Papyrus raises questions but doesn't prove Jesus was married, experts admit

Karen Kelley, a professor at Harvard Divinity School at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., examines a piece of papyrus that may reveal Jesus' marital status.
CBS News

(CBS News) Most of what we know about Jesus comes from the New Testament, and it says nothing of his marital status.

But, a few words written long after Jesus' death have just come to light.

It's no bigger than a business card, but this tattered piece of papyrus written in the fourth century contains some intriguing phrases.

"And then Jesus said to his disciples, 'My wife,' and in the next sentence he says she is able to be my disciple," said Karen Kelley, a professor at Harvard Divinity School at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.

Kelly said that those phrases -- "my wife" and the idea Jesus may have had a female disciple -- have not appeared before in historical writing.

The professor was given the fragment by an anonymous collector, and while she is convinced the translation is accurate, she's not about to rewrite the story of Jesus.

"We conclude from this that we still don't know if Jesus was married or not," she said. "This is not evidence in one direction or the other direction."

But if its true, it will add fire to old debates, including whether married men can be priests and the role of women in the church. Catholic doctrine holds that only single men can be priests, in part because of the model Jesus set. And, if Jesus had a female disciple that too could change conventional thinking.

""I expect this not to be the last word but the first word and a deep discussion is already beginning about the meaning of this, it's significant, it's place in the history of Christianity," Kelly said. "I suspect that it will go on for many years to come."

Even though there are only fourteen words on the double-sided fragment, papyrus expert Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University is convinced it is authentic. She helped examine the fragment.

"We were very careful because we knew the stakes were very high, and we knew that people were going to ask questions about the historical Jesus, and we were very careful that we were not falling in a trap," she said.

As for reaction from the Vatican, the papal spokesman said, "Let the scholars say what they want, the Church stands by its doctrine, which goes back to the earliest Christians."

In other words, they still believe Jesus was a bachelor.