Veritas: The Truth of the Jesus-Wife Hoax and a Divinity School in Crisis

I thought I knew all there was to know about the Jesus-Wife forgery, but I was wrong. Veritas is an extended piece of Ariel Sabar’s investigative journalism published four years ago, a must-read for hoax gurus, and for any New Testament and non-canonical specialists. It shows the depths to which professionals sink in willful naivete and the boundless guile of the forger. It’s an exciting read, but also at times surreal, or at least for me, when familiar online acquaintances and Facebook friends make an appearance in the narrative. I now know Mike Grondin’s daily and nightly routines, thanks to Sabar. But I’m wiser than ever before about what drives forgers to bamboozle the academy, and why certain scholars get easily played.

Da Vinci Affinities

The book starts with Karen King, and fleshes out her upbringing as a child in Montana, her undergraduate years at the University of Montana, her PhD work at Brown University, and her teaching position at Occidental College, and finally, against the odds (given the competition), her appointment as professor at Harvard Divinity in 1997. She became well known in November 2003, when her book on the Gospel of Mary was published at the height of The Da Vinci Code craze. The timing was probably coincidence, but King exploited it.

Her book, to be sure, didn’t mention The Da Vinci Code (published months before in March), for it hardly served as a feminist manifesto by 21st century standards. As Sabar puts it, the ideological flaw in The Da Vinci Code for King was the inverse of the ancient gnostics’. In gnostic belief, the feminine is valued at the expense of her sexuality. In Dan Brown’s thriller, it’s the opposite: Mary Magdalene is Jesus’ fertile wife — “her uterus the ‘Holy Grail’ for his seed” — but at the expense of her spiritual leadership. “Put crudely,” says Sabar, “the Code’s Mary was a womb without a brain, while the Gospel of Mary’s Mary was a brain without a womb. (p 280).” [One reason King would become snared by the Jesus-Wife fragment eight years later is that it marries the best of both worlds, portraying a Mary who has sex with Jesus (“my wife…”) and who also talks and learns (“she is able to be my disciple…”). The hoax was practically designed for someone like Karen King.]

Nevertheless, King praised Dan Brown in the media for raising “important questions” about early Christianity. Of the scholars interviewed about The Da Vinci Code, she was the least critical of the novel’s blend of fact and wild fiction. While she always had enough sense to insist that there is no historical evidence of a married Jesus, she found a common cause with Dan Brown. In The Da Vinci Code the early church fathers demonized Mary Magdalene for her marriage to Jesus; for King, in her 2003 book, they demonized her for her spiritual leadership:

“For King, the Da Vinci effect helped turn a scholar whose intellectual passions had been confined to classrooms, academic tracts, and the occasional church into a bestselling author with live audiences and hundreds and a television viewership of millions. Yet it put King in a curious bind: On the one hand, The Da Vinci Code was just the latest of more than fifteen hundred years of fictions about Mary Magdalene — and fictions about Mary Magdalene were precisely what King had devoted her life to dispelling [italics mine]. On the other hand, this particular fiction — of Magdalene as Jesus’s wife — had given King a platform bigger than any she had ever known.” (p 65)

This platform, however, would be nothing like what she got almost a decade later, when she obtained the mysterious Jesus-Wife fragment from a “collector of antiquities”.

Assessing the Fragment: An Implied “Criterion of Embarrassment”?

The papyrologist meeting at Roger Bagnall’s home in New York (on October 24, 2011) is where the whole business should have died, and apparently almost did. As Sabar tells it (pp 28-31), Bagnall (a classics scholar) hosted the meeting to discuss the photos of the Jesus-Wife fragment sent to him by King, who was a close colleague and friend. AnneMarie Luijendijk (King’s protégé) was present along with eight other young papyrologists. All were initially skeptical — the handwriting alone suggested a forger rather than a scribe of antiquity — but they soon strangely reversed themselves, becoming convinced that the forgery tells could be marks of authenticity.

The logic reminds me of the increasingly discredited criterion of embarrassment in historical-Jesus studies: if what Jesus says or does in the gospels would have created “embarrassment” to the gospel writers, the less likely they would have invented it. (Most famously: Jesus’s baptism by John appears to portray the sinless savior in need of having sins washed away.) The logic being that if you want to invent something about your savior, you invent something that aligns cleanly with what you believe, and not something that creates difficulty or contradiction (“embarrassment”).

In Sabar’s account of the Bagnall meeting, a variant of this criterion seems to have been invoked. “Surely no one would forge something that looked obviously this fake.” “A forger would have tried harder”. A forger, in other words, surely wouldn’t produce such an embarrassing product. Really.

