The Gospel that never was?

The professor who introduced ‘The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ to the world in 2012, and who has championed it ever since, has finally admitted that the fragment of papyrus may in fact be a fake. Commenting on dramatic new evidence about the story, Professor Karen King of Harvard Divinity School says, ‘It tips the balance towards forgery’.

The fragment, the size of a credit card, apparently reports Jesus saying the words, ‘My wife… she will be able to be my disciple’, as we reported in this 2012 blog post. It has stirred up intense debate in the academic world over the past four years. Painstaking scholarship discovered that the writing appears to duplicate errors found only in a document published on the internet, and which a forger might simply have copied. A year ago, an academic journal devoted a whole issue to the fragment, and concluded it was probably fake. Until now, though, Karen King and Harvard Divinity School have not admitted the possibility of forgery, preferring to rely on carbon dating tests and the advice of papyrologists.

The dramatic new evidence came last week with the publication of The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife in The Atlantic magazine. Investigative journalist Ariel Sabar tracked down the owner of the papyrus fragment, Walter Fritz, who had previously been shielded by anonymity. Fritz turned out to be an enigmatic, shadowy figure with a long interest in Egyptology, a hatred of the Catholic Church, a Da Vinci Code type fascination with the Gnostic Gospels and a disdain for scholars. He dismissed critics of the papyrus as ‘county level scholars from the University of Eastern Pee-Pee Land’. Sabar also discovered he had once run pornographic websites featuring his wife, who ‘was clairvoyant and had channeled the voices of angels since she was 17’.

Faced with the stunning new evidence about Walter Fritz, Karen King called Ariel Sabar the day after his feature was published and acknowledged the papyrus was probably a fake. In a separate interview, she added, ‘It appears now that all the material Fritz gave to me concerning the provenance of the papyrus… were fabrications.’ It is not yet known how or by whom the papyrus was forged.

Professor Richard Burridge, New Testament scholar and author of the influential What are the Gospels? says, ‘The careful investigative journalism confirms what most of us suspected all along – that this is a clever modern forgery and, sadly, another example of the hype and attention given to sensationalist ideas, no matter how implausible. I just wish that we could get people similarly interested in all we do know about the historical Jesus!’

New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre, whose blog, NT Blog, brought together the academic criticism of the papyrus over the past four years, gave a Skype interview to CBN News, and commented on his blog:

‘My overwhelming feeling at this point is a profound sadness about the whole affair. Yes, it’s been fantastic to see scholars like Christian Askeland and Andrew Bernhard exposing the hoax so skilfully. And it is true that the twists and turns of the story over the last four years have made fascinating reading. But at the same time it’s very sad that we have all spent so much time and energy on what, in the end, is someone’s attempt to dupe the academy. We are all victims of this appalling episode.’

Image: The Atlantic