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Next time Professor Karen King receives an oblong scrap of papyrus with an explosive text and an owner wanting to remain in the shadows, she will probably pass. It is now more than likely that the “Jesus had a wife” manuscript, which she sensationally unveiled in Rome a couple of weeks ago, is a fake. There is little point in repeating the arguments for forgery. Far more puzzling is how an intelligent woman like Professor King could possibly have fallen for it. The answer is a warning of the perils of confirmation bias. No one should feel that he or she would be immune.

The most egregious case of New Testament fakery was announced to the world in 1973 when Morton Smith, a scholar from Columbia University, published a book on the so-called Secret Gospel of Mark. Smith said that he found the text while working in the library of the ancient monastery of Mar Saba on the West Bank in 1958. It forms part of a letter purportedly by the third-century father St. Clement of Alexandria. It has since disappeared, but certainly existed since several other people saw it and even took photographs. It is now clear that the manuscript was a forgery, probably perpetrated by Smith himself. Again, the arguments, detailed in books such as Stephen Carlson’s The Gospel Hoax , don’t need rehearsing here.

The Secret Gospel of Mark seemed to be designed to suggest that Jesus was gay. The key lines read, “And after six days Jesus told him what to do and in the evening the youth comes to him, wearing a linen cloth over his naked body. And he remained with him that night, for Jesus taught him the mystery of the kingdom of God.” This looks carefully calibrated to be suggestive but not too revealing. (Morton Smith’s own sexuality is a matter of controversy. Almost no one of his generation was “out”; being so would have ended his career.) In any case, Smith hardly used Secret Mark in his subsequent book Jesus the Magician published five years later. This must be the only case of a scholar ignoring his own groundbreaking discovery, unless Smith felt the need to distance himself from the monster he’d created.

That didn’t stop others embracing the text with great enthusiasm. Helmut Koester and John Dominic Crossan, both among the aristocracy of liberal scholars, not only accepted that Secret Mark dates from the time of Clement of Alexandria, they even claimed it came from the pen of the Evangelist himself. Today, the Secret Gospel still has some energetic defenders, but in mainstream scholarship, it has gradually faded from sight.

If liberals were the primary dupes for Secret Mark, conservatives were cock-o-hoop over the discovery of an ancient Jewish coffin in 2002. The chalk box, strictly an ossuary for bones rather than a sarcophagus for a body, sported an Aramaic inscription “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” Was this archaeological confirmation of a key personage from the New Testament? Probably not. The box belonged to Oded Golan who found himself on trial in Jerusalem, charged with forgery. The authenticity of the box isn’t in doubt, but the Israeli Antiquities Authority has shown that the part of the inscription referring to Jesus was added later.

Although the court eventually acquitted Golan in a judicial process that lasted nearly eight years, the judge made clear this was not a verdict on the inscription itself. So proponents of the James Ossuary should not take too much comfort from the judgment. It simply meant that the proof Oded Golan himself had forged the inscription was not available at the standard required in a criminal trial.

All three of these cases illustrate the central constraint on conmen. They have to give their victims something they want. Scholars seem to be especially vulnerable because they like to see their theories vindicated. Secret Mark skilfully exploited apparent lacunae in the authentic Gospel where critical scholars had long believed something was missing. The James Ossuary, even if the inscription was entirely original, simply confirmed that Jesus had a brother called James. The Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians are already clear on this point, not to mention the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. The only thing the ossuary did was to give believers an excuse to beat the skeptics who doubt Jesus existed at all. Fortunately for forgers, this is something that believers most fervently desire to do.

As for poor Professor King, it is likely that her publication record of feminist readings of early Christianity made her susceptible to being duped. It is even possible that a hoaxer created the “Jesus had a wife” manuscript with her in mind so that she could act as the “convincer” for a buyer deciding whether to part with hard cash. Professor King made an especially convincing convincer because she was convinced herself. In the case of the James Ossuary, renowned epigrapher André Lemaire authenticated the inscription. He too was convinced. This is an occupational hazard for senior academics (no one cares what junior professors think). In 1983, Hugh Trevor-Roper, ranking historian at Cambridge University, confirmed the authenticity of the “Hitler Diaries” for the London Sunday Times . His reputation never recovered.

In the end, it was the publicity that did for Jesus’ wife. It never pays to have too much daylight shed on a shady activity. And what can we learn from this? Only the usual lessons about gullibility. Being rational is no defense: Conmen can work with that. Being a skeptic helps, but we all have our blind spots. The best advice is to remember that if something appears too good to be true, it probably is.

James Hannam is the author of The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution.

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