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Thief in the night


…not to me, my mother gave me life ... The disciples said to Jesus ... deny. Mary is worthy of it ... Jesus said to them, 'My wife ... she will be able to be my disciple ... Let wicked people swell up ... As for me I dwell with her in order to ... an image

The latest controversy over Christian archaeology and alternative gospels has come and gone.

Where the 'Jesus Wife' papyrus came from is unknown, and whither it goeth is no longer of any great concern. But it came into the hands of a private collector who brought it to Professor Karen King of Harvard to assess its authenticity.

Though sceptical at first, she decided - provisionally - that it was genuine, and from fourth-century Egypt. It was in Coptic, and, she reckoned, a translation of a second-century Greek gospel.

The words that brought the fragment to the attention of the world media made up the fourth line: 'Jesus said to them, "My wife…"'. We would liked a bit more of that sentence, but it was enough for a media hoo-hah.

The influential US site Huffington Post said that it 'indicated Jesus may have been married'. The Gospel, according to the BBC, 'could spark debate over celibacy and the role of women within Christianity'.

Defensive moves from Christians were just as predictable. The Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano bluntly announced 'It's fake', while others said it referred to the church, the bride of Christ.

A more compelling verdict was given by Professor Francis Watson at Durham. He also said the fragment was fake, but this time he offered some credible reasoning: it was pieced together by a non-Coptic speaker from scraps of the Gospel of Thomas.

If Jesus does ever turn out to have been married, it might be a shame for Catholics. But there was never any chance of a fourth-century papyrus proving anything more about that than establishing that some fourth-century people thought he had a wife. Which we already know.