First Person: Why Consult Scholarship to Judge “Jesus’ Wife” Fragment?

From the November/December 2016 Biblical Archaeology Review

hershel-shanksGood journalism beats good scholarship. That’s the apparent lesson of a long article in the July/August 2016 issue of the Atlantic1 that is winning kudos all over for unmasking a fake ancient inscription in which Jesus refers to “my wife,” ostensibly indicating he is married.

The inscription is in Coptic and inscribed on a piece of ancient papyrus the size of a business card. It came to Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King, who holds the oldest endowed chair in the United States, via one Walter Fritz, who requested anonymity.

The Atlantic piece was written by investigative journalist and author Ariel Sabar. By the time Sabar got into the act, the Coptic text had been widely known for years and even published. Whether it was a forgery had been extensively debated.

One who was certain he knew the answer was Leo Depuydt, a Coptic specialist from Brown University. Depuydt was able to reach a firm judgment even after viewing only a picture of the text in the newspaper; the Coptic grammar was that terrible. I have not “the slightest doubt that the document is a forgery and not a very good one at that,” declared Depuydt. British scholar Francis Watson of the University of Durham reached the same conclusion.

To Karen King at Harvard, however, the text looked good. So she did what careful scholars usually do: She consulted colleagues—papyrologists AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton University and Roger Bagnall, head of New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World. Both were inclined to agree with Karen King that the Coptic text was good. Indeed, based on the ink, Professor Luijendijk went further: “It would be impossible to forge.” Then Hebrew University specialist Ariel Shisha-Halevy agreed: “The text is authentic.”


The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Photo: Karen King.

Then a bombshell hit the scholarly world. Unfortunately the story is a little complicated. Christian Askeland had recently earned his Ph.D. at the University of Cambridge, writing his dissertation on the Gnostic Gospel of John. A fragment of the Gnostic Gospel of John was also among the documents that had been given to Karen King with the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. The two documents were written by the same hand. Based on the text of the Gnostic Gospel of John that Askeland had analyzed for his dissertation, he was able to show that the fragment of the Gnostic Gospel of John found among the fragments that Karen King possessed was clearly a forgery. The forger of the small fragment of the Gnostic Gospel of John in Karen King’s possession had replicated every other line of the Gnostic Gospel of John that Askeland had studied for his dissertation (and it had been known since 1923, so it was clearly not a recent forgery). This rather clearly indicated that the copy of the Gnostic Gospel of John that Karen King possessed was a forgery: For 17 lines the breaks in the lines of Karen King’s fragment of the Gnostic Gospel of John replicated those in Askeland’s referenced copy of the Gnostic Gospel of John.a And if the copy of the Gnostic Gospel of John that Karen King had was a forgery, so was the fragment of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. If one is a forgery, so is the other.

Karen King now largely agrees.

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Then the analysis turned from the scholarly world to the journalistic world.

The July/August 2016 issue of the Atlantic published a lengthy investigative piece by Ariel Sabar. In it Sabar scrutinized the life of Walter Fritz, the man who brought the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the other alleged ancient documents to Karen King, concluding, on the basis of Fritz’s character and activities, that the documents were forgeries.

Sabar’s investigative reporting of Fritz, his activities and his lies was intensive and has been almost universally seen as brilliant journalism. No doubt Walter Fritz was a cagy guy. Evidently, in the 1980s and ’90s, he was enrolled in a master’s program in Egyptology at the Free University of Berlin. He was also a tour guide at Berlin’s Egyptian Museum and even became the director of a newly opened museum housed in the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin.

After reading Sabar’s article in the Atlantic, Karen King realized she knew almost nothing about Walter Fritz. Sabar’s article, she declared, “tips the balance toward forgery.”

What disturbs me about Sabar’s piece is not his conclusion—I do believe the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a forgery—but that he reached his “probable” conclusion without even considering scholarship on the subject. For him it is apparently irrelevant; the only relevant question is Walter Fritz’s character. That scholarship had already declared the text a forgery on substantive grounds seems irrelevant.

