Last Thursday, my Facebook feed alerted me to a fascinating piece of investigative journalism, published the previous day by The Atlantic. The article details Ariel Sabar’s exposure of the provenance of a Coptic papyrus that, some say, proves that Jesus was married. Sabar demonstrates that it is almost certainly a fake.
This artifact was dubbed “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” by Karen King, who staked much of her professional reputation on it. King, an authority on early Christianity and Gnosticism who holds the Hollis Chair of Divinity at Harvard—the oldest endowed chair at our nation’s oldest university—had announced the discovery of this papyrus at a 2012 Coptic conference in Rome. She published the results of her study of the papyrus two years later in the Harvard Theological Review, a first-tier, peer-reviewed journal of religious studies. If the papyrus turned out to be a forgery, the revelation might be discrediting for King and for others who lent it credence. (As King herself said, “If it’s a forgery … it’s a career breaker.”)
King, however, is not the focus of Sabar’s article. Sabar investigated the seller of the artifact—a shady German fellow named Walter Fritz, whose varied exploits and proclivities make the characters in the Da Vinci Code seem downright conventional. A university dropout and part-time pornographer, Fritz managed to fabricate a Gnostic artifact that duped one of the world’s leading experts on early, extra-canonical Christianity, plus enough of her peers to satisfy the Harvard Theological Review. How did this happen? Perhaps the appeal of Gnosticism, for a certain type of scholar, made this artifact too good to check.
It is worth noting that many scholars were skeptical of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” from the first. The entire July 2015 issue of New Testament Studies is devoted to disputing its authenticity. Tests have shown that the papyrus scrap is indeed ancient, and that the ink contains no modern ingredients. But the Coptic grammar is imperfect, duplicating an error that is present in a widely available excerpt from the Gospel of Thomas. King, however, did not view the Coptic errors as invalidating the fragment—quite the opposite. If the papyrus was a forgery, she said, it evinced a “combination of bumbling and sophistication” that she doubted could coexist in one person.
But a combination of bumbling and sophistication is, Sabar argues, the mark of Walter Fritz. Once a promising student of Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin, Fritz left his Masters program in the early 1990s without taking his degree. He then had a stint as a museum director in East Germany before moving to Florida to work as an auto parts dealer.
He is married to a woman who shares his enthusiasm for filling the internet with occult and esoteric writings. Fritz’s wife calls herself “clairvoyant” and claims to channel “universal truths” from God and the archangel Michael, through the process of “automatic writing.” She also has starred in an extensive series of pornographic videos, which the couple launched in 2003—one month after the publication of The Da Vinci Code.
The timing is perhaps no coincidence. Sabar ventures that Fritz and his wife may have viewed The Da Vinci Code, with its Gnostic argument for the sacredness of sex, as “a way to sanctify their adventurous sex life, to cloak it in the garb of faith.” In his youth, Fritz wanted to be a Catholic priest. Now he confesses hostility to Catholic belief and sympathy for “Gnostic texts that allow women a discipleship and see Jesus more as a spiritual person and not as a demigod.” He thus had a motive for the forgery, as well as the “combination of bumbling and sophistication” that King said she found authenticating.
Should King have known better? As a scholar of modern Christianity, I am not qualified to weigh in on the scholarly merits of her work. My interest concerns the fascinations of Gnosticism itself. I cannot entirely fault King for being intrigued by the Gnostic gospels and alternative Christian origins. When I first heard of these matters, I asked for a copy of the Gospel of Thomas for Christmas. Somewhere in every scholar lurks a conspiracy theorist, and no field of study taps into this sentiment quite like the field of early alternative Christianities. Scholars hope that new discoveries will reveal the true Jesus, stripped of the cloak draped over him by so many orthodoxies. Such hopes led to the duping of King.
Back in 2003, I was not prepared for the event of The Da Vinci Code. Having avoided contemporary fiction for most of my adult life, I at first could not believe what English prose had been reduced to, let alone that any reader could find the book’s substantive claims remotely plausible. But on reflection I realized that for the modern mind, distrustful of institution and convention, the Christian church proves a massive stumbling block. Could it really be that religious truth lay in the hands of a Church that safeguarded it reliably for almost two thousand years? Was it not more likely that Jesus, despite his occasional talk of hell, was really a counter-cultural figure—though the Church had done everything in her power to strip him of his genuine humanity? (Never mind that the canonical Jesus is far more appealing than the docetic Jesus of the Gnostic gospels.)
The study of Gnosticism entails two dogmas: that the official story of Jesus is a ruse; and that we modern scholars, with our toolkit of archaeology, philology, and hermeneutical suspicion, can uncover the true story buried underneath the sands of Nag Hammadi and the bodies of outcast Christians. Rather than being thoroughgoing skeptics, then, Gnostic scholars persist in a kind of bifurcated rationality, on one level skeptical, and on another gullible. They are not alone in having these qualities (just think of Ben Carson), but in this case, the exposure of her gullibility has proved quite embarrassing to King.
After his investigations yielded a mountain of evidence pointing toward forgery, Sabar contacted King for comment. King expressed no curiosity about Sabar’s discoveries, and she denied Sabar’s request for conversation. Even more stunning, she declared that she did not entertain questions of provenance (the history of the transaction of an artifact) at all. Only after reading Sabar’s published piece did King reverse her stance, admitting the probability of the fake (while hoping the papyrus could stay at Harvard for further study). She waxed positive about the centrality of provenance, almost like a senior scientist suddenly awakening to the danger of corporate-funded studies.
Although King may end up the butt of a few insider jokes at venues such as the International Congress of Coptic Studies, I doubt that the wider intellectual community will learn anything from this episode. When the secular intelligentsia falls prey to the same kind of credulity and intellectual flaccidity more frequently associated with the ecclesiastical community, the intelligentsia and its media arm pause for a minute, then move on.
Both the tellers of the tale and those who love to hear it would have to move too much mental furniture in order to see that the markers of our modern world—the care for truth, the sanctity of the individual, the siding with victims—derive from Christianity, indeed from canonical, orthodox Christianity. It is of course the fault of traditional Christianity that it has too often forgotten how radical the canonical Gospels are. But Fritz’s forgery, toward which King was so credulous, would merely have delivered us a mythic Christianity that was still less radical, even if more to our liking.
Grant Kaplan is an associate professor in the department of theological studies at Saint Louis University.