Dating the Fragment

Five months later (in March 2012), King met with Bagnall and Luijendijk and other scholars in New York, where she showed them the Jesus-Wife fragment. Sabar tells (pp 31-33, 37-38) how Bagnall dated it to the 4th century AD, and speculated that a fragment this important could fetch a six-figure price.

Months later in July, King felt confident dating the fragment to the 2nd century AD when she spoke to the press. One might wonder how she felt this confident, when Bagnall had (in their March pow-wow) dated the Coptic handwriting to the fourth century — and that Coptic in any case didn’t emerge as a written language until the third century. For King a fourth-century fragment wasn’t good enough, because it looked too reactionary against the settled orthodox portrait of a celibate Jesus. Something from the second century would make a more formidable weapon against the orthodox, as it would imply early debates among Christians over marriage and sexuality.

She argued for an early date of the fragment on the same basis that she had assigned the (unconvincing) early date for the Gospel of Mary — by assuming that the Coptic was a translation of an earlier Greek original, and that the original text was “in conversation” with a competing theological view, rather than reactionary against an established orthodox view. If there is no evidence that Jesus was married, King insisted that there is also no evidence that he wasn’t, and the Jesus-Wife fragment should now lead scholars to re-evaluate the Christian doctrine of sexuality and marriage.

Naming the Fragment

When TV producer Hannah Veale and her boss Andy Webb, got unrestricted access to a Harvard scholar that summer — before the Jesus-Wife fragment was even peer reviewed — fate was writ. Veale and Webb asked her if she had given the fragment a name, and she told them she was thinking of calling it the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”. Sabar cites Webb as follows:

“Webb had interviewed enough scholars over the years to expect the usual impenetrable nomenclature. This, he never expected. ‘If Karen had decided to call it Artifact 957/A, then that would have been fine,’ he said. ‘So to be given, as it were, the license to call this little tiny fragment “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” … it sort of put the headline on the story that even as a journalist and filmmaker I would have never dared to apply myself.” (p 69)

To be fair — and as before, during the Da Vinci craze a decade earlier — King was careful to emphasize that there is no historical evidence that Jesus was married, and that the Jesus-Wife fragment did not offer proof of such. It only meant, she said, that some Christians living over a century after Jesus’s death believed that he was married, probably to affirm a theology that legitimated wives and mothers as disciples, and to sanctify sexuality. King insisted that part of her scholarly job was to “throw water on sensationalism”. But then why, asks Sabar, had she picked a title for the fragment that guaranteed sensationalism?

Bombshell in Rome

King officially announced her discovery in Rome on September 18, 2012, in a room filled with Coptologists. The announcement would summon a media storm, but the Coptic specialists weren’t impressed and raised all sort of objections. For example, Einar Thomassen pointed out the phrase ta-hime (“my wife”) appears in the fragment, but it’s a phrase that can’t be found in any surviving Coptic document. Even the word hime alone was rarely used in Coptic. Shime was the generic word for “woman” that could also mean “wife”, and much more frequently used. But ta-hime is completely unheard of. When ancient scribes wrote “my wife”, they used ta-shime in every known instance that survives. Sabar elaborates on Thomassen’s objection:

“Whether some rule of syntax treated hime differently from shime is unknown; ancient Copts didn’t leave behind grammar books. What is clear is that ta-hime appears in exactly one known Coptic text: the tiny fragment that a stranger had given Karen King. The papyrus would thus be noteworthy not just for its content but for its singular use of language. Had an ancient scribe used ta-shime instead of ta-hime, no scholar would have translated, ‘Jesus said to them, “My wife”…’ differently. No one would think that Jesus, in referring to ‘my woman’, was speaking of, say, a girlfriend. But ta-hime took no chances. It doubled down. It was an unprecedented, belt-and-suspenders locution.” (pp 93-94)

Other objections were raised, but King evidently felt secure enough with the “authority” of Bagnall behind her. Three days after the conference, Francis Watson published a paper showing that the Jesus-Wife fragment is a collage of passages from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas (an unlikely way for an ancient author to compose a text, but likely enough from a modern forger with limited Coptic skills). Three weeks after the conference, Andrew Bernhard showed the fragment to be a completely obvious fake… but more on that later.

“Peer Review” by Friends

Here’s the real shocker. King submitted her article on the Jesus-Wife fragment to The Harvard Theological Review (on August 10, 2012), and on the same day the journal’s editors (Kevin Madigan and Jon Levenson) asked Roger Bagnall to peer review King’s article.

Roger Bagnall was the classics scholar who had already worked with King to date the fragment to the 4th century; whom King had cited in her article; and who was a good friend of Bagnall. “Asking Bagnall to anonymously peer-review King’s article,” says Sabar, “was like asking an athletic team’s co-captain to referee his own game, and in disguise.” On top of this, Bagnall even admitted upfront that he lacked expertise in non-canonical early Christian literature. He was a papyrologist, yes, but a classics scholar. The Harvard editors wanted him anyway.

