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ROME (Reuters) - An ancient Coptic papyrus whose scribe quotes Jesus referring to "my wife" is the first clear recorded statement of a claim that he was married, the Harvard scholar who unveiled the 1,700-year-old fragment said on Wednesday.
But Karen King, Professor at Harvard Divinity School, said the landmark discovery of the fragment still provided no definitive historical answer to the question of whether Jesus had a spouse.
"This is no silver bullet regarding that question," King told Reuters in an interview in Rome, where she presented her findings.
The fragment, which measures 8 cm by 4 cm (3.1 by 1.6 inches) includes words in ancient Coptic in which a scribe writes: "Jesus said to them, my wife ...".
Another section of the fragment, contains the phrase "she will be able to be my disciple".
"I think the fragment itself is discussing issues about discipleship and family. But certainly the fact that this is the first unequivocal statement we have that claims Jesus had a wife, is of great interest," she said.
King presented her findings at an congress of Coptic Studies in a Vatican-run university across the street from St Peter's Square after they were first announced by Harvard on Tuesday.
The fragment, which was given to King by a private owner for study, is believed to have been written in the fourth century in a dialect of the Coptic language used in northern Egypt.
"I want to be very clear that this fragment does not give us any evidence that Jesus was married, or not married," she said in the interview during a break in the congress.
But King, who refers to the discovery as "the Gospel of Jesus' Wife", said she hopes it will help Christians and theologians deal with complex issues of sexuality and the role of women that were discussed in the early Church and are still being discussed today.
Christian tradition has long held that Jesus was not married and the Catholic Church, by far the largest in Christendom, says women cannot become priests because Christ chose only men as his disciples.
"This will be of very important interest for the history of early Christianity and therefore for theologians who draw on history," she said.
The idea that Jesus was married resurfaces regularly in popular culture, notably with the 2003 publication of Dan Brown's best-seller "The Da Vinci Code," which angered the Vatican because it was based on the idea that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children.
The Vatican had no immediate comment on the discovery.
Leading scholars have attested to the authenticity of the tiny fragment, which is owned by an anonymous private collector who contacted King to help translate and analyze it and is thought to have been discovered in Egypt or perhaps Syria.
"I have come to the conclusion that this was indeed an authentic, ancient text, written by a scribe in antiquity," said AnneMarie Luijendijk, associate professor of religion at Princeton University.
"We can see that by the way the ink is preserved on the papyrus and also the way the papyrus has faded and also the way the papyrus has become very fragmentary, which is actually in line with a lot of other papyri we have also from the New Testament," Luijendijk told Reuters at the congress in Rome.
Roger Bagnall, director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World in New York, also said he believed the fragment was authentic.
King said she welcomes scholarly and public debate about the issue.
"We can ask the question 'when did Christians first start talking about whether Jesus was married or not?' 'Who was the first person, for example, to say that Jesus was not married?'" she said.
"I think what I would recommend for Christians, in the tradition, is to be able to understand that we don't know if Jesus was married or not, that questions about sexuality and marriage were being asked in the early Church and they are still being asked today," King said.
"I am hoping that these new voices will provide the kind of complex resources that are needed to address the complex questions of our own day."
King's analysis of the fragment is slated for publication in the Harvard Theological Review in January 2013. She has posted a draft of the paper, and images of the fragment, on the Harvard Divinity School website:
Additional reporting by Ros Krasny in Boston, Editing by Mark Trevelyan