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The wife of Christ

A newly-uncovered ancient papyrus shows that some early Christians believed that Jesus was married, a Harvard professor has discovered.

Karen King, who specialises in the history of Christianity, said the text contains a dialogue in which Jesus refers to 'my wife,' whom he identifies as Mary.

The document was presented earlier this summer at a six-day conference for Copts being held at Rome's La Sapienza University, and later at the Augustinianum institute of the Pontifical Lateran University.

King says the fragment of Coptic script is a copy of a gospel, probably written in Greek in the second century.

She helped translate the document but doesn't claim that it proves that Jesus was married; she does believe that it suggests a possible relationship played a part in the discussion of issues of family and marriage that faced Christians then.

The 1.5-by-3-inch fragment contains four words that provide the first evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married, King said. Those words, written in the language of ancient Egyptian Christians, translate to 'Jesus said to them, my wife.'

She also argues that in the dialogue found in the fragment, the disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy and Jesus says 'she can be my disciple.'

Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was unmarried but King argues that there has never been any reliable historical evidence to support that view. The new gospel, she said, 'tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage.'

The fragment belongs to an anonymous private collector who contacted King for help in translating and analysing it. 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 was written in a script used in ancient times there.