How a Mystery Man Tricked a Harvard Scholar into Thinking ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ Was Real
(CNN) — In 2012, Karen King, a prestigious scholar at Harvard Divinity School, announced the academic discovery of a lifetime: a piece of papyrus, allegedly from the early days of Christianity, in which Jesus refers to a woman as ” my wife “. ”
The text also includes the words “Mary” and “she can be my disciple”.
It seemed, at first, a blockbuster discovery for feminist scholars and an existential threat to the all-male priesthood of the Catholic Church.
King, who unveiled her discovery just steps from the Vatican, thought the fragment could validate her life’s work: claiming a place for women in early Christianity.
But instead of reversing years of religious scholarship, King’s “discovery” turned his career upside down.
“The Gospel of the Wife of Jesus,” as King called it, was denounced by scholars as a forgery, and the name of the prestigious professor became a watchword for scholars deceived by scam artists.
In 2016, after journalist Ariel Sabar published an article in The Atlantic revealing the story of the ownership of the “Jesus’ Wife” fragment, King herself publicly admitted that the papyrus was likely a fake.
Four years later, Sabar is back with the full and compelling story in his new book, “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”
Sabar painstakingly unravels the threads that led to King’s disappearance, seeking to explain why she would stake her reputation on the promises of a mysterious Florida man she had never met.
You can see evidence of the fragment’s forgery on Sabar’s website.
CNN recently spoke to Sabar about The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, whether anyone still believes it’s real, and what might have motivated the forger. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What is the reflection now on the Gospel of the wife of Jesus? Are we 95% sure it’s wrong? Higher than that?
It is safe to say that there is no scholar that I know of who defends the Gospel of the Woman of Jesus as authentic, not even Karen King. She was the latest holdout, and after my article in The Atlantic about her provenance (ownership history), King said it “tips the scales towards counterfeiting.”
You’ve done a lot of biographical research on King. What was his religious background?
She grew up in a small town, Sheridan, Montana. She always felt like an outsider, a star student in high school, and a person of faith. She had gone to a Methodist church with her family but decided it wasn’t serious or serious enough so she walked across the street to the Episcopal Church, where she was the only young person studying the Bible.
Later, she had an evangelistic conversion at a summer camp, where she felt lifted and strengthened by Jesus. But when she returned to Sheridan, the Sunday school teacher belittled her for it, saying “that’s not really how we do Christianity”.
It was a really hard thing for her to hear, especially at that age, that she “is hurting Christianity.” And you can find this guideline in his career. It shines a very bright light on the boundary between heresy and orthodoxy.
And King is a scholar of Mary Magdalene, isn’t he?
King is interested in recovering the original Mary Magdalene and having her depict early Christian women. The Gospel of Mary, the only Christian scripture written in the name of a woman, is one of the ways she made Mary Magdalene known.
(Editor’s note: The text, discovered in 1896, is considered outside the Christian canon. It is unclear if the gospel is actually about Magdalene.)
But even where Jesus defends these early female figures in the Gnostic gospels, it is at the expense of their sexuality, and King complained about this. She wanted to know: why was it not acceptable for early Christian women to be apostles and retain their ability to be women?
The Gospel of Jesus’ wife squared this circle for King. In its central lines, “Jesus tells them that my wife…she can be my disciple”.
It provides, in two fragmentary lines of Coptic, an answer to a question Karen King had asked herself throughout her career.
Did the forger know that about King? Do you think the false gospel was aimed specifically at her?
The owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is Walter Fritz, whom most scholars consider the forger. Fritz denies this, but there is strong circumstantial evidence that he did.
(When contacted by CNN, Fritz admitted owning the fragment and giving it to King. He also said, “Mr. Sabar has been working on this book for six years. It’s not a fake.”)
I asked him if he had contacted anyone other than King about the fragment. He said no. He had seen her on television and had heard a lot about her work.
It wasn’t hard to figure out what King would find compelling. You can find DVDs in which she talks about this very idea: women could only be disciples if they gave up the part of themselves that made them women. It wouldn’t have been difficult for someone to discover it as the ideal brand.
Who is Walter Fritz and why would he go through all this trouble? It’s not like forging ancient papyri is a lucrative career, is it?
One thing I hope readers realize is that motivations are complex. There is no single answer to this question. There are always four or five.
With Walter Fritz, we know that he was unemployed and in financial difficulty. He grew up in southern Germany and studied Egyptology for a time in Berlin. He wrote an article that he hoped would wow the chairman of his department. Instead, he was accused of plagiarism and quickly left.
This same Walter Fritz later finds himself in Florida as an auto parts dealer, art dealer, and finally Internet pornographer.
(Fritz confirmed to CNN that he has created at least two erotic websites.)
Initially, Karen King brushed off the mysterious man with the supposedly ancient papyrus fragment. Why did she change her mind?
That’s the big question. She went from telling Fritz she didn’t believe it was genuine and refused to help, then out of the blue, without consulting any scholars I could find, she does this 180 and says that she would like to publish the fragment and make Harvard her home.
It’s a truly enigmatic pivot that Dr. King makes around the time the president of Harvard questions whether the Divinity School is doing everything possible at the university. Eventually, the president changed her mind…and she announced that the theological school would be spared the same day that Dr. King made the front page of The New York Times when he unveiled the Gospel of Jesus’ wife in Rome.
(CNN contacted King directly for comment on this story, but our emails were not returned.)
What did Harvard President Drew Faust say about the timing of his announcement?
I asked him a few questions about time overlaps and the answer I got from his office was “Dr. Faust thinks others are in a better position to explain it to you.
She certainly does not dispute it. It’s still a mystery.
(When asked to comment, Harvard referred CNN to a 2016 statement by David N. Hempton, dean of its Divinity School. He references Sabar’s 2016 article in The Atlantic and says, in part : “Reached for comment by The Boston Globe after the publication of the Atlantic article, Professor King was quoted as saying: “It now appears that all the material [owner Walter] Fritz gave me regarding the provenance of the papyrus… were fabrications. The statement added, “The mission of Harvard Divinity School, its faculty, and higher education generally is to seek truth through scholarship, inquiry, and vigorous debate. HDS is therefore grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians and journalists who devoted their expertise to understanding the context and meaning of the papyrus fragment. »
One thing I kept wondering is why would King do that? She was at the top of her field and knew the “Jesus wife” controversy could be a career breaker.
That’s right. She had planned this before going public. Which raises questions: why didn’t she consult more expert scientists? Why not talk to a Coptic papyrus expert?
Instead, she pushes him out into the world even though, on some level, she knows the shard is fake.
Do you think King knew that was wrong all along?
Readers will have to consider the evidence.
She refused to submit photographs when she first announced the papyrus to her colleagues. It would have immediately raised alarm bells that she had not given her own colleagues the evidence needed to assess the papyrus. And she didn’t even mention the other piece in the collection, a fragment supposedly from the Gospel of John, which top Coptic scholars had marked as a fake hours after seeing it.
Why hide evidence from colleagues if you think it’s genuine? Did she know it was wrong and think the end justified the means? Was she ready to use a false sensation to whet the public’s appetite for that other interesting thing (the Gnostic Gospels)? To use a fake to show the truth?
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