Does a tiny scrap of papyrus prove that Jesus Christ had a wife? If so, it would contradict the Gospels and throw the entire New Testament and Christianity itself into doubt.
However, the fragment itself is increasingly in doubt with the Smithsonian Channel postponing indefinitely the airing of an hour-long documentary on the document – and reports that a prominent academic journal scheduled to publish findings on the fragment has decided to hold off.
The papyrus fragment
The first announcements about the discovery came from a professor at Harvard University Divinity School, Professor Karen L. King, a historian of early Christianity, who announced that an anonymous German collector had provided her with the fragment of ancient Coptic text – but could provide no details of when or where it was unearthed or by whom.
On the fragment, Jesus is quoted as using the words “my wife.”
Amid the flash of cameras and hubbub of a dazzled news media, Dr. King picked her words carefully and stopped short of endorsing the authenticity of the fragment. She declared she was making the finding public “despite many unresolved questions” – so that her academic colleagues could weigh in, according to Laurie Goodstein reporting in the New York Times.
“And weigh in, they have,” noted Goodstein. “A few said that the papyrus must be a forgery. Others have questioned Dr. King’s interpretation of its meaning. Some have faulted her for publishing a paper on an item of unknown provenance. And many have criticized her decision to give the scrap of papyrus the attention-getting title ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,’ as if it had equal weight to other, lengthier texts.”
In Rome, the Vatican called the piece a fake, according to Elisabetto Povoledo, also reporting in the Times.
The Smithsonian Channel was the first to back away from the fragment – postponing the broadcast of a quickly thrown-together
documentary, citing the many doubts of its authenticity, according to USA Today.
Jesus with little children
Next came reports in the Huffington Post that the Harvard Theological Review had postponed publishing King’s 52-page paper on the fragment because of doubts over whether the papyrus is genuine. Helmut Koester, a professor emeritus of Harvard Divinity School and a former 25-year editor of the journal, told the Post’s Jaweed Kaleem that the Journal ”did not want to publish because of doubts from two respected scholars.”
“Koester, who specializes in early Christianity and early Christian archaeology,” noted Kaleem, “added that after seeing an evaluation of King’s work from a colleague in the field, he was ‘absolutely convinced that this is a modern forgery.’”
Craig Evans, a New Testament professor at Acadia Divinity College in Nova Scotia, is one of the scholars who has questions. Evans blogged on Near Emmaus, a biblical history website, that he thought “the papyrus itself is probably quite old, perhaps fourth or fifth century, but the oddly written letters are probably modern and probably reflect recentin Jesus and Mary Magdalene,” reported Kaleem.
The Associated Press quoted several of Dr. King’s colleagues as saying that the handwriting, grammar and shape of the fragment makes them suspect it was forged.
Will the papyrus be exposed as a forgery -- like the Jehoash tablet?
Coptic scholar Dr. Alberto Camplani said he is suspicious because it apparently had been bought and sold on the highly questionable