He is among friends and followers, doing what he often did: he is talking. In a Coptic papyrus fragment that scholars believe dates from the fourth century, Jesus of Nazareth appears to be in conversation about family and discipleship--Who is worthy? Who dwells with, and in, the Lord? Then the account contains a momentous line: "Jesus said to them, 'My wife..."
Written in Sahidic Coptic on a scrap of codex, these six words form the core of what Karen L. King of Harvard Divinity School is calling "the first known statement that explicitly claims Jesus had [a] wife." King is measured about what the text can and cannot tell us. "This fragment and that sentence is not evidence of Jesus' marital status," she says from Rome. The earliest evidence we have--the canonical New Testament--does not address the question of whether Jesus was married. Yet taken together with the contemporaneous gnostic gospels of Mary, Philip and Thomas, she argues, the papyrus, if in fact authentic, does shed light on debates within early Christianity about sexuality and marriage. Authenticating such things always presents challenges, and while a peer-reviewing process indicates the fragment is likely what it purports to be, experts will continue to investigate to ensure the document is not a forgery.
From the first hours after the Passion and, for believers, the Resurrection, the meaning of Jesus has been a subject of ferocious debate, a reminder that writings from the era have to be read with caution and a critical sensibility. Even the Gospels came into being not as straightforward biographies or histories in the way we understand biography or history. (The author of John was honest about this, noting that his book was written "that ye might believe.")
The papyrus came to King's attention in 2010 by way of an anonymous collector. King released her findings in a draft of a forthcoming Harvard Theological Review article. The "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" papyrus seems to date from a period when early Christians were struggling to put sexuality and marriage in their proper place. Some believers appear to have favored celibacy as a route to spiritual purity. In the second half of the second century--possibly the period of the original composition of the Coptic papyrus--Clement of Alexandria wrote that there were those who "proudly say that they are imitating the Lord who neither married nor had any possession in this world." These more ascetic followers were enlisting an unmarried Jesus as a supporting example to buttress a case in favor of sexual virtue.
Perhaps then, King suggests, the new papyrus is a relic of a rival theological camp that held sex and marriage as positive goods. Different factions of Christians were claiming the Lord for their own purposes--a phenomenon that began as early as the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts and continues apace.