Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Owner of the Gospel of Jesus' Wife is Unmasked

In September 2012, four journalists were granted special interviews on the Gospel of Jesus' Wife, published the day that Karen King revealed the manuscript in Rome. One of them, Lisa Wangsness, returned to the topic last November in a follow-up article in the Boston Globe. Now another of them, Ariel Sabar, who wrote a compelling and lengthy article for The Smithsonian, has also returned to the topic in a quite brilliant piece of investigative journalism, published this time in The Atlantic:

A hotly contested, supposedly ancient manuscript suggests Christ was married. But believing its origin story requires a big leap of faith.
Ariel Sabar

Karen King has always protected the anonymity of the owner of the papyrus but his identity is now no longer in doubt. Quite simply, this is a superb piece of investigative journalism. Sabar unmasks Walter Fritz in a detailed and compelling story that is the result of intelligent and detailed research. It will take you a while to read, but it will be worth it.

I could excerpt pieces of the article, but I'd rather not spoil it by doing that, especially as it is structured so beautifully. I will, however, say that I am delighted that Walter Fritz has such confidence in the scholarship of those who exposed the forgery, whom he describes as "'county level' scholars from the 'University of Eastern Pee-Pee Land'”.

Update (Thursday 16 June, 5.08pm): Christian Askeland helpfully fills in some further details on Walter Fritz in the Evangelical Textual Criticism blog:

More on the Gospel of Jesus Wife and Walter Fritz

Update (Thursday 16 June, 11.30pm): Only twenty-four hours after Sabar's article, he has this follow-up:

Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’
The Harvard scholar says papyrus is probably a forgery

And so we have reached the final chapter of this affair, after almost four years of discussion. 


Peter M. Head said...

Fantastic, thanks Mark.

Stephen Goranson said...


Jens Knudsen (Sili) said...

Sounds like this whole thing is an inside job to make papyrology appear hip and sexy.

Timothy N. Mitchell said...

I find it schocking that the warning signs of forgery were there from the beginning. The sketchy supporting documents (photo-copied, spelling mistakes, etc), the harsh peer-review of King's article, the reservation by leading scholars, the errors in Coptic, the too-good-to-be-true text content, ... I could go on. It really does seem like Dr. King was a target of Fritz's con-trick. Her desire for the papyrus to be authentic seems to have affected her abilir to these warning signs.However, it is easy to look back and see all of this. How many of us, sitting in her position could be duped as well(?)

Timothy N. Mitchell said...

That sentence should have read.
"Her desire for the papyrus to be authentic seems to have affected her ability to see these warning signs."

Doug said...

While I can understand no-one likes to look gullible, Karen King's responses as quoted in the article will not help her recover from this debacle.

Stephen Goranson said...

It has long been the case that claims about this fragment and its putative provenance chronology (or conflicting chronologies) were, so to speak, "on the fritz." By the way, the origin of this phrase is disputed. Though nowadays usually applied to appliances, machines, it originally pertained to persons and personal situations. Attempts to tie it to the personal name Fritz are (to me) unpersuasive and anachronistic. Rather, I suggest, the phrase--which was in early use (c. 1900) also spelled (uncapitalized) as "on the friz" (and variously rhymed with "is" and "wits")--represents a known (attested in Dictionary of American Regional English) American dialect pronunciation and spelling of forms of the verb freeze, as in frozen, frozen up, frozen out.

Banshee said...

It's never pleasant to be fooled. But it wasn't just Karen King who came out in favor of the papyrus' authenticity, was it? I hope the other scholars involved will also have the guts to make statements acknowledging error.

Well, if "on the fritz" is also said "on the friz," I would think one would put it together with the verb "to frizz," as in frizzing hair or frizzy hair, which come from the French "frire," to fry. It is pleasing to learn that a curling iron used to be called a "frizzling iron," and that the usage goes back to the 1600's.

We still say that machinery is "fried" when it malfunctions, so this seems likely. But of course without research, this is just a guess!

Jason Pratt said...

It would be nice if this was in fact the final chapter; but we're never going to get a proper final chapter, because the level of sheer hoaxery doesn't stop with Fritz (who incidentally hadn't outright admitted to it last I heard, no doubt for legal reasons) but with fraud-level misbehavior by (various people at) Harvard Divinity and the Smithsonian, as well as by Dr. King herself. They all KNEW the problems, and insisted on making capital anyway at a popular level, while refusing to make more than a bare few of the problems clearly evident from the outset, and digging in their heels every step of the way, casting aspersion on the character of even scholars who tried to point out the problems.

There comes a point where hoax devolves into criminal fraud. And we're never going to see the principles involved in this brought to justice for it in this life; two or three or one year(s) from now, someone else (maybe the same institutions) will be at it again, trying to leverage a profit out of screwing over their readers and audience, wringing anxiety out of people who aren't in a position to know better -- even the Atlantic article tries to make the scrap seem more important than it even could have possibly been if genuine!

"But even without that provocative title," Sabar writes early in the main article, "it would have shaken the world of biblical scholarship. Centuries of Christian tradition are bound up in whether the scrap is authentic or, as a growing group of scholars contends, an outrageous modern fake..." Nope, not even a little. There was never even the slightest possibility the scrap was "authentic" in the sense required, which Harvard, Smithsonian, and Dr. King themselves would occasionally acknowledge -- but they couldn't resist marketing it that way anyway, with varying doses of suspicious innuendo.


Stephen Goranson said...

The 2012 draft HTR article by Prof. King p. 2 includes "....Prof. Munro (d. 2008) and Mr. Laukamp (d. 2001)...." Actually, Munro died in 2009. Discrepancies between various versions of chronology and provenance have long mounted. The King HTR article as published (2014), instead of correcting the Munro death date, omitted the facts that both Munro and Laukamp were deceased--actually providing less information.
Prof. King was informed last year that the Munro archive in Hannover was available for comparison of documents through the kind offer of Dr. C. E. Loeben. One need not have had the investigative skills of Ariel Sabar to have made that simple inquiry.
Provenance study is important not only for questions of authenticity or not, but to attempt to gather, if genuine, any possible clue of find spot.
HTR and the misleadingly-captioned
have an obligation to inform readers of new developments.
I hope more scholars will read "Material criteria and their clues for dating" by Myriam Krutzsch and Ira Rabin, NTS 61 (2015) 356-67, for one thing, to prevent some misinterpretations of science tests. The main result in this case was via C14, which did *not* support the original date hypothesis. Publicized hopes for as-yet-unpublished ink tests to redeem this mess have become vanishingly small.

Jason Pratt said...

Saw your interview comment in the Boston Globe, Mark! Dr. King, naturally more interviewed, now believes all the provenance materials provided by Fritz were bogus. She notably does not say (or wasn't quoted if she did say) that she acknowledges the thing itself as a forgery. She's clearly in the mode of, well, pooh, but anyone could have been fooled by it, not her fault.

Dean Hempton at Harvard Divinity has released a short update to the page today (, the first since March 2014. He notably avoids the topic of HDiv's own responsibility in checking the provenance, and generally takes a very neutral attitude promising that HDiv "will continue to treat the questions raised by them with all the seriousness they deserve."

Those of us who think they haven't treated the questions raised by critics with sufficient seriousness so far, will be reassured I suppose that the standard operating procedure will continue. {wry g}