For four years, Karen L. King, a Harvard historian of Christianity, has defended the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” against scholars who argued it was a forgery. But Thursday, for the first time, King said the papyrus—which she introduced to the world in 2012—is a probable fake.
She reached this conclusion, she said, after reading The Atlantic’s investigation into the papyrus’s origins, which appears in the magazine’s July/August issue and was posted to its website Wednesday night.
“It tips the balance towards forgery,” she said.
Critics had argued for years that errors in Coptic grammar, similarities with the Gospel of Thomas, and other problems pointed to forgery. But King had placed her faith in the opinions of expert papyrologists, along with a series of carbon-dating and other scientific tests, at MIT, Harvard, and Columbia, that had turned up no signs of modern tampering or forgery.
When I called her in March while reporting my Atlantic story, she said she was not interested in commenting on—or even hearing about—my findings before publication. Thursday afternoon, however, she called me to say the story was “fascinating” and “very helpful.”
Although she had exchanged numerous emails with the owner and had met him in December 2011, she realized after reading the article that she knew next to nothing about him, she said. Walter Fritz had never mentioned his years at the Free University’s Egyptology institute, his formal study of Coptic, or his work as a pornographer whose star actress was his own wife—a woman who’d written a book of “universal truths” and claimed to channel the voices of angels. He had presented himself to her as a “family man” who enjoyed trips to Disney World and was independently wealthy.
“I had no idea about this guy, obviously,” she said. “He lied to me.”
I asked why she hadn’t undertaken an investigation of the papyrus’s origins and the owner’s background. “Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated,” she said.
King said she would need scientific proof—or a confession—to make a definitive finding of forgery. It’s theoretically possible that the papyrus itself is authentic, she said, even if its provenance story is bogus. But the preponderance of the evidence, she said, now “presses in the direction of forgery.”
King hoped that Fritz would allow the scrap to remain at Harvard, so that scholars could continue to probe questions of authenticity. “I’m finding myself not even really angry” at him, she said. “I’m mostly just relieved. I think the truth always makes me calm.”
I’ve reached out to Walter Fritz for comment and will update this post if he responds.