On September 19, 2012, the world awoke to a coordinated set of press releases. Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King had unveiled a papyrus fragment with a Coptic text: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’” According to King, while this Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment didn’t prove Jesus had married, it did renew discussions about marriage and celibacy in the early church. Media outlets did not always accentuate this nuance. This is the story of how a sloppy fake fooled dozens of scholars of early Christianity and at least a couple papyrologists, told by an evangelical specialist in Coptic manuscripts who has blogged and published about the drama since the beginning.
In Dan Brown’s bestselling novel The Da Vinci Code, a Harvard professor uncovers the Roman Catholic Church’s darkest secret: Jesus was married and had children. Despite the fictional nature of the narrative, key features of the story focus on historical artifacts, like Da Vinci’s Last Supper and the apocryphal Gospel of Philip and Gospel of Mary. Sitting at a conference in Rome along with 200 other Coptologists, I stared at digital images of a papyrus fragment that could, in theory, prove a central argument of Brown’s fiction: Nicean Christianity, as orchestrated by the fourth-century emperor Constantine, effectively suppressed feminist forms of Christianity that celebrated a married Jesus.
How to Prove a Forgery
Approximately one month after the announcement, Andrew Bernhard demonstrated that a PDF had been used to create the forgery, patching together different passages. Like the fictional Dr. Frankenstein, the forgery excised sections of the digital Gospel of Thomas to forge the monstrosity below, with help from a 2002 PDF of the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.
. . . My mother she gave to me L[IFE] . . .
. . . The disciples said to Jesus . . .
. . . denies. Mary is [not] worthy of it . . .
. . . Jesus said to them [!!!] “My wife” . . .
. . . she will not be able to be a disciple to me and . . .
. . . Let a man the which bad letno T[?] . . .
. . . I myself am with her concerning . . .
. . . an image . . .
In retrospect, several peculiarities had already suggested forgery. The crude hand resembled neither an ancient literary hand, as in the Nag Hammadi codices, nor a documentary hand from a receipt or personal correspondence. The script’s Latinized forms suggested a modern simulation of ancient writing. While ancient inks contained viscous substance like cedar oil to prevent running, this script resembled a child’s failed experiment with pastel paint, that resulted in watery ink running into pools. In the eyes of Coptology and papyrology experts, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife could be readily rejected as a blatant forgery.
Although many assumed the scandal had ended almost as soon as it began in 2012, the Harvard Theological Review revived the discussion with an April 2014 special issue dedicated to publishing scientific results, which demonstrated the “‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to Be Ancient” (Harvard Divinity School website, April 2014). Scientists from Columbia University, Harvard University, MIT, and elsewhere provided scientific studies of the papyrus and ink. Sadly, key scientists involved in these ink studies lacked specialized experience with ancient manuscripts; the journal articles did not resolve problems related to the Patchwork Hypothesis, nor problems with the script, the ink, or the grammar. Two weeks before Easter, Harvard Divinity School’s website suggested that this papyrus fragment was genuinely ancient—just as the Smithsonian Channel was aggressively publicizing the sensational discovery through a dedicated documentary. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was too good not to be true.
The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife was too good not to be true.
The “science” published alongside the Harvard Theological Review articles allowed me to bring the discussion to the point of the absurd. The carbon dating and spectral analysis of the inks contained new and incontrovertible evidence of forgery. Harvard’s dedicated website had posted a draft scientific report that contained images of a Coptic Gospel of John fragment that accompanied the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment. As it later became known, this Harvard Lycopolitan John fragment contained the same script, with the same ink and the same modus operandi of forgery, having been copied from an online PDF of a well-known early Coptic manuscript.
The scandal had grown. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment forgery now had to be considered in light of the forgery of other papyri as well as the provenance paperwork. Whereas scholars had recently assumed the forgery had been passed to Harvard amid an authentic batch of ancient papyri, with documents proving legal owner history, a cringeworthy scene was unfolding. The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife fragment was a fake. Its sibling fragment was a fake. The scientific tests used to authenticate them were misinterpreted. Only the identification of the forger would ultimately end the debacle.
Finding the Forger
On June 6, 2016, I sent the following email to Walter Fritz of North Port, Florida:
Can I confirm that you attended the FU Berlin as an Ägyptologie student in 1990 and published this article?:
Walter Fritz, “Bemerkung zum Datierungsvermerk auf der Amarnatafel Kn 27” Studien zur altägyptischen Kultur 18 (1991): 207–214.
If not, could I ask where you were in this year? Three pieces of evidence have arisen which seemingly tie you to the Gospel of Jesus Wife story line from three new additional directions. If you would prefer to talk on the telephone, I would be pleased to call you. Sorry to be so direct in an email, but I want to offer you the chance to clear up any confusion on my part. Thanks for your help.
Fritz had posted internet pictures of a Greek forgery on a website for a photography business that paralleled the known forgeries, and his wife had sold pendants with embedded Coptic papyrus. His former business partner appeared in the provenance documents, and he had studied Egyptology at the same German university mentioned in the owner-history paperwork. I had been emailing Fritz and calling him on the phone since the prior November. During my first phone call, he refused to speak with me in German, insisting he wasn’t German—with a mild German accent. Records from the city council indicated that he had given tours to German business people and his art page showed images from Germany. German colleagues who had studied with Fritz at FU Berlin confirmed his identity from a photograph.
