERTY: Darrell Bock, a New Testament scholar at Dallas Theological Seminary, agrees that it's an extraordinary finding, and that it should be taken with a grain of salt.
DARRELL BOCK: In the New Testament, the church is presented as the bride of Christ. And then in Gnostic Christianity in particular, there's a ritual - about which we don't know very much - that portrayed the church as the bride of Christ. So we could simply have a metaphorical reference to the church as the bride, or the wife, of Christ.
HAGERTY: Bock says no one should begin revising the traditional view of Jesus, since all other early Christian writings state that Jesus was unmarried.
BOCK: This would be the first text - out of hundreds of texts that we have about Jesus - that would indicate that he was married, if it's even saying that. So to suggest that one text overturns multiple texts, and multiple centuries, of what has been said about Jesus and what's been articulated about him, I think is not a very wise place to go, just simply from a historical point of view.
HAGERTY: Of course, Jesus' marital status has major implications for the Catholic Church, which requires celibacy for priests and women religious. And the reference to a female disciple goes to the heart of a worldwide debate about the role of women in the church. But Bock says it's way too early for, say, the Catholic Church to begin upending its traditions.
BOCK: It's a small, extremely fringe, light text with no context, and so to think about doing something about a tradition simply on the basis of, of that kind of a text, it's making a change on the basis of an asterisk.
HAGERTY: For her part, Karen King says she wants experts to take a hard look at the document, both for its authenticity, and for its implications for Christianity worldwide.
Barbara Bradley Hagerty, NPR News.
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