As many people suspected from the beginning, the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” fragment is a fake. According to a masterful piece of investigative journalism just published in The Atlantic, Ariel Sabar has delved into the murky depths of what now appears to be a remarkable modern scholarly scandal. As it turns out, the story is so bizarre—and at times sordid—that it is almost easier to accept the authenticity of the bogus fragment than the outrageous tale of its origins. Real life, as is so often the case, is far stranger than fiction.
Painstakingly pulling together a wide variety of tangled threads, Sabar has demonstrated that this much publicized scrap of Coptic papyrus is the handwork of Walter Fritz—a would-be Egyptologist, aspiring pornographer, and (it would seem) purveyor of fabricated antiquities. Formerly a student at Berlin’s Free University, Sabar suggests that Fritz was driven by an unscrupulous desire for profit, an ancient grudge against the academic elite, and an idiosyncratic theology of sacred sexuality—his own wife allegedly spoke ancient Aramaic during intercourse. The remarkable details are far too complex to detail here, but what is more truly remarkable is how members of the Ivy League elite were taken in by this blatant con.
From the initial unveiling of the fragment in 2012, many experts in the field could immediately see that something was amiss. The scribal hand was sloppy and peculiar. The syntax was odd. The text itself appeared modelled on a widely available transcription of the Gospel of Thomas. In short, the much publicized artifact just didn’t look right. Predictably, the academic establishment dug in its heels. After all, who were a bunch of precariously employed adjuncts and bloggers to question the tenured wisdom of the Ivy League? Accusations of sexism further complicated the discussion. All the same, claims and counter-claims continued to be exchanged. In some ways the process was a case-study in peer-review, although the manner in which the fragment was initially dropped upon the scholarly community seem designed to circumvent that tradition.
At the center of this controversy and ultimately its unwitting victim is Dr Karen King, a widely respected expert in early Christianity, particularly non-canonical Coptic texts that the fragment was intended to mimic. King has spent a long and illustrious career helping to develop a more nuanced understanding of the early Christian movement, especially the role of woman. Sadly, it’s no surprise then that she was specifically targeted by the forger who assumed he’d find a sympathetic and credentialed ear.
At the same time, one had the sense from the beginning that the content of the fragment—implying a conjugal relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene—fit a little too neatly in the trajectory of King’s own feminist scholarship. Of all the passages of an as-yet-unknown apocryphal gospel to survive on a random scrap of papyrus, this one happened to be a Dan Brownian dream come true. The gods of papyrology are never so gracious or accommodating.
In this way, the Jesus Wife saga serves as a cautionary tale. It speaks to the well-known dangers of confirmation bias. When we examine evidence, we bring with us our pre-conceptions. We often see what we want to see simply because we want to see it. As a result, no amount of red-flags, contrary interpretation, or even clear-cut evidence can dissuade us from our preferred interpretation (although King it seems has finally conceded). This tendency is particularly acute in the study of early Christianity, a tradition in which most of the scholars who study it are heavily invested—in both positive and negative ways. Objectivity gives way to apologetics and polemic; academic rigor yields to activism. Very often, it seems to me, masquerading as an effort to study and describe the early Christian movement is a desire to re-invent it. Since some don’t see the church they want in the world, they conveniently find it hidden in the fragmentary past. Scholars need to ask themselves why they are studying this past—to understand it or remake it?
A final and equally problematic point to consider in this scandal is a pronounced paradigm shift in modern academia. The oft-repeated cliché used to be publish or perish. Today, it seems to me, this has been replaced by a new imperative—publicity or perish. The humanities and social sciences are in a constant struggle to justify their existence in the face of shrinking funding and the ever increasing emphasis on the STEM disciplines. At the same time, universities place enormous emphasis on publicity and prestige. Nothing attracts the interest of donors like a well-placed interview on CNN. As a result, for the modern academic, it’s not enough to work away meticulously in some narrowly technical field and publish the results for the enjoyment of other scholars. That’s not going to get you tenure these days. In this age of academic celebrity and infotainment, a CV without at least a History Channel appearance or a National Geographic special seems second rate and decidedly lacking in scholarly star-power. Back in 2012, when the Jesus’ Wife fragment was announced, the high-powered publicity machine was already in full swing. Documentaries were already in production. Special publications were in press. All of this, as stated above, before the claims made about the fragment and its interpretation were properly vetted by others in the scholarly community. A similar fan-fare accompanied the solemn unveiling of the Gospel of Judas (just in time for Easter) and is bound to envelope any Jesus-related scholarly sensation, in the wake of which there’s money to be made.
To her credit, Karen King always asserted that even if the fragment were genuine it would not necessarily mean that Jesus and Mary were married. That’s impossible to know historically. The most we could say was that some early Christians believed they were. Even without the Jesus’ Wife fragment other genuine textual evidence suggests that some may have held this belief. At the same time, why this persistent obsession with Mary Magdalene? As though the role of women in the church can only be validated if Jesus himself slept with one. Such a focus does a real disservice to all the women we actually know were active in the early church, particularly in the ascetic movement. That story is interesting and important in itself, though it’s not likely to make headline news. It’s not sexy and salacious enough. In the real-time world of the social media news cycle, there seems to be no room for scholarly subtlety. While I do believe it’s important for scholars to communicate the implications of their research to the public, the tendency towards sensationalism and hyperbole is acute.
If anything, the controversy around the Jesus’ Wife fragment reveals that the academy, like the world at large, is not immune to con-artists and fraudsters. I have met a few in my time. Moreover, there have been forgeries and academic scandals in the past and there will be more in the future. But in that future, let us learn from our mistakes and resist the urge to jump up on the public stage or pre-empt peer-review. In the end, the contributions of the scholarly tortoise far outweigh those of the sensationalizing hare.