After nearly four years of scrutiny, debate and scientific testing, have we finally put to bed the hoopla surrounding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife? Evidently not. An investigative article by Ariel Sabar recently published in The Atlantic delves into the identity of the anonymous owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus, revealing more than anyone could have ever imagined.
The so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a 1.5 x 3-inch Coptic papyrus fragment that contains the text “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’” This papyrus fragment has been the subject of much debate in the scholarly community since 2012, when Harvard’s Hollis Professor of Divinity Karen L. King presented the papyrus at the 10th International Coptic Congress in Rome. The text in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus suggests that early Christians believed Jesus was married, an idea that has significant implications for how early Christians viewed the status of women as well as marriage, sex and reproduction.
Before she presented the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus in Rome, King consulted experts AnneMarie Luijendijk, Professor of Religion at Princeton, Roger Bagnall, Director of NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, Professor in General and Egyptian Linguistics at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. They all thought the inscription and papyrus looked ancient.
The appearance of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife on the world stage, however, sparked heated debates about its authenticity, so much so that the prestigious journal Harvard Theological Review (HTR) delayed publication of King’s research. HTR subsequently devoted its April 2014 issue to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus, presenting King’s research on the fragment alongside articles describing a number of analyses conducted on the papyrus: a paleographical assessment, a chemical ink test, infrared microspectroscopy and radiocarbon dating. These tests indicated that the fragment was ancient.
The scientific tests, however, did not convince Brown University Professor of Egyptology and Assyriology Leo Depuydt, who condemned the fragment as a forgery in the April 2014 issue of HTR, nor did the tests convince other experts in Coptic and papyrology. As Biblical scholars Joel Baden and Candida Moss wrote in The Atlantic in 2014, “Forgers have access to genuinely ancient papyrus: blank pieces are easily purchasable on the antiquities market, as are papyri containing unremarkable texts from which the ink can be scraped off. Ink has the same sort of problem. Even if its chemical composition looks right, that doesn’t prove anything.”
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Even before testing was conducted on the papyrus, scholars noticed troubling aspects of the text. Depuydt observed in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus “grammatical blunders” that he says a native Coptic speaker would never have made. Francis Watson, Professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University, found that almost every word in the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife could be read in the Gospel of Thomas, a complete copy of which was among the Nag Hammadi codices. The Nag Hammadi codices were discovered in 1945, and the Coptic texts were published in 1956 and have been widely available online. Writing in 2014, Christian Askeland, Assistant Research Professor of Christian Origins at Indiana Wesleyan University, demonstrated that another papyrus fragment Karen King received from the anonymous antiquities owner was a forgery. This fragment, which contained the Gnostic Gospel of John, thus called into question the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus. By this point, scholars widely believed—with the exception of Karen King—that the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was a fake.
But what about the origins of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife? Who was this mysterious antiquities owner who requested anonymity? Writing for LiveScience, Owen Jarus’s investigation into this question in 2015 led him to believe that a Florida resident named Walter Fritz may be the owner. Ariel Sabar’s recently published exposé in The Atlantic proves without a doubt that Fritz is the man who owned the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus. Previously denying any association with the controversial papyrus fragment, Fritz finally confessed, after being presented by Sabar with all the evidence the journalist had. Fritz also claimed that he did not forge the papyrus, and that “the previous owner gave no indications that the fragment was tampered with either.”
Why has this longform Atlantic piece been making waves across the academic world—and across the popular media? Sabar uncovered compelling information about Fritz’s background, including the fact that he was enrolled as a Master’s student in Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin, had familiarity with Coptic, was skilled in drawing, previously hosted websites selling highly suspect antiquities and was in financial straits right before contacting Karen King about the fragment. Additionally, the documents he used to authenticate the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife showed signs of forgery themselves.
After reading Sabar’s article, Karen King responded that the investigation “tips the balance towards forgery.” Harvard Divinity School posted on their website devoted to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus a statement that read, in part, “HDS is … grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment. HDS welcomes these contributions and will continue to treat the questions raised by them with all the seriousness they deserve.”
The most shocking part of Sabar’s investigation, however, was when he described himself as having “fallen down a rabbit hole”: Sabar discovered a series of pornographic websites Fritz and his wife had hosted and appeared in. According to Sabar, the themes that emerged from his investigation into Fritz’s life echo those found in Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code, in which early Christian Church fathers sought to defame Mary Magdalene, suppress the role of women and “demonize sex.” Was Fritz’s life imitating art? Sabar’s exhaustive piece can be described as a character study of Fritz, with Sabar suggesting that Fritz regarded himself “as a kind of Jesus figure, and his wife as a latter-day Mary Magdalene.”
Sabar paints a portrait of a man who led an unusual, suspicious and scandalizing life, but what seems missing from the investigation is conclusive proof that Fritz himself forged the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus. The lesson that can be learned from this saga, however, is that scrutinizing where an antiquity came from can be just as revealing as assessing and conducting scientific tests on the object itself. As Caroline T. Schroeder, Associate Professor of Religious and Classical Studies at the University of the Pacific, wrote on her blog, “[P]rovenance is not the only means of proving authenticity, and paleography and philology in [the case of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife] demonstrated the case for forgery. [However,] what I … argue is that provenance should be considered by scholars from the beginning in their work, that it should be more transparent, and that this transparency about provenance gives authenticity to the work.”
Read Coptic scholar Christian Askeland’s timeline of events in this controversial antiquities case >>
More on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus in Bible History Daily:
First Person: Why Consult Scholarship to Judge “Jesus’ Wife” Fragment? by Hershel Shanks
Is the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife a Fake?
Coptic papyrus mentioning Jesus’ wife is a forgery, according to Coptic manuscripts experts
The “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” Papyrus Revisited
Harvard Divinity School declares the papyrus ancient, but the debate rages on
Is the Harvard Theological Review a Coward or Did Dr. Karen King Do Something Wrong? by Hershel Shanks
Publication of scholar’s article on “gospel of Jesus’ wife” postponed