From the November/December 2016 Biblical Archaeology Review
Good 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.”
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.
1. Ariel Sabar, “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” The Atlantic, July/August 2016 (www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/the-unbelievable-tale-of-jesus-wife/485573).
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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
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