New evidence has emerged that Jesus was married - or, at any rate, that some early Christians thought he was.
In the early days of the Church, it was widely believed that Christians should remain completely celibate, with Jesus's so-called single state cited as support. Indeed, around the year 200, Clement of Alexandria said Christians saw marriage as fornication instituted by the devil.
But four words on a previously unknown papyrus fragment show that not everybody thought Jesus was unmarried. Reading: 'Jesus said to them, my wife', the words are written in Coptic, a language used by ancient Egyptian Christians, and appear on a papyrus fragment measuring about one and a half inches by three.
"Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married, even though no reliable historical evidence exists to support that claim," says Harvard Professor Karen King.
"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."
The fragment shows every sign of being genuine. It's been examined and tested by both Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic expert at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Further tests are to be carried out, particularly on the chemical composition of the ink.
One side of the fragment contains eight incomplete lines of handwriting, while the other side is badly damaged and the ink so faded that only three words and a few individual letters are still visible. The team believes it forms part of an unknown gospel.
"A fragment this damaged probably came from an ancient garbage heap like all of the earliest scraps of the New Testament," says AnneMarie Luijendijk, an associate professor of religion at Princeton University.
Since there is writing on both sides of the fragment, it clearly belongs to an ancient book, or codex, and not a scroll, she says.
Twice in the tiny fragment, Jesus speaks of his mother and once of his wife - one of whom is identified as 'Mary'. The disciples discuss whether Mary is worthy, and Jesus states that "she can be my disciple."
"The discovery of this new gospel offers an occasion to rethink what we thought we knew by asking what role claims about Jesus's marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family," says King.
"Christian tradition preserved only those voices that claimed Jesus never married. The Gospel of Jesus's Wife now shows that some Christians thought otherwise."