The other two peer reviews of King’s article were negative in the extreme, and came from two leading Coptologists, Bentley Layton and Stephen Emmel. Layton told the Harvard editors point blank that publishing the fragment “would be very embarrassing for The Harvard Theological Review.” Emmel identified the papyrus as a clear fake and fingered just about every forgery tell that would emerge over the next four years.

Then a greater shock. At this point — after the negative peer review — King’s article should have been rejected, but the Harvard editors ignored the advice of the two lead Coptologists and allowed King to gather her own team to make a case for the fragment’s authenticity. The team consisted of the following experts:

  1. Noreen Tuross, Pofessor of Scientific Archaeology, Harvard Univeristy
  2. Gregory Hodgins, Assistant Professor of Anthropology, University of Arizona
  3. Timothy Swager, Professor of Chemistry, MIT
  4. James Yardley, Professor of Electrical Engineering, Columbia University

The choices of Tuross and Hodgins were fair enough, and their radiocarbon tests actually overturned King’s claims the Coptic fragments dated to the 2nd century, and for that matter Bagnall’s more cautious claims that they dated to the 4th. The papyri in fact dated to the 8th. (Naturally, this didn’t stop King from claiming that the contents of the papyri dated much earlier, even if copied onto an 8th-century payrus.)

The choices of Swager and Yardley, on the other hand, made little sense and were unethical. Timothy Swager, an expert in explosives detection (not ancient papyri) is unknown in the community of archaeological science. He was chosen because his father was a close friend of Karen King’s father. (Back home in Montana they were hunting partners.) As for James Yardley, he runs the Ancient Ink Laboratory at Columbia, but has no actual experience with ancient objects or ink identification. He has spent most of his career as a research administrator, and founded the lab because Roger Bagnall is his brother-in-law. Obviously, neither Swager nor Yardley were inclined to damage the academic reputations of their friends/relatives King and Bagnall, and on the strength of that nepotism, the Coptic fragments were given a murky pass on the ink and material tests.

The final shock is that The Harvard Theological Review didn’t bother peer-reviewing these lab results. The radiocarbon dating and ink/material analyses went unchecked. King published her article (on April 10, 2014), robustly confident that the specter of forgery had been put to rest.

This is all bad, but to me, frankly, the biggest shock of all is that this lab work proceeded despite Andrew Bernhard’s proof (published on October 11, 2012) that the Jesus-Wife fragment was without doubt a hoax. King basically ignored Bernhard’s findings because he’s a non-specialist.

David & Goliath

In his podcast review Mark Goodacre calls Veritas a “David & Goliath” story, in which the amateur Andrew Bernhard takes down the Harvard-giant Karen King. It’s true: Sabar gives Bernhard (who does not have a PhD in biblical studies) a lead role in the narrative, and this is fair, since Bernhard did more than anyone to drive a nail in the hoax. His discovery was stunning as it was hilarious: if the Jesus-Wife fragment were truly the product of an ancient scribe, that scribe had somehow time-traveled into the age of the internet, and obtained access to Mike Grondin’s interlinear — an online pdf created in 2002, that contained a typographical error which the forger unwittingly copied. (That typo-versioned interlinear is still available here, which Grondin is preserving for historical purposes regarding the whole controversy.)

Mark notes in his podcast review that he and Francis Watson don’t get much coverage in Sabar’s book, despite both having been heavily involved in critiquing the Jesus-Wife fragment (see here and here for Goodacre, for example, and here especially for Watson), though Mark is probably right that underscoring professional contributions might have spoiled Sabar’s David & Goliath story.

Similarly, I thought it curious that in discussing the Secret Mark hoax (pp 33-37), Sabar mentions Peter Jeffrey’s debunking but not Stephen Carlson’s, even though Carlson struck first. They are equally compelling treatments, but Jeffery is a biblical-studies amateur (a musicologist by profession), and again Sabar probably wants the amateurs to shine. (Carlson would have actually shined fine in this light, since he was a patent attorney when working on Gospel Hoax; he enrolled in a biblical-studies graduate program only after debunking Secret Mark.)

On the other hand, Dr. Christian Askeland gets his proper due, as the one who exposed the Coptic John fragment to be a fake. This fragment was in the same collection with the Jesus-Wife fragment, and — only two weeks after King’s article was published — Askeland realized something just as stunning and hilarious as the typo spotted by Bernhard. If the Coptic John fragment was the product of an ancient scribe, the scribe had once again projected his psyche centuries into the future, and copied from an available online pdf, and then got careless in covering his tracks. This time he replicated a modern typesetting feature from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau Codex (the earliest Coptic copy of John). See here for an illustration.

