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Jesus had a wife? Bible scholars question Harvard finding (+video)

Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School professor, says that in the papyrus text Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary. King said that in the dialogue the disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy and Jesus says "she can be my disciple."

By RODRIQUE NGOWIAssociated Press / September 19, 2012

This is a fourth century fragment of papyrus that Harvard University professor Karen L. King says is the only existing ancient text that quotes Jesus explicitly referring to having a wife. King says the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.

(AP Photo/Harvard University, Karen L. King)

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Rome and Boston

Scholars are questioning the authenticity and significance of a much-publicized discovery by a Harvard scholar who reported that a 4th Century fragment of papyrus has provided the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married.

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Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced the finding Tuesday at an international congress on Coptic studies in Rome. Her paper, and the front-page attention it received in some U.S. newspapers, was very much a topic of conversation during the coffee breaks at the conference Wednesday.

Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist and co-director of the francophone project editing the Nag Hammadi Coptic library at Laval University in Quebec, said there were "thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things," and that many questions remain unanswered about the Harvard fragment.

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King, an expert in the history of Christianity, said the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary. King says the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.

King helped translate and unveiled the tiny fragment at the  conference of Coptic experts in Rome. She said it doesn't prove Jesus was married but speaks to issues of family and marriage that faced Christians.

Four words in the 1.5-by-3-inch(3.8-by-7.6-centimeter) fragment provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, King said. Those words, written in a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, translate to "Jesus said to them, my wife," King said in a statement.

King said that in the dialogue the disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy and Jesus says "she can be my disciple."

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried even though there was no reliable historical evidence to support that, King said. The new gospel, she said, "tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage."

"From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry," she said, "but it was over a century after Jesus's death before they began appealing to Jesus's marital status to support their positions."

King presented the document at a six-day conference being held at Rome's La Sapienza University and at the Augustinianum institute of the Pontifical Lateran University. While the Vatican newspaper and Vatican Radio frequently cover such academic conferences, there was no mention of King's discovery in any Vatican media on Tuesday. That said, her paper was one of nearly 60 delivered Tuesday at the vast conference, which drew 300 academics from around the globe.

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