Gospel dupe: the Harvard scholar seduced by Jesus’ ‘wife’

There are lessons for academia in the scandal of the pornographer, the fake papyrus and a theologian’s fall, says author

November 12, 2020
Deceptive text: Karen King with the fragment said to be the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.The papyrus, now acknowledged as a fabrication
Source: Getty
Deceptive text: Karen King with the fragment said to be the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The papyrus is now acknowledged as a fabrication

In Ron Howard’s 2006 film of The Da Vinci Code, Harvard University “symbologist” Robert Langdon is warned about a conspiracy to “protect a secret so powerful that, if revealed, it would devastate the very foundations of mankind”.

The “secret” turns out to be that Jesus was married (and had children). In a profile published in 2018, a real-life Harvard academic – Karen King, Hollis professor of divinity – explained why this still matters today.

“It touches everything from people’s most intimate sense about their lives and their own sexuality to large institutional structures,” she said. “It affects who gets to be in charge, who gets to preach and teach, who can be pure and holy. Should people be married or not? Can you be divorced or not? Is sexuality sinful, by definition? All of this depends on what kind of story you tell.”

Back in 2012, Professor King used her considerable prestige to publicise a fragment of papyrus – memorably but rather misleadingly christened the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” – that strangely echoed The Da Vinci Code and later proved to be an embarrassing fake.

Someone closely involved in the story from the start was the writer Ariel Sabar. He was the only journalist in the room when Professor King first unveiled the “gospel” at the Vatican. He has now expanded his initial 2012 article in The Smithsonian and a 2016 follow-up in The Atlantic into a book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (Scribe), a dramatic tale of gullibility, deception, ideology and academic politics. It also raises a number of questions for universities and religious studies.

This was not the first time that someone had tried to fake a new “gospel”. Veritas describes how one was exposed when somebody pointed out that the author of a journal article about it, “Batson D. Sealing”, had a name that sounded implausibly like “bats on the ceiling”. The case against the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife depends on much more technical arguments about dating papyri and Coptic grammar, but it is safe to say that it left many experts unimpressed.

“My position has been from the very beginning that this is such a total farce,” said Leo Depuydt, professor of Egyptology and Assyriology at Brown University. Within a couple of minutes of being sent a New York Times article about the fragment, he had concluded that it “stinks”. The next very day, he “contacted the Harvard Theological Review and issued a polite warning that they were in danger of making fools of themselves” if they decided to publish it. In the event, the HTR featured his negative arguments in the same 2014 issue as Professor King’s article on the “gospel” and others that made the case for its authenticity. The HTR had no comment on Mr Sabar’s claims about irregularities in the peer-review process and attempts to delay Professor Depuydt’s critique to a subsequent issue of the journal.

As the saga unfolded, Professor Depuydt went on, he “watched in total disbelief” discussions “involving the worship of absolutely nothing”. He also remained baffled by what had led Professor King to “embark on such an academic kamikaze”.

There was now “a strong circumstantial case”, Mr Sabar alleged, that Walter Fritz, the man who brought the fragment to Professor King, had also forged it – although he has denied this. Mr Sabar has unearthed and put on his website what he claims is evidence that Mr Fritz forged a diploma in Egyptology from the Free University of Berlin when applying for job in the US, something that Mr Fritz has declined to comment on.

Mr Sabar also draws on extensive interviews and research in Germany to reconstruct a colourful career. Mr Fritz, he shows, did have a background in Egyptology, published a celebrated article about a hieroglyphic text and worked behind the scenes in Berlin’s Egyptian Museum before serving briefly as director of the Stasi Museum in Berlin. Once in America, he became an art collector and an executive in a car parts company while also setting up a number of pornographic websites and forums.

Mr Sabar’s second article in The Atlantic, dealing with issues of provenance of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, proved to be a turning point.

David Hempton, dean of the Harvard Divinity School – where Professor King is based – issued a statement saying that the school was “grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians, and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment”. As a result of Mr Sabar’s Atlantic article, Professor King gave an interview to the Boston Globe, stating: “It appears now that all the material Fritz gave to me concerning the provenance of the papyrus…were fabrications.”

Asked about more general lessons we might draw from the controversy, Mr Sabar suggested that “insularity is poison”. “Karen King is a Harvard professor who decides to publish in the Harvard Theological Review, a prestigious journal but effectively edited by lower-ranking peers in her own institution. It’s already creating an echo chamber, a feedback loop where you are not having any outside voices or oxygen coming in,” he said. “There is a question of whether any institution can successfully police itself.”

There are also questions that take us all the way back to Harvard’s origins. The college was founded in 1636 to train ministers of religion, but in 1816 a separate divinity school was created, with Divinity Hall symbolically located outside the main Yard – although the Hollis professor still retains a traditional right to graze a cow in the Yard. Committed secularists, including former president Lawrence Summers, have long argued that Harvard, like other Ivy League universities, also needed a department of religious studies without any of the theological baggage a divinity school brings with it.

Similar issues came to the fore during the presidency of Drew Faust (2007-18). She established an external advisory committee on the study of religion in Harvard, which recommended “modifications to the structures supporting the study of religion”, including the creation of “a department of religion situated within one school” of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Yet she decided to reject “the establishment of a new department in FAS” and opted instead for “a careful crafting of a partnership of FAS and HDS, beyond what exists today”.

This announcement took place on 19 September 2012, the very same day that the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife appeared on the front pages of both The New York Times and The Boston Globe, the papers most read by faculty at Harvard. This clearly played into the hands of supporters of the HDS by demonstrating, as Veritas puts it, that it was “as potent a force in the study of religion as any institution in the land”. The striking chronological coincidence also leads Mr Sabar to wonder: “Did a forgery help save Harvard Divinity School?”

Asked for a comment on this, a spokesperson for the university said: “Decisions about recommendations from the committee were made based on a variety of factors, including views of the deans and faculty of both the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard Divinity School. Professor King’s publication was never discussed or considered in any way as relevant to these decisions, nor was there ever any threat to HDS’ essential place in the constellation of Harvard schools.”

Dan Brown attracted millions of readers to The Da Vinci Code through his tangled tale of conspiracies and hidden secrets. The forged papyrus containing the phrase “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife…’” (and seeming to imply that women were “worthy” to be disciples alongside men) seems to have been expressly designed to appeal to Professor King, who has long been concerned to rethink the role of women in the early church, and hence in Christianity today.

Yet many secularists also have reservations about this theological approach.

“Any intellectually curious person wants to know more about the early history of Christianity, how the astonishingly influential doctrines of the canon became entrenched, and what the alternatives were at the time,” argued Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family professor of psychology at Harvard. “Likewise, it would certainly be fascinating to learn about precocious movements to recognise the rights of women and gay people – if, in fact, they existed.

“On the other hand, it’s a big mistake to ground the ideals of equality and tolerance in quirks of church history, however interesting. It concedes that morality is grounded in the dogmas and authority structures of an earlier age, rather than in principles that anyone can recognise and justify. The rights of women and gay people within the church or anywhere else should not depend one way or another on what’s written in old crumbling parchments.”



Print headline: Gospel dupe: the scholar seduced by Jesus’ ‘wife’

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