The "Jesus Wife" papyrus, a fragment of Coptic script containing a suggestion that Jesus may have been married, is a "clumsy forgery," the Vatican said.
"At any rate, a fake," Giovanni Maria Vian, the editor of the Vatican's newspaper L'Osservatore Romano, wrote in an editorial that accompanied an article by leading Coptic scholar Alberto Camplani.
The brownish-yellow, tattered fragment, about one and a half inches by three inches, was unveiled last week by Harvard Professor Karen L. King at an international congress of Coptic Studies, held every four years and hosted this year by the Vatican's Institutum Patristicum Augustinianum in Rome.
Featuring just eight lines of text on the front and six lines on the back, the fragment was dated from a fourth-century dialogue, written in Coptic, a language of ancient Egyptian Christians, between Jesus and his disciples.
The center of the fragment contained the bombshell phrase "Jesus said to them, my wife," suggesting that some early Christians believed Jesus had been married.
"The news was quickly reported," Camplani wrote, criticizing Harvard for handing the headline-grabbing announcement to the American press before the conference even started.
According to the historian, who teaches history of Christianity at the University La Sapienza of Rome and helped organize the conference, the fact that there is no reference to Jesus being married in historic documents is "more significant than the literal interpretation of a few expressions from the new text."
The papyrus provenance also screams for caution, Camplani said.
"It was not discovered in a dig but came from the antique market. Such an object demands that numerous precautions are taken to establish its reliability and exclude the possibility of forgery," he wrote.
Camplani has joined a growing number of skeptical experts.
"Skepticism is exactly the right attitude," Francis Watson, a New Testament scholar at Durham University, UK, wrote in a paper posted online.
Watson dismissed the text as a forgery, arguing that the fragment is a patchwork of words and phrases copied from printed editions of the Gospel of Thomas.
"This is most probably the compositional procedure of a modern author who is not a native speaker of Coptic," he wrote.
According to King, who has posted a draft of the paper provisionally accepted by the peer-reviewed journal Harvard Theological Review, along with an extensive question-and-answer on the fragment and its meaning, the final judgment on the fragment depends on "further examination by colleagues and further testing, especially of the chemical composition of the ink."
Photo: "Jesus Wife"papyrus fragment: front. Credit: Karen L. King 2012.