When he lived 2,000 years ago, could Jesus Christ have been married?
That's the question that scholars are asking after a centuries-old scrap of papyrus surfaced with a reference to Jesus' wife—a subject of much speculation over the centuries but with no compelling evidence to back it up.
The papyrus made international headlines when it was cited in a new paper by Harvard historian Karen King. Smaller than a business card, the fragment includes several lines of handwritten text, composed in Coptic language, which uses Christian symbols.
The final line of text includes the words: "And Jesus said, My Wife..." while quoting Jesus.
That sentence is cut off on the papyrus, which is thought to be a fragment from a larger piece of text. The incomplete sentence leaves a mystery about what might have been written—and who the wife may have been.
Prior documents have made veiled references to a close companion of Jesus, but the presence of a wife has never been directly noted in written material from the first several centuries after Jesus' life.
(Related: "Jesus' Tomb Claim Slammed By Scholars.")
Papyrus Is Real, Early Evidence Suggests
The date and authenticity of the papyrus are still being investigated. But early review by a handful of experts of early Christian history and documents suggest the papyrus is indeed real. Preliminary estimates have placed its origin between the second and fourth centuries after Jesus' death.
"If the second century date of composition is correct, the fragment does provide direct evidence that claims about Jesus' marital status first arose over a century after the death of Jesus in the context of intra-Christian controversies over sexuality, marriage, and discipleship," King wrote in the paper with colleague AnneMarie Luijendijk, a professor of religion at Princeton University.
"If it is what it purports to be, then it's the first of its kind to show up," said Bart Ehrman, a religious-studies expert and author at the University of North Carolina.
"We certainly didn't have anything like that before."
But Ehrman cautions that the reference in the text to Jesus' wife doesn't mean he actually had a wife.
"This shows there was a follower in the second century who may have thought Jesus was married," said Ehrman. That revelation would help illuminate the development of early Christianity around a time when the primary gospels of Jesus' life were being written and revised.
Papyrus Discovery a "Major Advance"
Jitse Dijkstra, a Coptic and papyrology expert at the University of Ottawa, called the papyrus fragment a "major advance."
King, the Harvard professor behind the discovery, told the New York Times that the papyrus was loaned to her by a private collector, who for reasons that have not been made public had kept it hidden for several decades. King traveled to Rome last week, where she shared the papyrus fragment with the International Congress of Coptic Studies.
The last time a momentous piece of documentation captured the minds of Christian scholars was the surfacing of the Judas Gospel, a project revealed in the pages of National Geographic magazine.
The National Geographic Society also committed to restoring and preserving the lengthy text, which suggested that the apostle Judas may not have betrayed Jesus as scholars and religious leaders have long thought, but instead that Judas was acting on specific instructions from Jesus.