The papyrus is small, barely three inches wide, and covered in dense, incomplete lines of crudely written Coptic text.
Suffering from significant damage, it could easily have been dismissed as another academically interesting, but not hugely important, fragment of an ancient scroll.
But written on the papyrus are words that experts now believe are a record of a conversation between Jesus and his disciples that may become as important as documents that form the basis of the accepted New Testament.
“The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”, as it has become known since its discovery two years ago, refers to Jesus saying the words “my wife” and was this week confirmed by scientists not to be a modern forgery, but an ancient document dating from between the sixth and ninth centuries AD, or possibly earlier.
While there is considerable disagreement about its implications for the Church, professor Hal Taussig, a New Testament scholar who worked on the extensive examination of the fragment, said its meaning was “breathtaking” and could support the notion that Mary Magdalene was “a major leader in the early Jesus movement”.
This week, the Harvard Theological Review included a number of results from the two-year study of the papyrus. Karen King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, who announced the discovery of the text in 2012, said that while the scroll did not prove that Jesus was married, it could shed light on early Christian debate about whether “the ideal mode” of life was a celibate one.
“The main topic of the fragment is to affirm that women who are mothers and wives can be disciples of Jesus – a topic that was hotly debated in early Christianity as celibate virginity increasingly became highly valued,” she explained. “This gospel fragment provides a reason to reconsider what we thought we knew by asking what the role claims of Jesus’s marital status played historically in early Christian controversies over marriage, celibacy, and family.”
None of the testing carried out on the privately owned fragment has produced evidence that it is a “modern fabrication or forgery”, scientists announced this week.
Harvard Divinity School said: “After all the research was complete, King weighed all the evidence of the age and characteristics of the papyrus and ink, handwriting, language and historical context to conclude the fragment is almost certainly a product of early Christians, not a modern forger.”
To even consider the notion of a non-celibate, married Jesus would be a “huge shift” for some, Prof Taussig told The Washington Post. “This is where people will take the most offence. But for many married people, this might make Jesus feel closer.”
It is not known who wrote the fragment, measuring 1.8 by 3.1 inches, in which Jesus speaks of his mother, his wife and a female disciple called “Mary”. It is assumed to have come from Egypt because it is written in Coptic – the form of Egyptian language used by Christians in the Roman period.
Prof Taussig said he believed the document was ancient and ostensibly as important as documents that make up the accepted New Testament. “Everything we have is a copy of a copy of a copy of a copy. We have no original documents,” he added. “What you have are traditions of writing.”
But Reverend James Martin, the editor of America, the national Catholic magazine, said there remained considerable evidence that Jesus was unmarried.
“It is incredible that the four Gospel writers wouldn’t have mentioned Jesus’s wife if he had one,” he argued. “They mentioned everyone else in his family.”