The owner of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus unmasked!

Back in 2012 a Harvard “religious studies” academic named Karen King announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment containing a Coptic text which referred to Jesus having a wife.  It takes little knowledge of the methods of commercial forgers to see why someone would forge such a thing.  Nor is it hard to see why a US leftist academic with a background in “Womens’ studies” would promote it.  I was certainly sceptical.  More learned people pointed to the small problem that the text reproduced a typographical error from an online edition.  At that point pretty much everyone – aside from Dr King – felt the story was over.  It was never clear just where the thing had come from, or who owned it; Dr. K. professed that she was sworn to secrecy.

Via Alin Suciu, today, I learn that in this month’s issue of The Atlantic magazine contains a monster piece of investigative journalism that unmasks the owner, and probably the forger, of the papyrus.

The article is written by Ariel Sabar, who dedicated months of investigation to tracking down the background of this dubious item.  He discovered the owner was a silver-tongued salesman named Walter Fritz, and eventually got an admission out of him that he was indeed the owner of the papyrus.  Fritz had studied Coptic, had a grudge against scholars, and is, seemingly, a bullshitter extraordinaire.  He is also an admirer of – guess what – the Da Vinci Code, and all the stuff about Mary Magdalene being Jesus’ Wife.  He was also in financial trouble at the time when he produced the thing.

I will not attempt to summarise the article here.  It is, necessarily, a story of the process of discovery, and inevitably reads like what it is, a magazine article.  We need not agree with every opinion expressed in it, though, to see that a great deal of real hard information has emerged here.  Read it.

The conclusion seems convincing to me: the papyrus was forged by Fritz.  In fact Fritz has not admitted to composing it, but he has the skills, multiple motives, and the opportunity.  Few, I suspect, will now doubt that he did so.

Karen King does not come out very well from the article, and perhaps does not deserve to.  But let us be fair, and treat her as we would wish to be treated in such a case.  A bit of careful reading of Sabar’s narrative suggests that she was just a dupe – duped by Fritz.  In fact, Sabar suggests that she was chosen by him as a “mark”, precisely because he believed that she would be predisposed for ideological reasons to believe his nonsense.  He was probably right.  We can hardly blame Dr King for being persuaded by a man who, like all salesmen, was a professional persuader.  It could happen to most of us, I suspect.

It is a warning to all of us, always to be suspicious of what seems convenient to us.  “This is a benefit … it may be a bribe” is always a good thing to remember, in scholarship as in life.

This is one of the rare pieces of journalism that justifies all the claims that are made for the importance of a free press.  Few academics could have done this piece of investigation.  Well done, Mr Sabar.  You have done us all a favour.


13 thoughts on “The owner of the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus unmasked!

  1. There’s an old Internet tradition of putting up prank stories on April 1. I did that a couple of times, and had fun with it, but also discovered that it is frighteningly easy to _really_ deceive people, to the point that they overlook the “April Fool’s!” greeting at the end of the story. (And if you have to explain a joke, it’s just embarrassing for everyone.)

    The trick is to think up something that is just plausible enough that it could happen, and just desirable enough that the reader will want to believe. Then you elaborate on it just a little bit, putting the more amazing details after the more plausible ones. (For April Fool’s, the desirable thing is to slowly add increasingly implausible details after that, so that people will feel good about figuring it out before you say “April Fool’s!”)

    Conmen usually try _not_ to add the implausible details to their lies. But hitting the desirability just right? Yup, that’s most of the trick.

  2. Many thanks for this update, as for your coverage of it in the first place (back then)!

  3. Roger my only comment is I just love your website for bringing stuff like this to our attention!

  4. Alin was (very) generous to Dr King, but the “response” of Harv.Th.Rev. – their being committed to science…no need to retract… etc. – was the height of arrogance.

  5. The Boston Globe has the story about the Harvard Theological Review response here:

    Harvard Theological Review won’t retract ‘Jesus’s Wife’ paper

    By Lisa Wangsness Globe Staff June 21, 2016

    The Harvard Theological Review said Monday that it does not plan to print a retraction of Harvard professor Karen L. King’s 2014 paper on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” now that King said she believes the papyrus fragment she wrote about was probably a forgery.

    Jon D. Levenson and Kevin J. Madigan, editors of the Harvard Theological Review, said in a statement Monday that their journal “has scrupulously and consistently avoided committing itself on the issue of the authenticity of the papyrus fragment.”

    The editors say King’s article and the articles on scientific tests King commissioned on the fragment “were represented or misrepresented in some circles as establishing the authenticity of the fragment.”

    Harvard Divinity School’s own press release announcing the publication of the paper and the completion of the tests in 2014, however, was titled, “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient.”

    Levenson and Madigan noted in their statement that the peer-reviewed journal also published an article by Leo Depuydt, a Brown University professor, arguing that the papyrus was a crude forgery.

    “Given that HTR has never endorsed a position on the issue, it has no need to issue a response,” the editors wrote.

    The Harvard Divinity School also updated its website on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” to include King’s comments to the Atlantic following the publication of the article.

    King said the magazine’s reporting “tips the balance towards forgery.”

    In an interview with the Globe on Friday, King said “it appears now that all the material Fritz gave to me concerning the provenance of the papyrus . . . were fabrications.”

    Of course this is a journalist quoting … I’ve not been able to find the original statement online.

    Mark Goodacre has a list of articles around the subject here.

  6. I’m unenthusiastic about HTR’s response, I must say. It looks as if more than a few people at Harvard were very invested in the authenticity of this item, solely for ideological reasons.

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