Although I didn’t discover that Fritz was the owner and potential forger, I did try to put as many people on the scent as possible. Andrew Bernhard and I worked with a journalist from a major newspaper, whose editor didn’t want to cover the story, even though said journalist had uncovered Fritz’s Egyptology studies. Fritz indicated that one of my colleagues from Australia had called him.
How was the forger discovered? Perhaps through some ingenious undercover snare, which entrapped Fritz? Did someone at Harvard leak personal information, maybe one of the provenance documents? Had Fritz shown the documents to another scholar? The answer lies with simple investigative journalism. Owen Jarus, who writes popular pieces on archaeology and cultural heritage for LiveScience.com, systematically reviewed the provenance details in Karen King’s original publication, which led him to the deceased former owner, H. U. Laukamp. When Jarus contacted Laukamp’s former business partner to ask for mundane details in April 2014, Fritz repeatedly and inexplicably insisted, “You have the wrong guy!” Fritz’s bizarre denial transformed him into the prime suspect.
‘Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’
The description so far simplifies a story whose dark and sinister plot twists make The Da Vinci Code boring and believable. Investigative journalist Ariel Sabar’s exposé on the controversy closes the discussion on the forgery, the forger, and the media sensation that followed, concluding that
King wanted it both ways: she sought to expose the Church’s “facts” as positions while promoting her own positions as facts. She needed a double standard—one that permitted stories she judged virtuous to pass as true, regardless of the underlying evidence, while denying the same to narratives she found unethical or “operationally ineffective.”
The reader should pause to reconsider this conclusion, recognizing that Sabar played a key role in the first 2012 media blitz with the Smithsonian, one of the three media outlets chosen by Harvard.
The reader enters the world of Walter Fritz, who initially denied operating multiple pornographic websites featuring his wife with groups of men. While this might’ve been Fritz’s most controversial business venture, it’s only one exotic stop on a long ride, which ends with Sabar suggesting Fritz forged his résumé for his current job. Most tragically, the reader encounters Fritz’s seemingly authentic claims of a traumatic childhood marred by molestation at the hands of a Catholic priest.
Speaking as someone engrossed in the controversy over the last eight years, I see Sabar’s research and tenacity in documenting this story as the best of investigative journalism. His most shocking discoveries relate to the double-blind reviews of Karen King’s original Gospel of Jesus’s Wife article in 2012, which insisted that the papyrus was a forger.
The book generally overlooks the degree to which North American specialists in papyrology and early Christianity either advocated for the forgery or simply remained silent. One analysis of the scenario suggested that forgery advocates were generally all evangelical and not as cautious as their liberal counterparts who relied on science, a statement now difficult to defend. North American research on early Christianity has evolved into a liberal monoculture. Ironically the guild, which is paranoid of Christian fundamentalism, can’t recognize its own ideological bias.
Skepticism in the Academy
Is it possible to teach, but not preach, religion at the college level or as an unbiased journalist or in a Hollywood film? The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife story demonstrates the complexity of public discourse on religious texts by supposedly secular universities, the news media, and Hollywood. This trifecta is increasingly hostile to historic Christian beliefs. American universities with large religion departments typically flourish in states with large populations of conservative Christians. In a bizarre twist, students enrolled in these programs will more likely learn about the emergence of Christianity from a former evangelical than from an evangelical with a living faith. Aside from economics and political science, humanities programs generally lean left.
Ironically the guild, which is paranoid of Christian fundamentalism, can’t recognize its own ideological bias.
While scholars participating in the evangelical Institute for Biblical Research work almost exclusively at Christian seminaries and colleges, the most prominent members of its liberal counterpart, the Westar Institute, are employed at state universities and secular liberal-arts colleges. Secular scholarship of the early Christian tradition permits radical deconstruction and liberal ideological structures related to civil-rights era topics like race, class, and gender—but somehow excludes not only tradition interpretations of Christian history but also scholars whose Sunday morning might include those interpretations. Whether at a state university or an Ivy League school, tax benefits related to subsidized loans, charitable deductions, as well as tax exemptions on property and endowment revenue underwrite Goliath’s spear and armor.
As Christian colleges and seminaries contribute to academic and spiritual flourishing, evangelical leaders should consider how Bible-related engagement with secular academics might flourish. Student ministries like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Cru disciple hundreds of thousands of students per year, but humanities departments at these schools lack any significant evangelical presence. Tyndale House, Cambridge and the associated Tyndale Fellowship accomplished something similar during the 20th century in the UK. The Society of Christian Philosophers has turned the tide in their own discipline. American evangelicals must seek at least one faithful Christian in secular departments of Ancient Near Eastern studies, classics, history, Middle Eastern studies, and religion.
Christ’s church must turn its attention to higher ed, especially as higher ed has turned its attention to Christ’s church.