At a September 2012 academic conference in Rome, Karen King, a historian at Harvard Divinity School, made a major announcement. She had discovered a fragment of papyrus that bore a shocking phrase: “Jesus said to them, My wife.” If the scrap was authentic, it had the potential to upend centuries of Roman Catholic tradition.
The journalist Ariel Sabar covered King’s 2012 presentation for Smithsonian magazine, and revisited the mystery of the papyrus’s origins in a 2016 article for The Atlantic, “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” in which he tracked down the owner of the papyrus—a man whose identity King adamantly refused to share with the press. Could this man have forged the explosive text? Was King’s discovery too good to be true?
“King called the business-card-size papyrus ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,’” Sabar wrote. “But even without that provocative title, it would have shaken the world of biblical scholarship. Centuries of Christian tradition are bound up in whether the scrap is authentic or, as a growing group of scholars contends, an outrageous modern fake: Jesus’s bachelorhood helps form the basis for priestly celibacy, and his all-male cast of apostles has long been cited to justify limits on women’s religious leadership. In the Roman Catholic Church in particular, the New Testament is seen as divine revelation handed down through a long line of men—Jesus, the 12 apostles, the Church fathers, the popes, and finally the priests who bring God’s word to the parish pews today.” What if there was evidence that Jesus had seen a woman as worthy of discipleship too?