How a Star Harvard Professor Got Suckered by ‘Jesus’ Wife’

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/AP In September 2012, late in the evening of the penultimate day of the 10th International Congress on Coptic Studies, academic luminary and Harvard Professor Karen King announced the discovery of a previously unknown early Christian text that she called the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife […]

Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/AP
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty/AP

In September 2012, late in the evening of the penultimate day of the 10th International Congress on Coptic Studies, academic luminary and Harvard Professor Karen King announced the discovery of a previously unknown early Christian text that she called the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife (GJW). King’s announcement made headlines around the world because one line of the fragment was said to read “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife…’” and then broke off. Was Jesus referring to his wife?

Though King herself never claimed that Jesus was married, the possibility that he was fed into Da Vinci Code hype about a married Messiah. Some were skeptical early on about its authenticity, but as scientific testing and academic analysis pulled the credibility of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife to pieces a new story emerged: one in which an amateur pornographer-turned-forger deceived an Ivy League professor and, briefly, the world.

The only journalist in the room for King’s talk in 2012 was Ariel Sabar, then a freelancer for Smithsonian Magazine. Though the story was initially delegated to him by an editor, for Sabar his interviews with King and trip to Rome were the beginning of a seven-year journey that culminates with the publication of his fascinating new book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The book is a testament to the value of investigative journalism and is full of shocking and revelatory moments.

In her talk, King claimed that the fragment was a fourth-century copy of a second-century text about the role of women in the church. Within weeks of the initial announcement in Rome, a number of scholars (full disclosure: I and my sometime co-author Joel Baden were among them) had publicly begun to question the authenticity of the small credit-card-size fragment of papyrus. While the world waited for scientific tests to be completed, a small cluster of academics—including Christian Askeland, Andrew Bernhard, Francis Watson, Alin Suciu, and Mark Goodacre—began to pull at the threads of the document’s significance.

The biggest red flags were the strange, sloppy handwriting, the numerous grammatical errors in the text, and the similarities between it and a particular online edition of another early Christian Coptic text, the Gospel of Thomas. The chances that an ancient papyrus fragment would reproduce a typographical error made a millennium and a half later are incalculably small.

To make matters worse, little was known about the fragment’s provenance, or history of ownership. It was something, King told Sabar, that she “hadn’t engaged… at all.” The donor who had approached King with the artifact insisted on anonymity and King allowed only a few details of its history to enter the public domain. An accurate and complete chain of ownership would have been helpful in ascertaining the authenticity of the fragment and, more important, its legality. (Since 2007, the American Society of Papyrologists has condemned the illicit trade in papyri.)

The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife debate persisted through 2014 with the publication of subsequent scientific data on the age of the papyrus and the ink used on it. Experts in the humanities decried it as an obvious forgery, while others, like King, heralded revelatory ink analysis. To the irritation of scholars on both sides, each new set of scientific testing elicited an avalanche of media speculation that Jesus was actually married. This was despite the fact that the most the fragmentary text could prove is that some people in the ancient world speculated about the romantic status of first century Judaism’s most well-known bachelor.

In the end though, it was Sabar himself who would drive the final nail into the coffin. The provenance information that King had received was forged. Years of meticulous research and persistent interview requests eventually brought Sabar to the door of Walter Fritz, a 50-year-old Floridian who had emigrated to the U.S. from Germany. Fritz, a failed wannabe Egyptologist, originally hailed from a small town in Bavaria. Three weeks before King’s announcement in 2012, Sabar discovered, Fritz had registered the domain name using his personal information. Digging deeper, things started to take an unexpected turn.

This was not the only domain name owned by Walter Fritz. For roughly a decade, beginning in 2003, he and his wife had hosted and run a “hotwife”-themed pornography site that advertised his wife as “America’s #1 Slut Wife.” (A hotwife, a carefully crafted Google search will tell you, is a woman who engages in sexual acts with men other than her husband and often in front of him). Fritz, it turned out, was the owner of the papyrus and almost certainly the forger of the writing on it. He had taken some basic Coptic, had had access to real ancient papyrus, and had a sex-positive anti-Catholic bias. In what sounds like the punchline of an internet game, “Florida Man Runs Pornography Business and Forges Christian Gospel.”

Sabar’s dogged pursuit of the story leaves no stone unturned. He explores Fritz’s wife’s interest in spirituality and quasi-Gnostic mediumship and notices that one (less explicit) film prominently displayed Holy Blood, Holy Grail (the inspiration for Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) as a prop. He travels to the church in which Fritz alleges he was assaulted by a priest and explores Fritz’s financial woes and failed academic career. The forging of GJW seems to be motivated by a pastiche of these elements; Sabar told The Daily Beast, “To me, at least some of these strands find expression to one degree or another in GJW, both as a text and as a kind of improvised explosive device.”

Fritz, however, is not the only individual subjected to Sabar’s piercing analysis. He devotes equal time to Karen King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and world-renowned feminist historian of Christianity, who brought the text to the public in 2012 and defended it again in 2014. King is a true giant in the field; her book What Is Gnosticism? has been profoundly influential in shaping what we think about early Christianity (or Christianities, as she would put it). In my interactions with her, she has never been anything but brilliant and supportive.

To be sure, King made mistakes. She did not adequately investigate the artifact’s provenance. She consulted with only two other trusted scholars—Anne Marie Luijendijk (Princeton) and Roger Bagnall (NYU)— both of whom mistakenly identified it as authentic. Two of the scientists involved in the technical analysis had personal ties to King and Bagnall that were never disclosed to Harvard Theological Review (HTR), the journal that published King’s article on GJW. Speaking of which, two of the three original peer-reviews that she received in early September 2012 several weeks before announcing GJW’s discovery were strongly negative. The positive review was written by Bagnall, who disclosed his conflict of interest. Esteemed Coptic philologist Steven Emmel’s review had, as Sabar puts it, “identified nearly every sign of forgery that would surface over the next four years.” The other, by Yale’s Goff Professor of Religious Studies, Bentley Layton, suggested that publishing the piece would be “very embarrassing” for the journal.

