“Down the Rabbit Hole”: Owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife Papyrus Unmasked

Papyrus owner had a shady past, according to Ariel Sabar’s investigation in The Atlantic

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.


The mysterious anonymous owner of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife papyrus has finally been identified. Did he forge the controversial papyrus fragment that reads “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’”? Photo: Karen King.

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


15 Responses

  1. Joe Cantello says:

    I like how definitive Karen King was when presented with all the evidence of the document being a forgery–tips the balance toward forgery. Thanks for the clarification.

  2. Deborah says:

    New International Version
    But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!
    Galatians 1:8

  3. Patti says:

    I went to Catholic school in the sixties and a nun told me Jesus was married to Mary M. That nun was my 2nd grade teacher Sister Mary Faas. I was 8 or so. She also told me that the Church had kept that and other stories about women out of the Bible. This was pretty much whispered to me when I asked a question while doing classwork. Years later I read that the Roman Empire made the decision of what to include of Jesus’ s life and that the Roman’s were very Patriarchal. So I have no reason to disbelieve. Also it is obvious that various Apostles as well as those who came later saw things and reported things differently to say the least. Women have been denigrated in Western society as well as other societies for centuries so there is really nothing new here.

  4. James Oppenheimer says:

    Fortunately, this fragment has been found to be a forgery. I say fortunately because if it were thought to be genuine, it would involve a lot of scholars examining the subtleties of the matter, only to end up wringing their hands, unable to guess why someone would write such a text at a late date. In other words, it would never convince any serious inquirers that Jesus might have been married, but it could cause people to waste a lot of time debunking it — this has, to some extent, already happened.
    He who promulgates this sort of thing is the poster child for the sort of people who do nothing to justify their taking up space and breathing the oxygen on this planet. They do no good and cause much waste of time, and all to no other purpose than to gratify their own stupid ignorant greed, or their twisted wish to deceive others.

  5. Robert Taylor says:

    I understand what Carmen is saying. But we do have great examples in the scriptures of faithful husbands. Not even looking at the patriarchs we have Peter. And Peters letters on how we should treat our mate are excellent. His mother in law was healed by Jesus so we have to believe Jesus would have had a friend that loved and respected his wife. The fact so much abuse and affairs are going on today points to 2 Tim 3:1-5 and proves we are in the last days

  6. Carmen says:

    Would it really be that bad if Jesus had a wife? He was human too. I sometimes wish He was married and that the Bible contained chapters on His married life. I bet the divorce, abuse, affair rate in this day and age would be way less if we had an example and proof of how its suppose to be done. And isnt it common knowledge that when Jesus refers to the church as His bride that it’s a Spiritual term rather than a physical one like most if the things He said? One will never be able to fully understand the teachings and meanings thereof if you take everything He ever said lateral.

  7. Dennis McClellan says:

    Fascinating adventure — even if it is on a train that has derailed. History can be so problematic — especially when it is ‘played with’ by those seeking to rewrite or create their own reality. Jesus remains big business, and there are plenty of individuals willing to take the gamble that they can make huge profits from anything ‘associated’ with him. Look at the number of jaw bones of the ass or pieces of wood from the cross or the ark that have been carried around the world and put on display. However, science today is a heavier tool to overcome, than it was for those acquiring and selling relics back in the days of Martin Luther’s corrupt Catholic church.

  8. Kevin DeFranco says:

    Absolute B.S. We the church are the bride of Christ!. What did Jesus say about His return? Woe to those giving suck. Those who have been deceived by the wicked one, and have accepted him as their husband. All these higher critics can go pound sand , all they do is raise preposterous claims to discredit the Word of God. Jesus came to defeat death which is the “devil” not to raise a family. Stop the nonsense.

  9. Jim says:

    Great research, investigation and interesting comments. Truth wins if we go deep, investigate and question. Multiple questions (whys) usually take you somewhere. In response to one comment above Christians did not spread “stories” they heard without responsibility as though there was no truth in the oral traditions. The evidence contradicts the statement. Written documents exist that substantiate oral tradition or maybe Luke fabricated 1:1-4. Truth wins.

  10. Emanuel Tafta says:

    Very interesting indeed, and a reminder of the real ancient texts which reminds the scripture reader that false messiahs and little/big Antichrists are to arise from shadows, shadows because they can’t not bring their trickery in the light of truth.

    Awesome journal, thanks for posting.

  11. Donna says:

    In the absence of a standard set of gospels, early Christians simply spread whatever stories they had been told. Eventually, some of these were written down. Trace the history of Christian thought through time, and you will find many different stories, and, eventually, theological opinions. A perfect example of this is the last comment, by Carl (#3), which is a more modern position an early Christian would not recognize. It’s very easy to see how one of these early Christians, in telling a story he believed was true, would slip in a situation perfectly normal in his time, that grown men had wives. The listeners, also taking that to be perfectly normal, passed it on, and so, it eventually was recorded. A minor detail in its own time, and now, a major source of debate by people who must have every word of the Bible to literally be true.

  12. Carl Thomposon says:

    Anybody with a half a brain AND has actually read the Bible would understand that phrase as Jesus referencing the true Church/believers (a.k.a. “The Bride of Christ”).
    How many “scholars” can I make feel completely idiotic in one shot? This would be a good example of one of those shots….

  13. Between2Empires says:

    Brilliant. Investigation reveals all.

    @theGhostPony…Did you read the full article? Fritz made it up!

  14. theGhostPony says:

    “And what about the origins of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife? Who was this mysterious antiquities owner who requested anonymity?”

    That’s right. When all else fails, get personal and wage a smear campaign.

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