“Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” by Ariel Sabar
On September 18, 2012, Karen King, a Harvard historian, presented to the attendees of an academic conference in Rome a newly discovered manuscript: a papyrus fragment the size of a business card featuring eight lines of text in Coptic. Each line was broken on both ends, as though the fragment had been incised from the center of a page. The salacious fourth line translates: “…Jesus said this to them: ‘My wife…’” (15). With the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica visible in the window, King revealed the name she had given her discovery: “I dubbed it—just simply for reference purposes—‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’” (xi).
Ariel Sabar was the only journalist in a room full of papyrologists and early Christian scholars. His book, Veritas, is the full (and apparently final) report on nearly a decade of investigative research and reporting on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Sabar manages to conclude what a room full of experts could not, except tentatively: the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is a forgery.
The book is divided into four acts. Act 1 covers the discovery and initial reception of the fragment, with several chapters devoted to explaining its significance for the religious and scholarly worlds.
Acts 2 investigates the scholarly reception. Fascinating here is the prominence of the internet. King is first contacted by the forger by email; she collects the fragment without ever seeing the owner’s face. The biggest breakthrough analyses of the fragment were posted by blogs, not journals. News outlets scattered mis-information (e.g., when carbon dating and chemical tests dated the fragment to the early medieval period, most news outlets declared this “authenticated” the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: a methodological overstatement, since lab tests, if carried out by qualified scientists, can prove a forgery, but cannot in themselves authenticate anything; the forger could have bought the medieval papyrus online, but he likely stole it during a brief stint at the Free University’s Egyptology Institute in the early nineties, where he had access to stashes of papyrus waiting to be catalogued). An independent scholar, Andrew Bernhard, was able to track down the Coptic text the forger (whose Coptic was weak) had used as an exemplar to cobble together the sentences of his Gospel. The exemplar was a pdf of an interlinear translation of the Gospel of Thomas by Mike Grondin, another independent scholar. Bernhard did this from his office, which doubled as his laundry room. Perhaps more than any other, the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is “an internet-age forgery” (125).
Act 3 goes into the life of the forger himself, a German immigrant and pornographer. When the fragment first underwent scrutiny, signs of forgery were dismissed on the grounds that it was difficult to imagine a forger with the competence to get so much right also making such pedestrian mistakes. “I kept saying, ‘How could somebody be so sophisticated and so unsophisticated at the same time?’” reports Roger Bagnall, a leading papyrologist and one of the earliest to review the fragment. “It was a failure of imagination on my part not to have concocted the person of Walter Fritz” (290).
As you might have guessed by now, this story gets stranger the deeper it goes. But I think Sabar has more to offer than a few thrills. We live in a golden age of archeology. It seems every quarter-century, a major manuscript is (re)discovered. We now have in our possession dozens of works of ancient Christian literature that were unknown or unavailable a century ago.
Forgery is also common; common enough, at least, that it is a potentiality every new discovery must address. I shouldn’t be surprised if, should they recover from institutional embarrassment, museums and archives would include a “forgery exhibit” which displayed the artifacts and stories of forgeries that fooled the experts. I imagine it would be informative.
Sabar’s work is a case study in how ill-equipped academic institutions are for authenticating the manuscripts they collect and study. As soon as King got her hands on the fragment, she did what an academic would be expected to do: she relied on specialization and the process of peer review to get results. To me, it makes sense that her intuition would be to keep the fragment in her world and let it work its way up the ivory tower’s levels of scrutiny. Wondrous to behold, every time the fragment changed hands, the recipient immediately leaned into her expertise, and nobody asked the basic questions—the sort of questions an investigative journalist would ask: Where did this come from? Where did the owner get it? Where did he get it? If this is a forgery, who benefits?
When Sabar presented these concerns to King, she admitted she had not investigated the provenance of the manuscript at all before announcing her discovery. King had her own system in place, one of the best in the world, for this sort of thing. Sabar implies this was negligent, but I’m sympathetic to King: Questions of provenance would not seem to King immediately relevant; and even if they were, she would not necessarily know how to go about asking them; that’s not her training, nor her instinct. What’s more, I doubt that King is an exception in this case. She is not the first academic to be fooled by a con man.
A few books have appeared recently which aim to equip up-and-coming biblical scholars on authenticating manuscripts (Brent Nongbri’s God’s Library should be required reading in biblical studies programs, in my opinion), but Sabar’s work is beneficial because it is a case study that actually traces a forgery’s systematic weave up a peer review system.
A common assumption among experts on forgery is that an individual with the technical skill to produce a convincing forgery could also fabricate a trail of modern provenance documents. But Sabar shows no forger is gifted in every aspect of forgery. “A manuscript is a physical object; to convincingly fake one, all you need are the right tools and materials. Provenance, however, is historical fact: a trail of dates, places, buyers, sellers. To convincingly fake provenance, you need to rewrite history—often recent history” (214). Basic investigative journalism skills could carry a high premium in the field of antiquities because it concerns the question of provenance, and provenance is the most difficult thing of all to forge.
Blake Adams is an associate at the Church of the Resurrection in Wheaton, IL, a Latin tutor for the Ancient Language Institute, and a copyeditor at Wipf and Stock Publishers. He writes regularly at Read Religiously.