4th-Century papyrus refers to wife of Jesus

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photoHarvard professor Karen L. King holds the fragment, which is about 11/2 by 3 inches in size.

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A scrap of papyrus dated to the fourth century has written on it in the ancient Coptic language, "Jesus said to them, my wife," reopening the debate about whether Jesus was married, as some early Christians believed.

The words on the honey-colored fragment are the first to show Jesus referring to a wife, according to Karen King, a professor of divinity at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., who presented the finding Tuesday at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome. The writing in black ink is in the language of Egyptian Christians on a fragment of about 1.5 by 3 inches.

The fragment likely is authentic, based on the papyrus and handwriting, Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York said in a statement from Harvard. Early Christians didn't agree about whether they should marry or remain celibate, and the earliest claim Jesus didn't marry is from A.D. 200, King said.

"One of the things we do know is that very rarely in ancient literature was the marital status of men discussed," King said. "Silence in marital status is normal."

Women were identified only in terms of family relationships, as someone's sister, mother, or wife, King said. The question of whether Jesus married came up later when people wanted to use him as a model for their lives, she said.

Though the Christian religion is sometimes referred to as Jesus' bride in scriptural interpretation, the other words around "my wife," including references to his mother and someone named Mary, suggest he is talking about family.

King declined to name the owner of the papyrus fragment in the Harvard statement. The fragment belonged to a scripture dubbed "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" by King for reference, and was probably originally written in Greek and translated into Coptic for the local Christians.