The negative reviews raise questions as to why King went ahead with her announcement and why the editors of HTR would allow publication to proceed. Under ordinary circumstances, it would have been rejected. HTR had been spooked, Sabar reveals, but published it in 2014 and without peer-reviewing the scientific data supplied in her article. (The editors at the time have recently been replaced.) Sabar adds that King refused to allow a (negative) response to be published alongside her article in HTR and that when she released her story to the press she did so on the condition that they only speak to pre-approved scholars. Had King not been a senior figure in the field, and had the editors of the journal not been her immediate colleagues, the outcome might have been different.

Throughout Veritas, Sabar presents a variety of different explanations for the actions of the academics involved: chief among them are institutional politics and King’s own interest in the role of women in the early church. Certainly, King’s academic focus on the history of women in Christianity (which is notoriously difficult to retrieve) made her the perfect victim for Fritz’s deception. While Sabar leaves his readers to form their own conclusions, he suggests that King held strong ideological commitments that led her to pursue a particular line of interpretation in the face of persuasive counter-evidence.

King is by no means the only respected scholar to have misrepresented an ancient text to the public. In 2006, the National Geographic Society announced the discovery of the Gospel of Judas, an ancient book that cast Judas Iscariot not as Jesus’ betrayer but as his friend. For anyone who grew up Christian, it was quite the plot twist. Just like GJW, the Gospel of Judas had a sketchy provenance, was translated by top scholars, and made waves when it was announced. The problem was the translation. In December 2007, April Deconick published an op-ed showing that “several of the translation choices made by the society’s scholars fall well outside the commonly accepted practices in the field.” These weren’t insignificant mistakes; they changed the meaning of the text entirely, turning Judas from a demon into a hero. The parallels aren’t perfect (the Gospel of Judas is not a forgery and translational choices are always up for debate), but it’s an interesting comparison point because King received harsh criticism for failing to note the grammatical errors in GJW.

What makes these cases different from one another is that those who mistranslated the Gospel of Judas walked away with their reputations intact. In the same way, those who misidentified the (forged and unprovenanced) James ossuary as the resting place of the brother of Jesus did not face widespread calls for their resignation, as King has. She experienced swift, gendered, and hostile criticism from her peers. King herself questioned the motives of her opponents. After the fragment had been revealed to be a forgery, an interview with The Crimson summarized her as saying that the fragment “had been contested because it opens up a dialogue on patriarchy, whether women could serve as disciples, priestly celibacy, and the value of virginity.” At that point, however, the contest had been won and on grounds that had nothing to do with sexism.

That scholars might make mistakes and disagree on the interpretation of a text is expected—we’re human beings and our discipline turns on refining and moving toward a broad consensus through insightful disagreement and engagement with differing opinions. The important thing is to acknowledge those mistakes and move on (as, to her credit, Luijendijk does in the book). What’s unusual is that in the case of GJW and the Gospel of Judas, these disagreements have taken place in public and have affected broader opinion.

In a 2016 statement to The Atlantic, King conceded that Sabar’s findings “tipped the balance in favor of forgery.” In an interview in the Crimson several months later, she said that “Focus on whether [GJW is] a forgery or not is taking attention off the things that really matter, which are the issues about authority, women’s roles, sexuality, and everything attached to them.” For those who were hooked on The Da Vinci Code’s “facts” and the promise of tangible evidence of women as married religious authorities in the early church, though, the issues themselves may not be enough.

For those who disagree with King’s positions—both in traditional religious circles and within the academy—GJW is ammunition.

Sadly, it has taken as proof that those who discuss the role of women in the early church are driven by an agenda and working without real evidence. This happened as early as 2013 when Steve Green, CEO of Hobby Lobby and president of Museum of the Bible, said in a speech before the Council for National Policy: “If you want to say that this piece of papyrus says that Jesus had a wife, then I don’t have use for you because you are making that up. It is not what it says.” (King never claimed that it did.) This was a year before the debate had been settled and three years before Sabar would unmask Fritz. GJW was also mentioned in Museum of the Bible’s Bible Curriculum.

Early on, therefore, it was weaponized as an example of the shaky foundations of liberal biblical scholarship. While I, personally, agree with Green that there’s no evidence that Jesus was married to anyone, there is copious evidence of women holding positions of authority in the early church. It’s frustrating to see events play out this way.

In some ways, however, things could have been worse. Had the inscription on the fragment been the real deal and the provenance documents forged, then King would have been yet another prestigious scholar whose desire to uncover the truth about the past led her to ignore the ethical considerations involved in working on material like this. Her work would have, in turn, inflated the value of antiquities on the black market. The stakes involved in disseminating “new finds” are high. It’s tempting and, in fact, customary to guard research on news-making discoveries—only more so when one has faced hostility and opposition in the past—and to push forward to publication. Had King scrutinized the forged provenance more carefully or waited until after the conference in 2012 to announce her discovery, she might never have disseminated the forgery at all.

The mistakes are not hers alone, though. Other highly regarded academics made the same errors of judgment as she did and the editors of a prominent journal were also willing to overlook substantial criticism during the peer-review process. Most important, it was Walter Fritz, who initiated the saga to begin with. As it is the story of GJW is a cautionary tale about what happens when history-telling is valued over due-diligence. And, unfortunately, the shadow of a pro-women forgery will unjustifiably hang over the legitimate academic and public conversation about the role of women in the early church for years to come.

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