A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife
- ISBN: 9780385542586
- Published By: Knopf/Doubleday
- Published: August 2020
When Karen King announced the discovery of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” (GJW) at the 2012 International Congress of Coptic Studies, an arcane discipline was propelled into the international spotlight. The loose, notecard-sized piece of papyrus contained a mere six to eight lines of writing on each side. One side was smudged beyond recognition. The other featured a previously unknown text in which Jesus refers to “my wife.” GJW led newscasts and landed on the front page of the New York Times. Questions abound: is the text genuine? Where is it from? Did Jesus really have a wife?
No journalist has answered these questions better than Ariel Sabar. Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife expands upon Sabar’s investigative work for The Smithsonian (2012) and The Atlantic (2016). Sabar tracked the GJW story off-and-on for seven years. The first half of the book traces the GJW from the early letters between an unknown artifacts dealer and King, through its international reception, and to the deeply flawed process of dating the papyrus. Sabar then introduces the reader to Andrew Bernhard, Mike Grondin, and Christian Askeland, each of whose research helped prove the GJW is a forgery. While no scholar of Coptic himself, Sabar does an exemplary job of providing descriptions of the grammatical problems with GJW, the history of Coptic, and the scientific means of dating papyri.
The second half of Veritas follows Sabar as he tracks down the forger. This true story puts any fictional “gospel thriller” to shame. Sabar takes the reader through his investigative process: his research trips overseas, his rummages through old archives, and his interviews with everyone from retired professors to porn actors. It is no overstatement to say that, without Sabar, the con man behind the GJW would never have been uncovered. That forger, Walter Fritz, proves a character as wily and eccentric as any in the novels of Thomas Pynchon. Who could have suspected the person behind the GJW to be a failed German Egyptologist who immigrated to Florida to run an automotive company? Or that Fritz’s previous claim to fame came running a pornography website that featured his wife?
So long as Veritas sticks to facts and their uncovering, it is a gripping read. The book loses its moorings as it attempts to answer why. Sabar presents the GJW episode as symptomatic of deeper issues in the academic study of religion. Veritas offers a Manichaean struggle between those who are devoted to hard facts, wheresoever they may lead, and “theorists” for whom the “truth” of history is determined by who tells the most effective story. While this binary makes for an engaging plot, it is a caricature that leads Sabar to misrepresent individuals and the discipline.
Sabar’s depiction of the Jesus Seminar is instructive. He seizes on director Robert Funk’s off-the-record speech calling for a “new fiction” about Jesus as proof this seminar was nothing more than an exercise in truth-as-rhetoric. This is simply false. The seminar aimed to bring the findings of historical Jesus research to the public. Members such as John Dominic Crossan and John Kloppenberg made their reputations publishing influential monographs in the field. Publications from the seminar emphasized the distinction between the historical Jesus, whom they argued is most accurately conveyed in his sayings, and the mythic-theological interpretations of Jesus already present in the oldest gospels. The resulting portrait was Jesus as an ethical prophet of Wisdom, with theological titles (e.g., Son of God) and supernatural wonders (e.g., the virgin birth) abandoned. Their work proved controversial, but it falls within the horizon of historical Jesus research.
Sabar presents Karen King, a longtime member of the Seminar, in ways that suggest she seized on the GJW to present a “new fiction” of Christian origins to the public at large. To be sure, King, her colleagues who judged the papyrus authentic, and the editors of the Harvard Theological Review who rushed to make GJW public will have their reputations besmirched. Rightly so. But Veritas goes beyond this to present King as an underqualified, calculating scholar who bends historical truth to make religious claims.
Sabar emphasizes that King published just one article and monograph before being hired at Harvard in 1997. This elides her work on Images of the Feminine in Gnosticism (Fortress, 1988). Sabar also claims that she failed to publish any books after her cancer diagnosis in 2006. This is factually incorrect: she published Reading Judas (Penguin) with Elaine Pagels in 2007. The date also conveniently ignores that she published three important monographs between 2002 and 2006. This includes What is Gnosticism? (Belknap, 2002), a watershed book in gnostic studies. This book painstakingly charts how Gnosticism had been discursively employed to separate “true” Christianity from that seen as false, heretical, or gnostic. Even academics who are committed to Gnosticism must position their arguments against the book. King’s translation, commentary, and contextual analysis in The Gospel of Mary of Magdala (Polebridge, 2003) is reduced to her argument that the text dates to 125 CE. In each case, Sabar reads King’s scholarship as little more than truth-as-rhetoric, visions of how diverse or feminist she wishes Christianity had been, rather than what the historical record suggests. Laypersons may come away from Veritas wondering how King landed a prestigious chair at Harvard.
This presentation of King leads the reader to question whether King knowingly used the GJW to publicize her “new fiction” of Christian origins or was duped to believe its authenticity because she wanted it to be true. The concluding chapters of the book, however, uncover another motive behind the GJW episode. In 2011 to 2012, a fierce debate was taking place at Harvard on whether to split the divinity school into a secular department of religious studies (for scholars) and a divinity school (for future religious leaders). King was among those who wanted to keep the divinity school as is, with religious and critical approaches working hand in hand. Sabar’s investigative work shows that King moved ahead on the GJW right as this crisis reached a boil; the dean decided against dividing the divinity school a day before the GJW became an international sensation. In other words, the GJW episode “saved” the Divinity School. If that correlation proves true, then the emphasis on the theory-history binary throughout Veritas becomes not only inaccurate, but irrelevant.
Matthew J. Dillon is a visiting lecturer at Rice University.Matthew DillonDate Of Review:March 1, 2022