At a September 2012 academic conference in Rome, Karen King, a historian at Harvard Divinity School, made a major announcement. She had discovered a fragment of papyrus that bore a shocking phrase: “Jesus said to them, My wife.” If the scrap was authentic, it had the potential to upend centuries of Roman Catholic tradition.
The journalist Ariel Sabar covered King’s 2012 presentation for Smithsonian magazine, and revisited the mystery of the papyrus’s origins in a 2016 article for The Atlantic, “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” in which he tracked down the owner of the papyrus—a man whose identity King adamantly refused to share with the press. Could this man have forged the explosive text? Was King’s discovery too good to be true?
“King called the business-card-size papyrus ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,’” Sabar wrote. “But even without that provocative title, 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: Jesus’s bachelorhood helps form the basis for priestly celibacy, and his all-male cast of apostles has long been cited to justify limits on women’s religious leadership. In the Roman Catholic Church in particular, the New Testament is seen as divine revelation handed down through a long line of men—Jesus, the 12 apostles, the Church fathers, the popes, and finally the priests who bring God’s word to the parish pews today.” What if there was evidence that Jesus had seen a woman as worthy of discipleship too?
But Sabar’s Atlantic article prompted King to admit that the papyrus was probably a forgery. “I had no idea about this guy, obviously,” King told Sabar of the papyrus’s owner. “He lied to me.” Sabar, for his part, kept reporting. Today he published Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. I spoke with Sabar about his extensive investigation, the nature of truth, and the future of the contested papyrus scrap. An edited transcript of our conversation is below.
Amy Weiss-Meyer: You reported on the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife for Smithsonian magazine in 2012, when the fragment was first revealed in Rome. What convinced you that there was more reporting to be done?
Ariel Sabar: The big thing that troubled, or interested, me right from the start was this question of where did the papyrus that Karen King presented to the world in 2012 come from? What was its source? King had told reporters and other people that she was offering the gentleman anonymity. He asked not to be named and she was going to grant that. She also told me that he was a complete stranger. I remember pressing Dr. King for information but she was very tight-lipped about it. So after the Smithsonian story ran, at the back of my mind was always this question of who is this man, this complete stranger who approached Karen King?
Around 2015, I looked back over the preceding three years of coverage of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife and noticed that scholars were still at something of a standstill. There was definitely an overwhelming majority of scholars who thought it was fake, but there was a minority, including Karen King, who continued to think it was authentic. I didn’t really feel like I could do any sort of scholarly analysis, but one of the questions that I felt as a journalist I might have the skills to investigate was the question of its origins.
Weiss-Meyer: In 2012, you were the only journalist in the room in Rome when Karen King revealed the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Do you remember what you made of it all in that moment?
Sabar: It was a really powerful moment. King had given her talk a somewhat bland title—something like “A New Coptic Gospel Fragment”—so I think a lot of people in the room thought it would be sort of mundane, the sort of thing that gets announced at scholarly conferences about Coptic. A gospel of Jesus’s wife isn’t typically on the menu. The other thing that struck me was, and I write about this in the book, that Karen King offered the room no photographs of this papyrus. She had said that her laptop had broken on the flight to Rome. I’ve no reason to doubt that, but I wondered why, in our interconnected age, it wouldn’t have been possible, for instance, for Harvard, which had lots of images of the papyrus, to have emailed those to her. One of the effects of that, whether deliberate or not, was that it would focus the scholars’ attention on the text itself, on the words, and not on the physical properties of the manuscript. And it was the physical properties of the manuscript—the ink, the handwriting, the conditions of the papyrus—that would start to raise immediate questions as soon as scholars did see those images. Some scholars were really upset that there were no photographs—you can’t come to a conference like this, and address the top scholars in this field, without a photograph. So there was this tension in the room.
Weiss-Meyer: I’m curious how you decided, in Act I of the book, to mostly give readers the story from Karen King’s perspective?
Sabar: I wanted to have readers buy into [the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife being real] in the same way that Karen King and her supporters did, because initially there was a lot to be excited about. I think in many ways you’re rooting for Karen King at the beginning and you’re rooting for this to be true, because it’s so phenomenal. It kind of confirms what a lot of us in our particular age feel about organized religion, which is a lot of the stuff that’s been handed down through the generations, it’s often terribly patriarchal, sometimes misogynistic. It’s not as inclusive as it should be.
Weiss-Meyer: Let’s talk about Walter Fritz, the mysterious Florida man described in the first part of the book as the man who gave King the fragment. We learn his identity in Act III of the book, partly as a result of a lot of dogged reporting on your part. For readers who missed the magazine article, can you tell us how you came to track the man, Walter Fritz, down?
