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.