Gospel Thrillers: Conspiracy, Fiction, and the Vulnerable Bible

The Gospel of Jesus's Wife

The story of the small Coptic fragment that appeared to feature Jesus using the phrase "said to them: 'my wife'" was dubbed "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife" by Karen King, the Harvard professor who first presented this Coptic fragment to a group of scholars at the International Association of Coptic Studies in 2012, in Rome. Over the next four years the fragment would come under increasing scrutiny, eventually unmasked by scholars and journalists alike as a modern forgery.

The simplicity of the fragment, just a few lines in Coptic on papyrus, at first seemed to papyrologists equally like as a modern forgery or an ancient text. Once convinced of its ancient authenticity, King argued that it was evidence for a submerged debate in the second and third centuries over Jesus's sexuality and domesticity (King never claimed that the fragment was proof that Jesus was actually married).

Like the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Jesus's Wife was treated to an elaborate public roll-out, constructed through the resources of Harvard University. This publicity rollout included:

— a special website dedicated to the fragment and its study (you can see an early version of the website here courtesy of the Wayback Machine, including the original dedicated URL "gospelofjesuswife.hds.harvard.edu"; a version of the site remains available here through the Harvard Divinity School website, although many of the links are no longer functional) 
— an article in Smithsonian Magazine by freelance author Ariel Sabar featuring exclusive interviews with King (this article has updates reflecting Sabar's later reporting) and reactions from the scholars at the conference in Rome
— a television special on the Smithsonian Channel, featuring some ancient reenactments and interviews with the various scholars who had examined the papyrus fragment (still available, as of March 2023, here)
— a circulated preprint of King's article submitted for publication in Harvard Theological Review (the paywalled article, published in 2014, is available here)

The unveiling of the Coptic fragment made national and international news: the front page of the New York Times, among other outlets, made the obvious comparison to the bestseller Da Vinci Code and many outlets raced ahead with the most titillating aspect of the fragment: a married Jesus. 

Scholarly response was more cautious; that King would not reveal the name of the owner of the papyrus raised concerns about provenance and the ethics of publishing an ancient papyrus whose legal status could not be verified. Others immediately challenged the authenticity of the papyrus, accusing King (an expert in ancient heresy, feminist history, and Coptic texts) of buying into a questionable artifact that might too readily suit her academic agenda.

Much of this discussion took place in online venues, too numerous to link here: on blogs and websites dedicated to ancient Christianity, papyrology, Coptic, and antiquities. The NASSCAL (North American Society for the Study of Christian Apocryphal Literature) page on the Gospel of Jesus's Wife has an excellent collection of links and publicly facing sources that discussed the fragment as soon as it was made public: roughly 100 or so websites from 2012 to 2016, when interest in the fragment peaked.

Around 2014, the suspicions that had been mounting came to a head: when a second fragment, this time from the Gospel of John, belonging to the same anonymous owner was released it was immediately clear that it exactly reproduced a published text (including even the line breaks), suggesting it was copied from a print book. Since it was written in the same hand as the Gospel of Jesus's Wife it seemed a foregone conclusion that this, too, was a forgery. 

In 2015, Harvard posted the original transcription and tentative translation that the fragment's owner had provided when he first contacted King and, once more, online sleuths deduced that both the Coptic text and the translation were taken from an online version of the Gospel of Thomas, including a typo that had otherwise stumped Coptic specialists. 

The wheels finally came off the bus in 2016, when Ariel Sabar—the freelance author originally hired by Smithsonian to interview King about the fragment and attend the Coptic Studies conference in Rome to gauge reaction—published a blockbuster piece in The Atlantic Monthly that  revealed the owner of the fragment and suggested that he was not only the owner but also the creator: Walter Fritz, a German emigré living in Florida, who had studied Coptic as a young man and had a brief trade in antiquities (to this day Fritz has not admitted he forged the fragment). Soon after this, King admitted that the evidence had tipped over into the likelihood that that Gospel of Jesus's Wife was a modern forgery passed off as an ancient fragment.

Sabar continued to research Fritz, King, and the fragment, eventually publishing a deeply researched book (that nonetheless drew some highly speculative conclusions about motives and psychology) entitled Veritas (Harvard University's motto, which means "truth."). Sabar provides a critical but generally sympathetic portrayal of Fritz, whom he assumes forged the fragment and convinced King to run with it. He saves most of his fire for King, whom he accuses of abandoning academic objectivity and manipulating professional publishing processes. 

It is undoubtedly the case that the shadow of Morton Smith, the Secret Gospel of Mark, and the possibility of academic falsification of Christian origins, looms over the response to the Jesus's Wife fragment. In this case, however, the "forger" is split off from the "academic" and we can see more clearly which party is assumed by a reading public to bear more responsibility: the "expert" who should be able to detect and be willing to defend the historical "truth," regardless of what forgers attempt to pass off as accurate. 

As several academic and online commentators have pointed out, the role of gender politics adds an additional twist to the controversy over this fragment: the rampant misogyny in the academy which leads woman scholars, like King, to face uphill battles in their careers; androcentric histories which automatically diminish and demote feminist histories as political and "ideological" (Sabar's major claim in Veritas); and, of course, the politics of sexuality at play in the study of Christian origins. While King's approach to the fragment focused on second- and third-century Christian debates, media and observers were drawn instead to the "shocking secret" at the dawn of Christianity: was Jesus married?

Even the exposé written by Sabar for The Atlantic Monthly trafficked in this speculation (although this was surely not Sabar's doing, but rather the forces behind the online publication of his story).

If you go to the website of Sabar's story, the metadata "title" is different from the headline (visible in the tab in the picture below):

This metadata is part of the search engine optimization process meant to draw online traffic to the website: if you ask Google "did Jesus have a wife?" Sabar's story will be one of the top hits.

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