So, just as the Jesus-Wife fragment reproduced typos from a modern interlinear of Thomas (which Bernhard spotted in October 2012), the Coptic John fragment displayed a typesetting format from a modern translation of John (which Askeland saw in April 2014). Sabar notes that Askeland took his ground-breaking find not to a newspaper, but to the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog, and then promptly got himself into hot water for having the blog run his article entitled, “Jesus Had an Ugly Sister-in-Law”. The use of an ugly woman as a metaphor for a sloppily forged text was evidently too much for some people who cried foul, sexism, or even outright misogyny (all horseshit accusations, in my opinion, and a pathetic deflection from the issue at hand). Askeland is also in bed with the Hobby Lobby crowd, who are no friends of mine, but tribalism is the worst trap to fall into. Sabar observes that “Askeland’s job with the Green Scholars Initiative made him an easy target for King’s supporters, who sought to discount his findings as evangelically driven. But King, it turned out, had also taken money from affluent culture warriors (p 297).” Forgeries are forgeries no matter what tribe you belong to. The fact is that Askeland’s findings spoke for themselves and were unshakable.

But then so were Andrew Bernhard’s back in October 2012. King found Bernhard easy to ignore though, since he was a non-specialist who published his findings on blogs and personal websites. In the long run this hurt King all the more. By ignoring the amateur Bernhard, assembling an unethical team of experts to test the fragment, and finally publish her “prestigious” article — only to be hit two weeks later with Askeland’s discovery confirming Bernard’s — the liabilities were piling up. As Sabar says, “Truths hounded in basements might take long to find their way into the ivory tower, but they get there eventually (p 144).” And the longer the delay, the harder those accumulated truths hit.

Unveiling Walter Fritz

Everyone and their mother has known since the publication of Sabar’s article in The Atlantic Monthly (June 15, 2016) that Walter Fritz is the forger of the Jesus-Wife fragment. But there’s a hell of a lot more of his background presented in Veritas than in the Atlantic article. Years of investigative work on Sabar’s part yield a biography of the man that goes well beyond adjectives like “colorful”.

The highlights of Fritz’s life, as chronicled by Sabar (much of it out of sequence) can be summarized linearly as follows: He was allegedly (and quite plausibly) sodomized by a Catholic priest at the age of nine (1974). He enrolled in an Egyptology program at the Free University of Berlin (1988), where he disdained fellow students as inferiors. He published a scholarly article (1991) in a prestigious German-language journal, in which he argued that the Pharaohs Akhenaten and his father Amenhotep III had ruled in succession, and not jointly as the prevailing theory would have it. The article pissed off his instructor Jurgen Osing, who considered it a plagiarism of his own ideas — ideas that Fritz simply heard in Osing’s history class. Soon after the article’s publication, Fritz vanished from campus, and never earned his degree. Later that year he was hired as the director of the Stasi Museum in East Berlin, and was soon castigated by the board of directors for poor management and missing items suspected to be stolen. He resigned (1992), and soon after hooked up with a low-IQ mule, Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, whom he eventually manipulated into allowing him joint directorship of a metalworking company (1995) that he expanded into Florida and eventually became the sole director of (2001) before it went bankrupt (2002). It is this Hans-Ulrich Laukamp who would become Fritiz’s fall guy (he died in 2002) — the supposed “original owner” of the Coptic fragments that Fritz would peddle onto Karen King.

Walter Fritz drank theology that cut against the Catholic church, and actualized his unorthodoxy in sex and pornography. Only a month after the publication of The Da Vinci Code (2003) he launched pornographic websites that showed his wife (an American woman he recently married) having sex with shitloads of other men, sometimes with multiple men at the same time. (In Dan Brown’s novel a clandestine society engages in group ritualized sex in which the woman is dominant, and the sex act symbolizes the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.) On a fetish blog his wife proudly announced that she “fucks as many men as possible” (2005), as a liberation from traditional gender norms. Fritz unreservedly supported his wife’s libertinism, stating that while he likes “being dominant and using women”, he also enjoys being used by them in turn so that he can know the other side — the submissive side, “where true strength lies”.

On her many websites, Fritz’s wife praised sluthood as nothing less than the key to the kingdom of God. She wrote poems to sluthood and aligned them with Jesus’s teachings according to the ancient gnostics: “If we were able to find out the nature of our own reality (the part that exists and is immortal), we may have a chance of finding the reality of the world as well. That’s why Jesus says, ‘The kingdom of God is within you!’ It means: find your own reality within, then you will know it all.” Applied to orgiastic sex, the Fritzes had found salvation through slutty gang bangs.

Things got bad for Fritz and his wife during the Great Recession, causing Fritz to put his home on the market for sale (2009). He wrote nasty letters to the editor, demanding that city employees be laid off or take drastic salary reductions. His financial woes seem to have been the trigger for launching his hoax at Harvard… but of course things are never quite that simple.

