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An unholy row in the Holy Land

It can be hard to tell the difference between the simply inquisitive and the truly faithful among the crowds at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Built on the hill of Calvary, the place where the Bible says Christ was crucified, it is a famous stop on any tour of the Holy Land.

But today I hit on a more or less sure-fire method of separating the pilgrims from the tourists.

It came in their response to this question: "Do you think it possible that Jesus had a wife?"

The tiny fragment of papyrus around which the controversy revolves

A few just walked on in disgust; the very question a heresy. The notion that the Son of God was a little more human after all.

"Not in the Bible I read," one woman told me. "I mean, it’s been two thousand years. If he was married, you would think someone would have mentioned it. Just somewhere. In one little chapter."

Indeed for nearly two millennia, the version of Jesus’ life, authorised by the church, has portrayed him as devoted to his disciples. And definitely single.

But this week, a great deal of controversy has centred on a tiny fragment of papyrus and a few words it contains in ancient Coptic:

Jesus said to them, my wife.......

The rest of the sentence is cut off. Not much there, you would think, to start to re-write a long religious tradition.

But according to Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School, it is part of a long lost gospel that shows that a relatively short time after Christ’s death in Jerusalem, some followers were debating whether he had been married.

Clearly this is some way short of providing the historical fact to back the Hollywood fiction of the Da Vinci Code, in which Jesus was not only married (to Mary Magdelen) but also the father of her child.

An unholy row in the Holy Land

We travelled to meet Dr Peter Madros, an eminent biblical scholar and priest within the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem.

Father Madros dismissed the notion of Jesus ever taking a bride as baseless but seemed untroubled by the speculation of the past few days..

"If Jesus was married, so what! Christians believe marriage is a blessing."

However, he concedes that if a two thousand year old marriage certificate ever does come to light, the Roman Catholic Church might have to rethink its rules on celibacy among the priesthood.

And here is another line from that Coptic text:

She will be my disciple...

Two thousand years ago, was Jesus making the case for woman clergy?

Back outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, one of the tour guides approaches me with an insight in its way as valuable as the decaying fragment of papyrus.

"Jesus was a Jew and as a Jewish woman I know that the bigger surprise would be if he wasn’t married," she said before ushering along the next tour group.

Yet it seems the thought of a Messiah who was also a family man is something most Christians simply cannot believe in.