This is not a disagreement about whether the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife is a forgery. Almost everyone now agrees that it is. My criticism is that the new analysis comes to the same conclusion that scholars had previously come to—yet that is not mentioned in Sabar’s lengthy analysis.

Moreover, Sabar’s analysis of Walter Fritz’s character is, strictly speaking, unrelated to the forgery issue. Nothing Walter Fritz related to Sabar and nothing Walter Fritz did or said indicated he ever forged anything or had the capacity to do so. There was a lot that was suspicious about Walter Fritz, but he could provide Sabar with no evidence as to how he, Walter Fritz, forged them.

In the end, it’s difficult not to get the feeling that what convinced Sabar that Fritz was the forger was some strange facts: Beginning in 2003, Fritz launched a series of pornographic websites. To make matters worse, they showcased Fritz’s wife. And often, we are told, with more than one man at a time. One web page billed Mrs. Fritz as “America’s #1 Slut Wife.”

Fritz may have acquired forged inscriptions, or—at least theoretically—he may have acquired authentic ancient inscriptions. But nothing that Fritz showed or told Sabar indicates one way or the other.

Sabar’s piece plumbs Fritz’s character, rather than the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Would I buy an ancient inscription from him? Certainly not. But neither can I say that everything he has for sale is a forgery. For that, I would need scholarship, both scientific and linguistic scholarship of the highest order. But, as Karen King emphasizes, even if this material turns out to be authentic, it is no indication that Jesus was married, only that hundreds of years after his crucifixion, some people thought he had been married.

First Person: “Why Consult Scholarship to Judge “Jesus’ Wife” Fragment?” by Hershel Shanks originally appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, November/December 2016.



a. Hershel Shanks, “The Saga of ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,’” BAR, May/June 2015.

1. Ariel Sabar, “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” The Atlantic, July/August 2016 (


More on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife in Bible History Daily:

“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

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


19 Responses

  1. Kipp says:

    This is a terrible opinion piece.

    Sabar’s investigation was not pitted against “scholarship” as if to promote his own findings as somehow superior to what several scholars had already suspected. It was rather merely a study of provenance, which is something that was not undertaken in philological assessments of the manuscript fragment. Knee-jerk reactions such as these do not help to promote collaboration between literary scholars, scientists and journalists in the important study of authenticity. Each of these disciplines has a voice here, and it is myopic to attempt to “shut down” the significance of Sabar’s valuable findings which contribute to the modern history of the GWG fragment: he has provided another line of evidence compatible with the conclusions of literary scholars which should be factored into our conclusions regarding the fragment’s authenticity.

  2. Brandy says:


  3. Shy says:

    I found this article very interesting. That the scholarship on the artifacts and the evidence of the character of Fritz came together to point to the same conclusion is of interest.

    It’s also interesting that this site examines facts and discoveries but the comments are full of dogma and wild theories. Human nature is fascinating.

  4. David says:

    At some point, probably when Paul recreated the church in his own image, sex became dirty. (“Better to be like me; but better to marry than burn”). I don’t know why he would have this view, unless it was because he knew he needed to travel the Roman world and couldn’t, with a family. Although he would surely have been married earlier in his life.
    Once sex was dirty, it was necessary to keep Jesus as far as possible from it, and therefore a permanent virgin, and even his mother had to be a virgin all her life.
    However, in a first century Jewish world, none of this would have made sense. To pagan Rome, however, it might have set him apart from humanity and therefore to be worshipped.
    While the Christian Bible never says he married, neither does it say he didn’t.

  5. Rob Palmer says:

    I grew up in Yankee culture which offered an old saying: “Every dog has his day.” I question why so many people are afraid to let Jesus have a bride. Are the churches all afraid to permit him to be a human being? They want to save him to be a “pure” propaganda vehicle for sales/marketing purposes? Author Laurence Gardner has him, in Bloodlines of the Holy Grail, married to Mary Magdalene, portrayed as a nice looking redhead, and also with many lineage charts presents many other interesting connections.