Fritz’s Motive(s) in Forging the Jesus-Wife Fragment

Here’s how Sabar describes Fritz. He was

“a sycophant with a salesman’s silver tongue. He traveled to Egypt, had access to ink-making ingredients and a large papyrus collection, and was clever enough to decipher a damaged hieroglyphic text for a scholarly journal. Yet for all his talent and ambition, he was stymied by a language — Coptic — and a professor — Osing — and he quit before earning the most basic of degrees. Such a background could well explain the ‘combination of bumbling and sophistication’ that Karen King had deemed ‘extremely unlikely’ in a forger… But if Fritz did do it, what was his motive? Greed — or simply financial need — inspires many forgers, and by 2010 Fritz’s assets and income appeared to have taken a beating. But the facts didn’t entirely square with this theory. The owner of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife may have wanted to get rich, but he didn’t seem to be in a hurry. He had agreed to loan the Wife papyrus to Harvard for a decade, even after the university rejected his proposed deal — that the school buy his other papyri in exchange for his donation of the Wife papyrus… Other motivations seemed just as viable. By all accounts, Fritz had seen his Egyptology dreams thwarted. He might well have nursed a grudge against the elite scholars who had failed to appreciate his intellectual gifts — who had told him he was mediocre at Coptic and short on original ideas. Not a few forgers have been driven by an impulse to show up the experts. A yearning to settle scores might have intensified at a time when Fritz — beset by joblessness, corporate bankrupticies and an unsellable house — found his life in free fall.” (p 187)

Walter Fritz, then, would represent a cross between Konrad Kujau and Morton Smith, a forger who (a) commits fraud for money and (b) orchestrates a hoax to make scholars look like fools. But there could also have been a third motive in play. As described later in the book, Fritz claims to have been raped by a priest when he was nine years old, and Sabar’s detective work on this front shows that claim to be very plausible. The Jesus-Wife hoax could have been — at least in part — a “Fuck You” to a church that deeply wronged him, and to which he reacted against (with his slut-proud hotwife) in “master and servant” sex acts.

I was drawn at this point in Sabar’s book to compare Walter Fritz very strongly to Morton Smith. Obviously Smith was a brilliant scholar (unlike the wannabe Fritz), but like Fritz he had the rare combination of skills to forge what he needed to forge, and similar motives. Secret Mark was created at a time in Smith’s career when he was denied tenure at Brown, and few appreciated his talents, even though he was (again, unlike Fritz) a brilliant scholar. Smith was a priest-turned-atheist, and he developed theories way ahead of his time. (Biblical studies in the ’50s was still largely confessionally driven, and hadn’t become the sophisticated and interdisciplinary field we know today.) Smith’s anger at the homophobia of the ’50s, his resentment of the academy, and his nasty sense of humor all combined in one of the most successful literary hoaxes of all time. In his profile of Smith, Peter Jeffery notes how motives can reinforce one another even as they undermine, and be more effective for it:

“One of the slippery things about the whole Mar Saba venture — both the ‘original’ document and Smith’s various publications on it — is that there seem to be three messages, which shift in and out of focus depending on how one looks at it, and which tend to undermine each other. First of all, Smith clearly wanted us to believe he had discovered major new evidence that Jesus approved of homosexuality — even engaged in it, even imbued it with religious significance… But how could we take Smith’s proposal seriously when, on closer scrutiny, it keeps dissolving into dirty jokes?… But then, just as we are about to dismiss the whole thing as a prank — lewd, crude, and facetious — the humor fades into hostility. All the experts and eminences whose endorsements Smith claimed to have obtained, and all the other scholars who became convinced that he had discovered a genuine ancient writing, will have good reason to feel abused, more than amused, by the whole sordid mess — arguably the most grandiose and reticulated ‘Fuck You’ ever perpetuated in the long and vituperative history of scholarship. Were all three messages equally intended? Did Smith fully realize what he was doing?” (The Secret Gospel of Mark Unveiled, p 242)

We can likewise ask: Did Fritz fully realize what he was doing on July 9, 2010, when he contacted Karen King for the first time? It was only a day after his furious letter to the editor, in which he ranted about economic hardships; it was only months after his letters to Pope Benedict describing his rape by a priest when he was a kid, with still no reply from Rome; it was years after dropping out of the university and being derided as a plagiarist with no original ideas — but there’s really no expiration date on that sort of thing when it makes you a loser for life, and you have the superiority complex of Walter Fritz. I suspect all three of these motives — financial need, hatred of the Catholic church, and the thrill of making fools of tools like Karen King — drove Fritz to do what he did.

