The fragment has only a few words that translate as "Jesus said to them 'my wife,' " Harvard said in a news release.
Karen King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., discussed the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" Tuesday at the 10th International Congress on Coptic Studies in Rome. The fragment is written in Coptic, although experts say it was probably translated from a Greek text for the benefit of Egyptian Christians.
"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," King said. "This new gospel doesn't prove that Jesus was married, but it tells us that the whole question only came up as part of vociferous debates about sexuality and marriage. From the very beginning, Christians disagreed about whether it was better not to marry, but it was over a century after Jesus's death before they began appealing to Jesus's marital status to support their positions."
King said the fragment came from a private collector. She said he first got in touch with her in 2010 and she told him she was not interested in looking at it but changed her mind because of his persistence.
Experts have verified the scrap as an authentically ancient papyrus parchment. King said it probably dates from the second half of the second century A.D., an era that produced the "Gospel of Thomas" and other recently discovered texts and a time of debate in the church about which texts were canonical.
King said it was only in around 200 A.D. that Jesus was referred to as a life-long celibate, although his followers had been debating marriage for decades.