Tests reveal papyrus fragment dubbed 'Gospel of Jesus's Wife' is 'ancient'

A new study backed by scientific evidence suggests that the piece of document containing the words, 'Jesus said to them, my wife' is most likely ancient, dating between the sixth and ninth centuries CE.

Karen L. King/AP Photo/Harvard University
This Sept. 5, 2012 photo released by Harvard University shows the fragment of papyrus.

The papyrus fragment named "Gospel of Jesus's Wife" has been mired in controversy since the day Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced the finding of the ancient text at an international congress on Coptic studies, in Rome, in 2012.

Questions were raised about the authenticity of the document, which measures only about one-and-a-half inches by three inches. According to Reuters, the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, in an editorial by its editor Gian Maria Vian, called it "a clumsy forgery" and "fake."

But a new study backed by several tests now suggests that the piece of document – containing the words "Jesus said to them, my wife" – is indeed very ancient, dating between the sixth and ninth centuries CE. 

For two years, researchers carried out a number of tests, including two radiocarbon tests, microscopic imaging, and micro-Raman spectroscopy, to examine the fragment.

One of the radiocarbon tests indicated that the piece of papyrus must have originated from some time between 659 and 859 CE. Using micro-Raman spectroscopy, researchers confirmed that the ink's carbon character matched with similar samples of other old papyri fragments. The handwriting was examined, and imaging scientists assessed the damage caused to the document to examine if there was a possibility of the document being forged or doctored.

After weighing the evidence, the scholars and scientists agree that the GJW fragment is old and definitely "a product of early Christians, not a modern forger," according to a press release from Harvard Divinity School.

The fragment doesn't provide evidence that Jesus was married but "[t]he main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued," Dr. King said in a statement.

King who gave the fragment its name, says that she dubbed it "Gospel" simply because it fits within the literary genre. This doesn't mean that whatever is written there is true, she says.

According to Harvard Theological Review, the text reveals some kind of a dialogue going on. "The dialogue concerns family and discipleship. Jesus speaks of 'my mother' and 'my wife' in lines 1 and 4, and line 5 refers to a female person who is able to be Jesus’s 'disciple.' Moreover, there appears to be some controversy or polemic, although it is unclear precisely what the concerns are."

The exact origins of the fragment are not known, but judging from the extent of damage it is likely that that the fragile piece probably came from a very old garbage heap or a burial site. One side of the document has eight incomplete lines of text. The reverse side, which has six lines, is so badly damaged that just three words and a few letters are visible.

But it is very much possible that the piece came from Egypt, where weather conditions are conducive for ancient writings to survive. The text, written in Coptic further supports this, according to Harvard Divinity School. 

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