Sabar: Dr. King refused to identify the papyrus’s current owner, but she did name a supposed collector the owner said he’d bought it from—someone named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp. I found a deceased man by that name who’d lived in Florida, and noticed he had a business partner named Walter Fritz. I started doing a number of Google searches on Walter Fritz and of course that brought back thousands of search results. But after running that name through Florida business records, I noticed that there was a Walter Fritz who owned a company called Nefer Art, and nefer sounded like an Egyptian word. So you’ve got a guy who was business associates with the prior owner, and you’ve got a business that has an Egyptian word in its name, and all papyri are from Egypt, so that sort of attracted my attention. Then I noticed deep down in the results that there was an article written for a German Egyptology journal about a kind of cryptic text written on a tablet, authored by a guy named Walter Fritz. All these lights started going off, like, is there any way that all these seemingly different Walter Fritzes can be the same person?
Weiss-Meyer: There are so many twists and turns in the book that you’re very careful not to write about in a sensational way, in part, I think, because one of the lessons of the book is about the dangers of sensationalism. Were there any moments, though, when you felt genuinely shocked by what you had found?
Sabar: When I first spoke with Walter Fritz, he completely denied having anything to do with the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. He told me a bunch of lies, but I didn’t know that, because all I had was his word. And then I remember doing more Google searches—I’d managed to get his email address through public records, and I remember dropping it in various combinations and iterations into Google, and up popped a web-domain registration. I noticed that a Walter Fritz of North Port, Florida, or maybe it was Nefer Art, had registered the website www.gospelofjesuswife.com, and he had done so three weeks before the announcement [in Rome]. That suggested that he had an inside line on it.
Weiss-Meyer: As you got to know Fritz, did he eventually tell you the truth?
Sabar: There were no freebies with Walter Fritz. You have to do your homework. If you didn’t do the reporting and just asked him to volunteer something, you didn’t get it. You have to find outside corroborating evidence and then come back to him. And then as kind of your reward, he would say, “Yep, that’s true.” And so he’s playing a cat-and-mouse game that made it extremely frustrating but also interesting in many ways.
Weiss-Meyer: It must have made it kind of addictive at times.
Sabar: Yeah, obsessive.
Weiss-Meyer: Are there lessons that you want readers to take from the book?
Sabar: The title, Veritas, is not just a casual allusion to the Harvard motto. It really speaks to, you know, what is the nature of truth and what are the different paths people take to seek it. As journalists, by profession and by temperament, most of us are empiricists. We believe the facts exist. We believe that we can go out in the world and see things, document them, establish a kind of reality through reporting and through investigation. We may not always get all the facts, and we may make mistakes along the way, but we believe that we can get closer to the facts through investigation. I think that’s true of much of academia as well. And then you have people of faith, who in parts of their lives accept the truth of things they can’t always see or prove. I think a third leg of that stool is postmodern scholars—and Dr. King isn’t the only one. They don’t believe in the objective existence of facts as most people think of them. They believe that the people or the groups that have the power to tell and sell a story essentially create reality.
And so there are these different modes of investigation in the book, and part of me was fascinated by what happens when all of those collide in a single story. What happens when all of those flow together in a single institution like the Harvard Divinity School, or even within a single individual like Karen King, who is both a believer and a secular historian but someone who believes that her faith and her secular practice of history can be seamlessly integrated?
So in terms of lessons, I guess I’m going to stick with, you know, the values that I hold dear as a journalist; there’s still value in old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting: knocking on doors, picking up phones, going through documents, and leaving no stone unturned. That process, which can be labor-intensive, leads us to places that are important, especially in our own historical moment, where there’s this rise of “alternative facts” and disinformation campaigns.
Weiss-Meyer: One last question: Where is the papyrus now?
Sabar: The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is now in the custody of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. I’d been pursuing leads about this for several months, and after multiple inquiries and Freedom of Information Act requests, a DHS spokesperson confirmed it on the record for the first time last week.
An official at Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities told me he had heard about the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife for the first time last year, when his friend happened to see a TV show about it online. It seems to have been a rerun of an eight-year-old cable-TV documentary. He told me that Egypt had no prior evidence of the fragment’s existence and no idea if it was real. But papyrus as a writing surface is almost invariably Egyptian, and, as Egypt often does when it hears about newfound artifacts, the official filed a pro forma information request to the U.S.
DHS is the American agency charged with fulfilling such requests, and it took custody of the papyrus from Harvard’s Houghton Library, with Walter Fritz’s apparently eager approval. The DHS inquiry is ongoing. If Egypt decides for any number of reasons that it wants the fragment—which to date it has not—it wouldn’t be the first time a fake has been sent to a country requesting it.
From what I’ve gleaned, Walter Fritz is excited about “giving it” to Egypt—as eager for that country’s imprimatur as he once was for Harvard’s.