New research on the controversial "Gospel of Jesus' Wife," an ancient Egyptian papyrus which shocked Christians around the world after being unveiled in 2012, shows that the document is no forgery, reports the Harvard Theological Review. It was likely inked sometime between the sixth and ninth centuries, but its contents may have been composed as early as the second century.
The report reinvigorates an ongoing debate about Jesus' marital status. At the very least, it suggests that Jesus' marital status may have been an open question for early followers.
Written in Coptic script, an ancient form of Egyptian writing, the fragmented papyrus contains the surprising lines "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... ' " and "she will be able to be my disciple."
"This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what the role claims of Jesus's marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family," said Karen L. King, the Harvard professor who originally unveiled the text in 2012.
King was careful to note that the document does not provide conclusive evidence that Jesus was in fact married. The text is too fragmented to establish that. But it does provide evidence that early Christians were undecided about the issue-- a consideration that borders on heresy to many modern Christians.
The papyrus was tested using a variety of dating techniques including radiocarbon testing, microscopic and multispectral imaging, and a method called micro-Raman spectroscopy, which determines the date of a document by comparing the carbon character of the ink with samples of other papyri that already have a known date.
When the text was first introduced by King in 2012, its authenticity was immediately called into question by the Vatican, which cited poor grammar and the document's uncertain provenance as evidence that it was a forgery. Even taking the latest evidence into consideration, skeptics remain. The Harvard Theological Review is also publishing a rebuttal to King's latest findings by Brown University professor Leo Depuydt, who maintains that the document is a forgery.
According to Depuydt, the text contains "gross grammatical errors" and each word in it matches writing from the Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945.
"It couldn’t possibly be coincidence," Depuydt told The New York Times.
The issue is clearly an emotional one for scholars on both sides of the argument, and it's sure to be debated for some time to come. The fact that the papyrus can be dated to ancient times certainly raises the bar on how seriously it should be taken as a historical document, but the text is too fragmented for any definitive conclusions to be drawn.
"I think with regard to religion, it’s always incredibly important that people take a critical and a constructive point of view to their belief and practice," said King. "Good historical information can be a good resource for people to do that well. My perspective is: We need to do good history, making this as clear as we can. People will take it and do thing we can't imagine."
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