The Vatican newspaper has heaped doubt on a piece of papyrus that appears to show that some early Christians believed Jesus had a wife, deeming it “at any rate, a fake” in an editorial published this week.
L’Osservatore Romano editor Giovanni Maria Vian said the fragment, unveiled to the public last week by Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King, was a “clumsy forgery” that had been hyped by the American media only to be immediately called into question by specialists.
Vian referred back to an accompanying article by Coptic scholar Alberto Camplani, which cautioned that the papyrus was found not through excavation, but at “an antiquarian market.” Religious scholars have cast doubt on its grammar and questioned whether anything can be deduced from such a clipped bit of text. The ink on the piece of parchment has yet to be tested, another gauge of its authenticity.
“Such an object demands that numerous precautions be taken to establish its reliability and exclude the possibility of forgery,” Camplani wrote, lamenting “tones which are quick to shock” in the media.
Camplani went on to argue that in light of the absence of other historical references to Jesus being married, the text should be understood “purely in a symbolic sense,” representing the spiritual union between Jesus and his disciples, according to an Associated Press translation of his article.
King has cautioned that the find is not proof that Jesus was married, but could provide evidence that some early Christians believed he was.
The discovery nonetheless set off a media firestorm, spurring comparisons to the plot of the bestselling novel “The Da Vinci Code,” which swirls around Jesus having married Mary Magdalene. The idea of Jesus being married would upset existing Church doctrine, possibly calling into question the practice of priestly celibacy.
Though some reviewers with the Harvard Theological Review raised questions about the text after her work was shared with them in August, King wrote, “in the end we have come to a different judgment and tend to regard the papyrus fragment not to be a forgery.”
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles
Photo: The front side of a papyrus fragment believed to date back to the 4th century, which includes the Coptic words "Jesus said to them, My wife." Credit: Agence-France Presse / Getty Images / Harvard Divinity School / Karen L. King