King with papyrus
King with papyrus Reuters

A newly unveiled scrap of ancient papyrus written in Egyptian Coptic reveals the words "Jesus said to them, my wife…”

This discovery will reignite a hot debate in the church over whether Jesus was married. The papyrus scrap was unveiled on Tuesday at the Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies, in Rome, Italy.

Karen King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who oversaw the translation and cursory examination, wrote a statement for the press:

"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim...This new gospel doesn't prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage."

King says this find is evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, but does not necessarily suggest anything beyond this.

"From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus' death before they began appealing to Jesus' marital status to support their positions," she added.

The reference to an earthly partner for Christ is definitely not in line with what many Christians believe, but those common beliefs are undocumented, King stressed.

The words, written in Coptic, a language of Egyptian Christians, are on a papyrus fragment of about one and a half inches by three inches (3.8 centimeters to 7.6 centimeters), it said.

While several experts agree the yellowish brown papyrus is authentic, "final judgment on the fragment depends on further examination by colleagues and further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink," according to King.

The fragment is owned by an anonymous private collector; it was discovered either in Syria or Egypt. The exact location has yet to be disclosed to the press.