A newly discovered ancient papyrus suggests that Jesus and Mary may have been man and wife.
The fragment, written in Egyptian Coptic and dating back to the 4th century AD, supports the theory popularised in Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code and Richard Reed's The Last Scion.
The papyrus has been authenticated by a number of experts, including Professor Karen King, Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard University, an expert on the early Christian Church.
Professor King announce the discovery at an international conference on Coptic studies in Rome on September 18.
The wording on the 8x4cm papyrus includes the explosive phrase: “Jesus said to them, My wife…”. There is a reference to Mary in the previous line, and Professor King says the context makes it clear that Jesus is referring to her.
She told Smithsonian Magazine: “What this shows is that there were early Christians for whom sexual union in marriage could be an imitation of God’s creativity and generativity, and it could be spiritually proper and appropriate.”
The papyrus, removed from a codex (a book as opposed to a scroll), is badly damaged, but on the front side King gleaned eight fragmentary lines:
1) “not [to] me. My mother gave to me li[fe] … ”
2) The disciples said to Jesus, “
3) deny. Mary is worthy of it
4) ” Jesus said to them, “My wife
5) she will be able to be my disciple
6) Let wicked people swell up
7) As for me, I dwell with her in order to
8) an image
According to the Smithsonian article, some of the phrases echo, if distantly, passages in Luke, Matthew and the Gnostic gospels about the role of family in the life of disciples. The parallels convinced King that the gospel was originally composed, probably in Greek, in the second century AD, when such questions were a subject of lively theological discussion.
The article says King speculates that the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” may have been tossed on the garbage heap not because the papyrus was worn or damaged, but “because the ideas it contained flowed so strongly against the ascetic currents of the tides in which Christian practices and understandings of marriage and sexual intercourse were surging.”
King is clear that this is by no means proof that Jesus was, in fact, married. However, she told Smithsonian it “puts into greater question the assumption that Jesus wasn’t married, which has equally no evidence”. It also casts doubt “on the whole Catholic claim of a celibate priesthood based on Jesus’ celibacy. They always say, ‘This is the tradition, this is the tradition.’ Now we see that this alternative tradition has been silenced.”
As King says, the idea of Jesus being married throws two millennia of theology on its head, and completely undermines the Catholic Church’s stance on a celibate, male priesthood.
Does ancient papyrus show Jesus was really married?
However, it is by no means a new concept. Passages in the Gnostic Gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945 have already suggested both that Mary was one of Jesus' key disciples, and that they enjoyed a close relationship.
However, this is the first time an ancient text has come to light that actually quotes Jesus as using the word 'wife' about Mary.