A historian of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School has identified a scrap of papyrus that she says was written in Coptic in the fourth century and contains a phrase never seen in any piece of Scripture: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife ...’” The faded papyrus fragment is smaller than a business card, with eight lines on one side — in black ink legible under a magnifying glass. Just below the line about Jesus having a wife, the papyrus includes a second provocative clause that purportedly says, “she will be able to be my disciple”.

The finding was made public in Rome at an international meeting of Coptic scholars by the historian Karen L. King, who has published several books about new Gospel discoveries and is the first woman to hold the nation’s oldest endowed chair, the Hollis professor of divinity.

The provenance of the papyrus fragment is a mystery, and its owner has asked to remain anonymous. Until Tuesday, Ms. King had shown the fragment to only a small circle of experts in papyrology and Coptic linguistics, who concluded that it is most likely not a forgery. But she and her collaborators say they are eager for more scholars to weigh in and perhaps upend their conclusions.

Ms. King gave an interview and showed the papyrus fragment, encased in glass, to reporters from The New York Times, The Boston Globe and Harvard Magazine in her garret office in the tower at Harvard Divinity School last Thursday.

She repeatedly cautioned that this fragment should not be taken as proof that Jesus, the historical person, was actually married. The text was probably written centuries after Jesus lived, and all other early, historically reliable Christian literature is silent on the question, she said.

But the discovery is exciting, said Ms. King, because it is the first known statement from antiquity that refers to Jesus speaking of a wife. It provides further evidence that there was an active discussion among early Christians about whether Jesus was celibate or married, and which path his followers should choose.

“This fragment suggests that some early Christians had a tradition that Jesus was married,” Ms. King said. “There was, we already know, a controversy in the second century over whether Jesus was married, caught up with a debate about whether Christians should marry and have sex.”

Ms. King first learnt about what she calls “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” when she received an email in 2010 from a private collector who asked her to translate it. Ms. King (58) specialises in Coptic literature, and has written books on “the Gospel of Judas”, “the Gospel of Mary of Magdala”, “Gnosticism and women in antiquity”.

The owner took the fragment to the Divinity School in December 2011 and left it with Ms. King. In March, she carried the fragment in her red handbag to New York to show it to two colleagues, both papyrologists: Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, at New York University, and AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University.

They examined the scrap under sharp magnification. It was very small — only four by eight centimetres. The lettering was splotchy and uneven, the hand of an amateur, but not unusual for the time period, when many Christians were poor and persecuted.

It was written in Coptic — an Egyptian language that uses Greek characters — and more precisely, in Sahidic Coptic — a dialect from southern Egypt, Ms. Luijendijk said in an interview.

What convinced them it was probably genuine was the fading of the ink on the papyrus fibres, and traces of ink adhered to the bent fibres at the torn edges. The back side is so faint that only five words are visible, one only partly: “my moth [[er]]”, “three”, “forth which”.

“It would be impossible to forge,” said Ms. Luijendijk, who contributed to Ms. King’s paper. Mr. Bagnall reasoned that a forger would have had to be expert in Coptic grammar, handwriting and ideas. — New York Times News Service

More In: International | News