The Fate of Harvard Divinity: The Crisis of 2009-2011

One thing kept eating at me through Veritas. Why did Karen King ignore Walter Fritz for so long before finally taking his bait? He first emailed her on July 9, 2010, describing the Coptic fragments he wanted to sell. She didn’t reply until almost a year later, on June 25, 2011, and that was to tell him she wasn’t interested. Then, four months after that, on October 15, she suddenly had a change of heart. Why fifteen whole months before she bit?

I was beginning to think this would remain an unanswered question until I got well into the final act of the book. Sabar describes a crisis on Harvard Divinity — a long wave of complaints starting in 2009 about the blurred lines between serious scholarship and pastoral ministry at Harvard, causing many professors to leave and seek positions at other (“more serious”) universities. By late 2011, Harvard President Drew Faust planned to bring in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. Theology and religious studies might split into separate departments, as at other universities. The strongest resisters of this, ironically, came from the feminist faculty, whose fusion of liberal politics/theology and academic scholarship had found the perfect platform at Harvard Divinity.

Karen King would have been in this camp advocating the status quo. She wasn’t a fan of fact-driven scholarship — or “fact fundamentalism”, as she often put it — to the extent that in an almost-surreal dispute with a colleague (Hal Taussig) over the Diary of Perpetua, “Taussig the pastor insisted on historical defensibility, while King, the historian, was treating dates as adjustable furniture” (p 320). (The Diary of Perpetua was a favorite text of King’s, and she was trying to get a committee of scholars to include it in a “New New Testament” they were putting together, but it didn’t fit the committee’s criterion of pre-175 AD date boundary; King wanted an exception made for this text that she liked so much.)

According to Sabar, on October 13, 2011, President Faust sent an email to the faculty, informing everyone that she was bringing in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. There was a strong reaction from those who favored the status quo. Two days later, on October 15, Karen King — after fifteen whole months of showing no interest in Fritz’s sales pitches — contacted Fritz and told him that she had reconsidered his offer, and wanted the Jesus-Wife fragment after all. Sabar interprets this remarkable change of heart:

“The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, I came to believe, was King’s boldest intervention, a daring play for survival in a time of uncertainty. King had earned her degrees in traditional departments of religious studies, at the University of Montana and Brown; they were the sorts that Faust’s panel had held up as models for a secular institution as eminent as Harvard. But for King, Harvard Divinity School had become a more congenial home. The school was a kind of Ivy-fringed Jesus Seminar, peopled by no small number of scholars for whom reason and faith were mutually reinforcing.” (p 318)

King had been strongly influenced by Bob Funk — creator of the liberal Jesus Seminar, and inflamed with the same degree of religious zeal as the evangelicals he despised — so I can readily buy this.

And so we have it. What opened the door to the whole fiasco was a divinity school in crisis. If Harvard was on the brink of creating a secular religious studies department, then the divinity department (and King’s status) was in jeopardy. The Jesus-Wife fragment must have seemed a godsend for keeping progressive liberal theology married to academic scholarship.

Timeline

Sabar’s book is well written and plotted, but keeping track of the chronology of events is a challenge because his tale is non-linear. I’ve created a timeline for convenience, and so readers can see, in some cases, how one seemingly unrelated event leads into another and explains it.

 