  6. Rose says:

    Mankind was modelled on the Heavenly Family, the Male and Female he created THEM which is also the Triune in One. Christianity believes the Trinity to be, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit which is actually incorrect as it is Father, Mother and Son. When Yeshua walked the earth He walked as the Spiritual Son of Father and Holy Spirit (Mother) in a human body. When he comes again he shall come as the Spouse to fetch His Bride and in when he sits on the Throne in JUDGEMENT of mankind He then has rightfully taken His place as GOD the Great Creator. As far as I am concerned for Yeshua to have been married when he walked the earth was another fulfilment prophecy. Study Moshe.

  7. Kathleen says:

    At that time, traditionally, without being married, a Jewish man would not have left his mother’s home. It was uncommon enough, that somewhere, there would be mention of this. Why are so many scholars insistent on twisting a statement into anything other than what it was? Why would a married Jesus be such anathema to many of those commenting?
    David, your last paragraph, is unfortunate. Rome long ago, had changed things, regarding time of year, place, and purpose. It is credible to accept that they would change his married state, and other things that would not fit within their vision.
    And if you reject that, then explain to me, how and why God would change his mind so many times, in just the Pentateuch, over the subject of interest alone.

  8. David Andrews says:

    The author places heavy import on scholarship. But scholarship should be suspect to every student of the Bible. The Bible is a document frozen- or nearly frozen – in time, while scholarship is fluid, ever changing. Scholarship is the sum of our past and current knowledge of ancient documents plus all of the scholarly dissertations since those documents were written. There is no control nor any influence (or inspiration) bearing on those scholarly articles as (we believe) there was on the ancient scripture. Scholarly documents are written to support a particular thesis, so a Roman Catholic scholar will posit one thesis about a verse or verses, while an Eastern Orthodox or an American Southern Baptist will each posit their own thesis, and their scholarly document will follow their beliefs more than it will necessarily follow scripture. After all, these documents written by individuals responding to the direction of… men! It is men that dictates the subject, and men that reviews the conclusions, and we know that all men are fallible.

    This is the core of our belief – that “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and …” The writings of scripture, written under the inspiration of God, are the mirror to which every document should be held up to if we are to determine if it is true or false. Any scholarship that defies or attempts to change scripture must be rejected out of hand!

  9. Mike says:

    For a fairly rigorous, scholarly publication there seem to be a lot of comments from those on the fringes. Not that ideas outside the mainstream shouldn’t be considered, but one of the reasons ideas end up outside the mainstream is because they didn’t stand up well to scrutiny. A married Jesus, a gay Jesus, and the Secret Gospel of Mark are examples of this.

  10. Carlos Goldbaum says:

    Difficult to understand the raging debate regarding Jesus being married or not.. Independently of whether the referred text is a forgery or not, in Jesus’ days it would have been simply unthinkable that a Jewish man (or a woman) would not have been married! To my mind the debate arises only because of the absurd obsession of the late bible-writers (who never met Jesus) to hide the simple fact that Jesus not only had brothers and sisters (and I don’t mean brothers and sisters in “faith”), but that he had a family of his own: wife and at least one offspring, namely a daughter. Charles

  11. HECTOR says:

    “… some people thought he had been married.” And they are right, Jesus was married to two (2) sister girls (!) The older girl was named Oholah, and her sister was Oholibah. I married them, and they bore me sons and daughters. I am speaking of Samaria and Jerusalem, for Oholah is Samaria and Oholibah is Jerusalem. [Ezekiel 23:4 NLT]

    Turn, O backsliding children, saith the LORD; for I AM MARRIED unto you: and I will take you one of a city, and two of a family, and I will bring you to Zion: [Jeremiah 3:14 KJV]

    I gave faithless Israel her CERTIFICATE OF DIVORCE and sent her away because of all her adulteries. Yet I saw that her unfaithful sister Judah had no fear; she also went out and committed adultery. [Jeremiah 3:8 NIV]

