Harvard Divinity School professor Karen L. King translated the ancient papyrus fragment from the fourth century, which contains a suggestion that Jesus may have been married.
She said researchers had identified the words “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife'”, which might refer to Mary Magdalene.
“I do not think Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene,” King clarified Tuesday, adding, “whether he was or was not married … I really think the tradition is silent and we don’t know.”
The text, which is printed on papyrus the size of a business card, has not been scientifically tested, but King is confident it is a genuine artifact, writes The Huffington Post.
Several other experts agreed, she said, but the “final judgment on the fragment depends on further examination by colleagues and further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink.”
The professor suggested that the 4th-Century text was a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the 2nd Century.
“Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim,” King said at a conference in Rome on Tuesday.
“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.”
“What this shows is that there were early Christians for whom sexual union in marriage could be an imitation of God’s creativity and generativity and it could be spiritually proper and appropriate,” Ms King added.
She continued: “From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus’s death before they began appealing to Jesus’ marital status to support their positions.”
The idea that Jesus was unmarried is largely accepted by Christian denominations and a reason for the practice of celibacy among Roman Catholic priests.
“Beyond internal Catholic Church politics, a married Jesus invites a reconsideration of orthodox teachings about gender and sex,” said journalist and author Michael D’Antonio, who writes about the Catholic Church.
“If Jesus had a wife, then there is nothing extra Christian about male privilege, nothing spiritually dangerous about the sexuality of women, and no reason for anyone to deny himself or herself a sexual identity.”
King’s announcement has already sparked scepticism from some theologians, BBC reports.
Jim West, a professor and Baptist pastor in Tennessee, said: “A statement on a papyrus fragment isn’t proof of anything. It’s nothing more than a statement ‘in thin air’, without substantial context.”
Wolf-Peter Funk, a noted Coptic linguist attending the same conference as Ms King, said there were “thousands of scraps of papyrus where you find crazy things,” and many questions remained about the fragment.
“The discovery of this new gospel offers an occasion to rethink what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus’ marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family,” King said.
“Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise,” she added.