Date Event
1974
Walter Fritz, at nine years old, is allegedly raped and sodomized by a priest in the town of Bad Wurzach.
1988
Fritz enrolls in an Egyptology program at the Free University of Berlin.
1991
Fritz publishes a scholarly article in a prestigious German-language journal, in which he argues that the Pharaoh Akhenaton and his father had ruled in succession, and not jointly as the prevailing theory would have it. The article angers Jurgen Osing, who considers it a plagiarism of his own ideas — ideas that Fritz simply heard in Osing’s Egyptian history class. Soon after the article’s publication, Fritz vanishes from campus forever, without finishing his degree.
November 1991
Fritz is hired as the director of the Stasi Museum in East Berlin.
March 1992
The Stasi Museum’s board members question Fritz on missing valuables in the museum. Soon after, in the spring, Fritz resigns from the museum, possibly due to being threatened by a museum volunteer named Wolfgang Veith. (Fritz may have stumbled on Veith’s stash of child pornography that eventually sent Veith to prison in 1995.)
Spring 1992
Sometime after leaving the museum, Fritz meets Hans-Ulrich Laukamp in a steam room, and strikes up a friendship with him. (Laukamp will eventually become Fritz’s fall guy as the “original owner” of the Jesus-Wife fragment.)
1993
Fritz comes to Florida.
1995
Hans-Ulrich Laukamp and his friend Axel Herzsprung found ACMB Metallbearbeitung GmbH (ACMB Metalworking), and become overnight wealthy.
1997
Laukamp buys a holiday house in Venice, Florida.
December 23, 1999
At the instigation of Fritz, ACMB incorporates an American branch in Florida, with no ostensible clients. ACMB now stands for American Corporation for Milling and Boreworks, and Fritz is a director along with Laukamp and Herzsprung.
January 8, 2001 Fritz signs a government form striking Laukamp and Herzsprung from their directorships of the Florida ACMB. On the same day Fritz acquires a three-acre piece of property in North Port (30 minutes away from Venice).
March 2001
Fritz builds a home on his property in North Port and marries an American woman, who becomes his hotwife glorifying sluthood.
August 2002 ACMB files for bankruptcy.
January 2003 Death of Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, from lung cancer.
April 2003 A month after the publication of The Da Vinci Code, Fritz launches a series of pornographic websites, showing his wife having sex with many other men. (In Dan Brown’s novel a clandestine society engages in group ritualized sex in which the woman is dominant, and the sex act symbolizes the union of Jesus and Mary Magdalene.)
2005 On a fetish blog, Jenny Seemore (the hotwife name for Fritz’s wife) says she “fucks as many men as possible” as a liberation from traditional gender norms. Fritz, for his part, states that he enjoys “being dominant and using women”, but also being used in turn by women and knowing the other side — the submissive side, “where true strength lies”.
Spring 2009
In the midst of the Great Recession, Fritz puts his house in North Port on the market.
August 31, 2009
On one of her blogs, Fritz’s wife advertises pendants for the Virgin Mary holding the baby Jesus, accompanied by small papyri fragments of Christian writings in Coptic. She “guarantees” the papyri date to the second century. (Coptic emerged as a written language in the third century). By this point, she and Fritz are clearly contemplating the peddling of fake papyri for profit.
January 2010
The legacy of Catholic clergy abuse erupts in Germany, with many Jesuit students reporting that they were molested by priests in the ’70s and ’80s. Pope Benedict comes under fire in the media for his history of shielding pedophiles in the clergy.
April 29, 2010
Fritz writes a letter to Pope Benedict describing how he was raped and sodomized by a priest when he was nine.
July 8, 2010
Fritz’s house remains unsold after over a year. His furious letter to the editor is published in the North Port Sun, in which he demands layoffs at North Port City Hall, and drastic salary reductions for other city employees.
July 9, 2010
A day after Fritz’s nasty letter to the editor is published, he sends his first email to Karen King, saying that he has a set of Coptic fragments that he is willing to sell. (This is also 10 weeks after reporting his alleged rape in 1974 to Pope Benedict, but still without any reply from the Vatican.)
Later July, 2010
Attending a conference in Berlin, King receives a second email from Fritz. She responds to him for the first time, saying that she’s busy, but asks him where he obtained the Coptic fragments. He replies, saying that he purchased them from a German American [Hans Ulrich Laukamp] in the ’90s.
June 25, 2011 After ignoring Fritz for almost a year, Karen King contacts him and writes that she’s not interested in his collection of Coptic fragments.
June 26, 2011
Fritz, desperate, replies to King, telling her that a European manuscript dealer has “right now” offered him a sum “almost too good to be true”. If she doesn’t move fast, his papyrus might move into a private collection for good, and never be seen by anyone. King continues to ignore him (until October 15).
October 13, 2011
Harvard President Drew Faust sends an email to the faculty, informing everyone that she is bringing in outside scholars to assess the study of religion at Harvard. Her decision comes after a long wave of complaints about the blurred lines between serious scholarship and pastoral ministry at Harvard, which has caused many professors to leave and seek positions at other (“more serious”) universities. Faust is entertaining the splitting of theology and religious studies into separate departments (as at other universities) and the strongest resisters of this, ironically, come from the feminist faculty, whose fusion of liberal politics/theology and academic scholarship had found the perfect platform at Harvard Divinity. Karen King is in this camp for maintaining the status quo. She is not a fan of fact-driven scholarship (or “fact fundamentalism”, as she puts it), and if a secular religious studies were to be created at Harvard, the divinity school’s prestige (and hers) would be greatly diminished.
