History Stories

In September 2012, Harvard University divinity professor Karen L. King, a distinguished scholar of early Christianity, shocked an academic audience at the International Congress of Coptic Studies by detailing an Egyptian papyrus fragment that contained the first-known explicit reference to Jesus being married. The fourth of the eight incomplete lines of Coptic script written on the tiny papyrus scrap—only the size of a business card—contains the words “Jesus said to them, “My wife,” followed in the next line by “she is able to be my disciple.” King stressed that the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” could not be taken as evidence that the historical Jesus ever had a wife—just as no historical proof exists to support claims that he never wed—but she was confident that the artifact was authentic after initial examinations by two expert papyrologists indicated it was ancient.

The announcement immediately sparked controversy. The Vatican dismissed the papyrus as a modern-day forgery. Some of King’s fellow scholars who doubted its authenticity pointed to grammatical errors that native Coptic speakers would never have committed and believed it to have been copied from another ancient text, the Gospel of Thomas. In 2014, however, the Harvard Theological Review published results of carbon-dating and other scientific tests that detected no evidence of fabrication. The tests dated the papyrus to the seventh or eighth century A.D. and revealed the composition of the ink to be consistent with that time period.

A new article written by journalist Ariel Sabar that appears in the latest issue of the Atlantic magazine, however, has exposed the papyrus to be most likely a fabrication. While King confirmed that she had seen a 1999 bill of sale from the artifact’s owner, who requested anonymity, she did little to further investigate its provenance. Sabar, however, undertook a thorough examination of its owner—revealed to be Walter Fritz, a German living in Florida—and uncovered “a warren of secrets and lies.”

Gospel of Jesus' Wife, recto. (Credit: Public Domain)

Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, recto. (Credit: Public Domain)

Fritz, who at one time ran pornographic web sites that featured his wife, said he purchased the artifact in November 1999 along with other papyri from business partner Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, who died in 2002. Relatives and friends of Laukamp told the Atlantic, however, that he had no interest in antiquities and was in Germany at the reported time of the sale, which Fritz said took place in the kitchen of Laukamp’s Florida home. A letter of authenticity in Fritz’s possession also appears to have been fabricated.

Fritz acknowledged that he was the fragment’s owner but categorically denied forging it. “I warrant that neither I, nor any third parties have forged, altered, or manipulated the fragment and/or its inscription in any way since it was acquired by me,” he asserted in a statement to the Atlantic. Fritz, who studied Egyptology and the Coptic language in Berlin in the late 1980s and early 1990s and once ran a business called Nefer Art that offered services to art collectors, did concede, however, that he had the knowledge and capability to carry out such a ruse.

Although the scientific testing had determined the scrap to be of ancient origin, it doesn’t mean the hand of a modern-day forger wasn’t at work. The Atlantic article points out that “a determined forger could obtain a blank scrap of centuries-old papyrus (perhaps even on eBay, where old papyri are routinely auctioned), mix ink from ancient recipes, and fashion passable Coptic script, particularly if he or she had some scholarly training.”

After reading the article and learning of the apparent fabrications in regards to the provenance of the papyrus, King conceded to the Atlantic that the fragment is likely fake. She admitted that she never investigated Fritz’s background or tried to authenticate the supporting documents he provided about the supposed origin of the papyrus. The preponderance of evidence “tips the balance toward forgery,” King said. The Harvard scholar did tell the Atlantic, however, that she would need scientific proof or a confession in order to make a definitive assessment, and she pointed out that it was possible that the papyrus could still be authentic even if the story of its provenance was not.

In spite of the revelations, the Boston Globe reported that neither the Harvard Theological Review nor King plans to print a retraction. The journal’s editors noted in a statement that they had “scrupulously and consistently avoided committing itself on the issue of the authenticity of the papyrus fragment” and had even published an article by Brown University professor Leo Depuydt rebutting King’s findings in the same edition of the journal that featured her article. The editors said that since the journal “has never endorsed a position on the issue, it has no need to issue a response.”

“I don’t see anything to retract,” King told the Boston Globe, noting that her research paper had always allowed for the possibility of forgery. “I have always thought of scholarship as a conversation. So you put out your best thoughts, and then people…bring in new ideas or evidence. You go on.” She did tell the newspaper that the experience had taught her one thing. “I would never agree to do an anonymous thing again. Lesson learned.”

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