Pastors around the nation are bracing for questions from curious congregants, after a Harvard professor claimed a fragment of text from the fourth century suggests Jesus may have been married.
Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School, announced Tuesday that the tiny scrap of papyrus contains dialogue that includes the words "Jesus said to them, 'My wife..'"
The text, written in Coptic and likely translated from a second-century Greek text, was produced by an unknown author roughly 300 years after Jesus' death. It is the "only extant ancient text which explicitly portrays Jesus as referring to a wife," according to King.
"I think preachers should handle this by telling members of their churches that the Bible that we have is reliable."
- Thomas White, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary
While the authenticity and truth behind the document is being debated, clergy will likely be confronted with questions from parishioners about the finding, which runs at odds with Christian tradition maintaining Jesus was unmarried. The finding also stirs up debate on the role of women in the church and celibacy among priests.
The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops told FoxNews.com Thursday that the conference "has not issued any guidance on this development." Vatican spokesman Federico Lombardi has refused to question King's scholarship, although he said in an interview with AFP that "we do not really know where this little scrap of parchment came from."
"This does not change anything in the position of the church, which rests on an enormous tradition, which is very clear and unanimous," Lombardi said.
He added that this discovery should not change the teachings from the altar.
"This changes nothing in the portrayal of Christ and the gospels. This is not an event that has any influence on Catholic doctrine," he said.
In Baptist churches throughout the country, meanwhile, pastors will speak on the matter as they see fit.
"Each [Baptist] church is autonomous," said Thomas White, vice president of student services and communications at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. "So there's really not going to be any guidelines."
But White and prominent Baptist leaders have made their rejections of the finding clear.
"I think preachers should handle this by telling members of their churches that the Bible that we have is reliable," White told FoxNews.com. "This document that's come to light is a suspect document from the fourth century. We don't know who translated it. We don't know who wrote it. It's only eight lines, smaller than a business card."
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., issued a statement on King's finding that was more conspiratorial.
"This is sensationalism masquerading as scholarship," Mohler said in a posting Thursday on his website. "The energy behind all this is directed to the replacement of orthodox Christianity, its truth claims, its doctrines, its moral convictions, and its vision of both history and eternity with a secularized - indeed, Gnositicized - new version."
King, who presented the finding Tuesday at an international Coptic studies conference in Rome, has acknowledged in interviews that the papyrus does not prove Jesus had a wife, "given the late date of the fragment and the probable date of original composition."
King said, however, that the fragment is "direct evidence" of a debate by early Christians over Jesus' marital status.
Several scholars claim the writing could very well be authentic but say they give no credence to the claim that Jesus was married.
"The writing is probably authentic," author and religious historian Richard Sorensen said. "However, the idea that Jesus had a wife is a specious claim."
"There is no word of this whatsoever" from "everybody that knew Jesus and spent any time with him," Sorensen said. "It's totally in disagreement with the people who lived during his time.
"I think that the author of it [the papyrus] had an agenda - a philosophical agenda - and it's not Christian," he continued. "I see this simply as one more ancient revisiting of the gospel. ... People have an idea and they continue to popularize that idea and they continue to look for evidence of it."