April 10th, 2014
10:04 AM ET
By Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-EditorFollow @BurkeCNN
(CNN) – A team of scientists has concluded that a controversial scrap of papyrus that purportedly quotes Jesus referring to "my wife," is not a fake, according to the Harvard Theological Review.
"A wide range of scientific testing indicates that a papyrus fragment containing the words, 'Jesus said to them, my wife' is an ancient document, dating between the sixth to ninth centuries CE," Harvard Divinity School said in a statement.
Scientists tested the papyrus and the carbon ink, and analyzed the handwriting and grammar, according to Harvard.
Radiocarbon tests conducted at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology produced an origination date for the papyrus of 659-859 CE, according to Harvard. MIT also studied the chemical composition of the papyrus and patterns of oxidation.
Other scholars studied the carbon character of the ink and found that it matched samples of papyri from the first to eight century CE, according to Harvard.
"None of the testing has produced any evidence that the fragment is a modern fabrication or forgery," the divinity school said.
At least one scholar sharply disagrees, however, calling the papyrus scrap "patently fake."
Unveiled by Karen King, a Harvard Divinity School historian, in 2012, the scrap has sparked a heated debate over Christian history, archaeological accuracy and the role of women in the church.
The fragment, which is about the size of a business card, contains just 33 words, including: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …" and "she will be able to be my disciple."
Though she dubbed the fragment, "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife," King said that the papyrus does not prove that Jesus was actually married – just that ancient Christians discussed the possibility.
"This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what the role claims of Jesus's marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family," King said.
Other Christians have suggested that Jesus may have been speaking metaphorically in the sentence fragments quoted in the papyrus. Some New Testament writers refer to the church as "the bride of Christ."
King and other scholars said they are equally intrigued by Jesus' mention of a female disciple.
"The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus—a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued," King said.
The Harvard Theological Review also published on Thursday a sharp-worded rebuttal to King's hypothesis by Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University.
"I personally—and I am not sure whether I share this feeling with anyone—experience a certain incredulity pertaining to how something that is at first sight so patently fake could be so totally blown out of proportion," Depuydt writes.
Depuydt's criticism centers on the fact that the papyrus scrap contains a grammatical error in Coptic - one that mirrors a similar miscue in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas.
The chances that two ancient works would have the same mistake are minuscule, the scholar said, strongly suggesting that the author of the"Jesus' wife" scrap copied from the Gospel of Thomas.
“As a forgery, it is bad to the point of being farcical or fobbish," Depuydt told the Boston Globe. "I don’t buy the argument that this is sophisticated. I think it could be done in an afternoon by an undergraduate student.”
The Vatican's newspaper has also called the papyrus fragment a fake. “Substantial reasons would lead us to conclude that the papyrus is actually a clumsy counterfeit," L'Osservatore Romano, said in an editorial in 2012.
King and Harvard acknowledge that "nothing is known about the discovery of the fragment." King has said it was given to her by an unnamed donor.
"All the known data about its origin and circulation need to be publicly disclosed and thus made available for scholarly discussion, as is the norm in the handling of manuscripts. Is there some reason we cannot just be told?" Depuydt said.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.