October 15, 2011 Two days after Drew Faust announces an outside investigation that threatens the future of the Harvard Divinity School, King contacts Fritz and tells him that she has reconsidered his offer after all. She tells Fritz that she will make arrangements to date the fragment so that she can publish the discovery. [She agrees to preserve his anonymity. No one will learn that Fritz is her source until Ariel Sabar uncovers Fritz in his investigation in late 2015.]
October 24, 2011
In his New York apartment, Roger Bagnall hosts a meeting to discuss the photos of the Jesus-Wife fragment sent to him by his colleague and friend Karen King. AnneMarie Luijendijk (King’s protégé) is present along with eight papyrologists. All are initially skeptical, but then strangely reverse themselves, seeing the forgery tells as marks of authenticity. (They seem to have used a variant of the criterion of embarrassment: “surely no one would forge something that looked this obviously fake”; “a forger would have surely tried harder”; etc.)
December 14, 2011 Fritz comes to Harvard and gives Karen King the Coptic fragments, with the sales contracts showing Hans Ulrich Laukamp as the previous owner.
March 12, 2012 King, Bagnall, and Luijendijk meet in New York with other scholars to examine the physical fragment mentioning Jesus’s wife. Bagnall dates it to the 4th century AD, and speculates that a fragment this important could fetch a six-figure price.
July 25, 2012 King speaks to the press at Harvard, saying that she believes the fragment mentioning Jesus’s wife can be dated to the 2nd century AD.
August 10, 2012 King submits her article on the Jesus-Wife fragment to The Harvard Theological Review, and also sends a copy of the article to the Smithsonian Channel. On the same day, the editors of The Harvard Theological Review ask Roger Bagnall to peer review King’s article. The journalist Ariel Sabar, who is covering the story, asks King if he might interview the collector who gave her the fragment, but she protects Fritz’s anonymity. [Who Fritz is, where he lives, and what he does will remain a mystery until late 2015.]
August 26, 2012 Fritz registers the domain name “www.gospelofjesuswife.com”.
August 29, 2012 In a journal entry, Fritz’s wife writes, “Knowledge as you know, is what brings forth the fortune. For all the Bibles and all the churches in the entire world, cannot give you what you can give to yourself.” [This entry will appear among many others in her self-published book of “universal truths” in 2015. In the book, Fritz’s wife will claim that God and the arch-angel Michael speak directly through her. The dates of the book’s entries align with Fritz’s overtures to Karen King throughout 2010-2012. The 8/29/12 entry is the next-to-last, mere weeks before King’s announcement in Rome.]
September 18, 2012
King announces the discovery of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife papyrus in Rome. A media furor erupts the next day.
September 21, 2012
Francis Watson wastes no time demonstrating that the Jesus-Wife fragment is a collage of texts from the Coptic Gospel of Thomas.
September 25, 2012
Fritz begins changing the street addresses to which his porn sites are registered.
October 11, 2012 Andrew Bernard shows that the Jesus-Wife fragment was copied from Mike Grondin’s interlinear, which has been available online. The interlinear has contained a typo since 2002, and the Jesus-Wife fragment has the same typo.
April 10, 2014
After over a year of silence — and despite the glaring forgery tells, especially those flagged by Andrew Bernhard — The Harvard Theological Review publishes Karen King’s article, which argues that scientific tests have “proven” the JW fragment to be authentic. (In fact the radiocarbon tests have dated the papyrus itself to only the 8th century medieval period, not the ancient period; and the ink and material tests are inconclusive.) The journal also publishes a scathing rebuttal of King’s article by Leo Depuydt, an Egyptologist at Brown University.
April 24, 2014
Two weeks after King’s article is published, Christian Askeland shows that a papyrus in the same collection with the Jesus-Wife fragment (a Coptic version of the Gospel of John) has the same handwriting of the Jesus-Wife fragment, and replicates a modern typesetting feature from Herbert Thompson’s 1924 edition of the Qau Codex (the earliest surviving Coptic translation of John), which is accessible online.
August 28, 2015
Soon after King makes Fritz’s interlinear available online — the interlinear that he gave her along with the forged fragments years ago — Andrew Bernhard shows that the transcription is undeniably a reiteration of Mike Grondin’s interlinear.
November 2015
Journalist Ariel Sabar contacts Fritz for the first time. Fritz denies that he is the owner of the JW fragment.
December 2015
As scrutiny of the Jesus-Wife fragment revs up again, all of Fritz’s porn websites go dark.
January 2016 Sabar finds the first hard evidence linking Fritz to the Jesus-Wife fragment (his registering the domain name “www.gospelofjesuswife.com” back in 2012) and The Atlantic sends him to Germany for more research.
March 2016
Sabar calls Fritz after finishing his research in Germany. Fritz still denies being the owner, or having forged, the Jesus-Wife fragment, but speaks in quasi-confessional roundabout ways.
March 21, 2016
Fritz admits to Sabar that he is the owner of the Jesus-Wife fragment, sating that “neither I, nor any third parties have forged, altered, or manipulated the fragment and/or its inscription in any way since it was acquired by me”; and that “the previous owner gave no indications that the fragment was tampered with either”.
April 9, 2016
Sabar and Fritz meet face to face.
June 15, 2016
The Atlantic Monthly publishes Ariel Sabar’s article which unveils Walter Fritz as the forger of the Jesus-Wife fragment.
June 16, 2016
King concedes that Ariel Sabar’s article “tips the balance towards forgery”.
August 11, 2020 Doubleday publishes Ariel Sabar’s book Veritas, reviewed in this blogpost.

 

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