A small fragment of faded papyrus contains a suggestion that Jesus may have been married.
The fragment, with just eight lines of text on the front and six lines on the back, is from a fourth-century dialogue, written in the Coptic language, between Jesus and his disciples. In it, Jesus speaks of "my wife," according to Harvard professor Karen L. King, who discovered the fragment.
"The most exciting line in the whole fragment…is the sentence 'Jesus said to them [his disciples], my wife…" King said in a video posted to Harvard's YouTube channel. The next line of text reads, "She will be able to be my disciple."
"This is the only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife," King wrote in her paper on the discovery.
The discovery, if it is validated, could have major implications for the Christian faith. The belief that Jesus was not married is one reason priests in the Catholic Church must remain celibate and are not allowed to marry. It could also have implications for women's roles in the church, as it would mean Jesus had a female disciple.
For centuries, there has been debate about the possibility that Jesus was married, with many believing he might have had a relationship with Mary Magdalene, who is mentioned prominently in the New Testament. The speculation was even the subject of Dan Brown's best seller, The Da Vinci Code.
King stresses that the new discovery "does not provide evidence that the historical Jesus was married."
However, King writes, "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."
In the years after Jesus' death, Christians debated what was the correct way to follow Jesus' example and lifestyle. King says the parchment might simply mean that some Christians believed after Jesus' death that he was married during his life.
While working to determine whether the papyrus was a forgery, King said she was particularly interested in also researching the first time anybody stated that Jesus did not have a wife.
"I was surprised to find that it is indeed right during the same period when we're dating this fragment," King said. That means it was long after Jesus' death that the question was first raised about whether or not Jesus was married - and this small fragment appears to state that he was.
King presented her research at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome.