Delay of Harvard report on Jesus 'wife' papyrus buoys doubters

A long-awaited article on a Coptic papyrus fragment believed to reference the wife of Jesus has been left out of the Harvard Theological Review, furthering doubts about the artifact’s authenticity.

The scholarly journal was slated to publish a major article on the finding this month after Karen King, a professor of early Christianity at Harvard Divinity School (HDS), announced in September the discovery of a 4th century fragment of papyrus indicating that some early Christians believed Jesus was married. The text, written in Coptic and likely translated from a 2nd century Greek text, contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to "my wife," whom he identifies as Mary.

“Who said it was genuine?”

— David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage

“Who said it was genuine?” asked David Gill, professor of archaeological heritage at University Campus Suffolk in the United Kingdom. “Was it their area of expertise?”

Gill — who also authors the Looting Matters blog, which closely follows the antiquities trade — said experience shows that “clever forgeries” do emerge in the industry.

Kathryn Dodgson, director of communications for Harvard Divinity School, confirmed to that testing and analysis of the fragment, including examination by independent laboratories with the resources and expertise necessary to produce reliable results, is still under way.

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“Publication of Prof. King’s paper has been delayed, so that the results of the testing may be incorporated,” Dodgson wrote in an email.

Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist, told The Associated Press in September that there was no way to evaluate the significance of the tiny fragment because it had no context. It's also a partial, measuring just 1.5 inches by 3 inches.

"There are thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things," said Funk, co-director of a project editing the Nag Hammadi Coptic library at Laval University in Quebec. "It can be anything."

The Vatican newspaper also weighed in on the ballyhooed finding, bluntly declaring it a “fake.”

The newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, published an article by leading Coptic scholar Alberto Camplani and an accompanying editorial by the newspaper's editor, Giovanni Maria Vian, an expert in early Christianity. Both men cited concerns expressed by scholars about the fragment's authenticity and the fact that it was purchased on the market without a known archaeological provenance.

"At any rate, a fake," Vian titled his editorial.

Camplani, a professor at Rome's La Sapienza, wrote that rather than taking the reference to a wife literally, scholars routinely take such references in primitive Christian and biblical literature metaphorically to symbolize the spiritual union between Jesus and his disciples.