  12. Krzysztof Ciuba says:

    O.K.but what is new? Matthew 19:12 is a v.clear indication Jesus quit his earhly and family life to serve only God like Jermiah – I have foundit in a Catholic Commentary,Oxford or Cambridge 1965; Luke’s in few places (14:26,14:20) reminds the historical Jesus or the Lukans Christians to reject also a wife. Is Matthew’s words out of a blue skay for any historical reason? Wake up: Jesus of Nazareth was ressurected for no slavish attitude to Highest Priest (Kaiphas) and Cesar comparng to the rest of society (of mental slaves) and traitors (like Sanhedrin). A whip (John 2:15) ON THE HEADS of Temple’s thieves (25x the market value of sacrificial animals expalins it all. Who cares about a wife or not one? It seems the present this world and Akademy is in Dark Ages again because it cannot difference between essential and secondary (accidental – in Aristotelian cathegories) issues

  13. Kevin DeFranco says:

    Jesus’s “bride” is the body of believers. He did not come here to have a wife and kids but to fulfill PROPHESY. He came here to BEAT DEATH which is the DEVIL! Since His coming, death, and resurrection countless of Kenites have tried prove Him counterfeit… Him and His purpose for being here. They will pay, just as this guy will. enough said.

  14. Jane Pilson says:

    Even if Jesus did say, “My Wife” it wouldn’t necessarily mean he had one. For instance: Jesus said, ” My wife and my family are the people who believe my words”
    or : Jesus said, “‘My wife’, a certain man said.”Pack my bags, for I must go on a journey.””

  15. russh10 says:

    Great Article!
    Shalom & Aloha, Russ Hills

  16. Bruce Boone says:

    It’s obvious that Jesus either having a wife or not is a subject for speculation only.
    May I add what may to some seem an obvious correlate and to others an object of derision or contempt? Should we not EQUALLY be open to speculate or to not
    speculate on whether Jesus had a male lover or lovers? There is evidence to this effect in the once accepted now doubted (who knows how the future might feel
    on this subject) “Secret Gospel of Mark”–the portions of Mark purportedly left out for reading only by those to be trusted, since they rather openly mark the very likely homosexual relations of Jesus with a young man to whom he imparts the secrets of the kingdom, so-called. Among other pericopes of dispute one might
    perhaps consider the Johanine line about “the disciple whom Jesus loved” lying on Jesus’ breast or laps at the last supper. Or are scholars too shocked to conceive that Jesus’s love of this disciple in his lap may have been as much carnal as it was spiritual?
    These remain, whether worthy of conclusions as to an aspect of Jesus that may have been queer, at any rate, texts as worthy in my mind, of speculation, true or false,
    as the fragment about Jesus wife. My own cause for puzzlement: could it
    possibly be some small fragment of homophobia among scholarships that keeps these experts from from ever bring up the partly-queer jesus theory,
    even speculatively? And may one ask, even merely speculatively,their about apparently unwavering assumptions made about the total heterosexuality of unmarried Jesus?

    How about it, scholar-guys and scholar-gals? If there’s even an iota of common
    sense in what I say–is it time to think thru the idea of Jesus’s total and complete heterosexual, just spectulatively mind you, one more time?

  17. Cindy says:

    Jesus came to earth as a human (the Incarnation). He lived as a human. He did so to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies. He died as a human and rose as God. This much all Christians accept as FACT. What would change if, during his life as a human, he married? NOTHING!!!

  18. Dan Seidel says:

    query: Does no one contemplate the theories advanced by the works of S.G.F. Brandon, in particular “Jesus and the Zealots”, that Jesus was either a Zealot or sicarius? and why would he be wrong? My good friend Dr. Michael Brown has a discussion with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach – travelling road show, on the search for the True Historical Jesus. Mike was of faith and Shmuley was with history/data and not of faith towards Jesus. Does the human aspect of revolutionary times never enter into this discussion or does it boil down to, as I always told Mike: “You have faith in the your narrative and I do not”. How does BAR treat Brandon and the ‘merry band of sicarius/zealot brothers’ “rap”? Thanks.

  19. Leah Smith says:

    Jesus was not married; open up a Bible… (The Book of Life!). When referring to Jesus having a “wife” it means spiritually. Jesus is the bridegroom and the Church (Body of Christ as a whole) is his bride.!

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