A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: "Jesus said to them, 'My wife ...'"
The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side, in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, "She will be able to be my disciple."
The finding is being made public in Rome on Tuesday at an international meeting of Coptic scholars by the historian Karen L. King, who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation's oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.
The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Dr. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery.
Even with many questions unsettled, the discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalene was his wife and whether he had a female disciple.
The Boston Globe and other media quote Dr. King as saying the text also refers to a "Mary," who Dr. King said is probably Mary Magdalene, but the references to "wife" and "Mary" are on separate parts of the papyrus.
These debates date to the early centuries of Christianity, scholars say. But they are relevant today, when global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage. Dr. King said she was initially suspicious of the document's authenticity, but it looked promising enough to explore.
She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.
But the discovery is exciting, Dr. King said, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.
"This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married," Dr. King said. "There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married.
Dr. King showed the fragment to two colleagues, both papyrologists. They examined the scrap under sharp magnification. It was very small – only four by eight centimetres. What convinced them it was probably genuine was the fading of the ink on the papyrus fibers and traces of ink adhered to the bent fibers at the torn edges. Dr. King did not have the ink dated using carbon testing. She said it would require scraping off too much, destroying the relic. She still plans to have the ink tested by spectroscopy, which could roughly determine its age by its chemical composition.
Ariel Shisha-Halevy, an eminent Coptic linguist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was consulted, and responded in an e-mail in September, "I believe – on the basis of language and grammar – the text is authentic."
The owner of the papyrus fragment, who has a collection of Greek, Coptic and Arabic papyri, is not willing to be identified by name, nationality or location, because, Dr. King said, "He doesn't want to be hounded by people who want to buy this."
When, where or how the fragment was discovered is unknown. The collector acquired it in a batch of papyri in 1997 from the previous owner, a German. It came with a handwritten note in German that names a professor of Egyptology in Berlin, now deceased, and cited him calling the fragment "the sole example" of a text in which Jesus claims a wife.