No, this fragment does not provide evidence that Jesus was married. The comparatively late date of this Coptic papyrus (a seventh to eighth century c.e. fragment of a gospel perhaps composed in Greek as early as the second half of the second century) argues against its value as evidence for the life of the historical Jesus. Nor is there any reliable historical evidence to support the claim that he was not married, even though Christian tradition has long held that position. The oldest and most reliable evidence is entirely silent about Jesus’s marital status.
From the moment the existence of the fragment was announced, some people doubted whether the fragment really is an ancient text and not a modern forgery, primarily because its contents are so unfamiliar or because they suspect someone might have an agenda to prove that Jesus was married or use the forgery to get rich. Scholars, however, use established procedures to determine if a papyrus is indeed an ancient document.
If ancient, this tiny, damaged fragment provides tantalizing glimpses into issues about family, discipleship, and marriage that concerned ancient Christians. The main topic of the dialogue between Jesus and his disciples is one that deeply concerned early Christians, who were asked to put loyalty to Jesus before their natal families, as the New Testament gospels show. Christians were talking about themselves as a family, with God the Father, his son Jesus, and members as brothers and sisters.
The real author of the gospel is not known and would likely remain unknown even if more of the text of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife had survived. This remaining piece is too small to tell us anything definite about who may have composed, read, or circulated it except that they were Christians.
The name, the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” has been given to the fragment simply so that there is a way to refer to it. It is not possible to know whether the word “gospel” would have been part of the ancient title of the work to which this fragment belongs, or even if it had a title—many ancient Christian writings did not. The subject matter of the text is similar to other texts in the gospel genre, which depict Jesus in dialogue with his disciples.
One very likely possibility is that a papyrus fragment that is this damaged came from an ancient garbage heap, like almost all of the earliest fragments of the New Testament, or it may have come from a burial site. Nothing is known about the circumstances of its discovery, but it had to have come from Egypt where the dry climate allows ancient writings to survive and because it is written in the Coptic form of the Egyptian language.
The text of the fragment is written in Coptic, the form in which the Egyptian language was written beginning in the early centuries c.e. when Egypt was increasingly becoming a vital center of early Christian activity. Coptic uses letters from the Greek alphabet as well as some letters from an older Egyptian script called Demotic. We know that a substantial part of the earliest surviving writings in Coptic were translated from Greek, so this fragment may also have originally been written in Greek, and was only later translated into Coptic for use among Coptic-speaking Christians.
Newly discovered papyrus writings like this one are often dated by comparing the handwriting with known examples, but this method has significant limitations, especially when considering writing that is not done by professional scribes. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment appears to have been written by writer with only an elementary education, who wrote with a nubby pen that didn’t let the ink flow well, causing uneven letters and blotting.
Although the newly found material fragment of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife probably dates to around the eighth century, it may be a copy of an earlier copy in Coptic which had possibly been translated from a Greek copy. This means that the date of the material fragment is unlikely to be the date when the gospel was first composed; rather it indicates that the gospel could not have been composed later than the eighth century. How much earlier might the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife have been composed?
Nothing is known about the circumstances of its original discovery, but there are some clues about its modern history. The earliest documentation about the fragment is a bill of sale dated November 12, 1999, stating that the former owner had acquired six pieces of papyrus in 1963 in Potsdam (East Germany). Accompanying it is an unsigned, undated handwritten note indicating that a Professor Fecht (from the faculty of Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin?) believed it to be evidence for a possible marriage of Jesus.
Various previously unknown early Christian texts have come to light in the modern period. The most important of these in Coptic are the writings discovered in 1945 at Nag Hammadi, a book called the Berlin Codex discovered at the end of the 19th century, and the Tchacos Codex, which came to light in the early 1990s. They contain a wide variety of literature, such as The Prayer of the Apostle Paul, The Gospel of Thomas, The Gospel of Mary, and Thunder Perfect Mind, all available in English translation.
The fragment is available for study in its digital form on this site, which supports all but the most specialized needs for research. The original is extremely fragile and access has to be strictly limited. If you have a legitimate research purpose that requires consultation of the original fragment, you may apply for access with the Curator of Early Books and Manuscripts (email@example.com)
In May, 2015, an agreement was signed by Harvard University and the owner of two Coptic papyrus fragments (the Gospel of Jesus' Wife fragment and a Coptic fragment of the Gospel of John). It provides for the fragments to be deposited at Harvard for a ten-year period (renewable) for purposes of study and research.