The Professor and the Con Man
By Matti Friedman
The saga of the papyrus that became famous as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife began with an email sent to Karen King, a distinguished Harvard professor, in July 2010. The subject line read, simply, “Coptic gnostic gospels in my collection.”
The “gospel” in question is a fragment of papyrus about the size of a credit card. It contains eight incomplete lines of Coptic script that seem to recount Jesus arguing with disciples about the role of Mary, including an incredible reference to my wife. The fragment was rolled out to great fanfare in 2012, starring in a TV documentary and on the front page of the New York Times. Exactly a decade after that first email, after dizzying waves of media hype and astonishing twists through some of the darker alleys of biblical studies and the most fetid corners of the Internet, the saga has now brought us Veritas, a masterful unraveling of the story by the journalist Ariel Sabar.
King, who made herself the patron of the papyrus, touted it as a revolutionary glimpse into early Christianity and an artifact with immense significance for how Christians should think about family, marriage, and sexuality today. This ancient text’s message was the right one for our times: it offered, the Harvard scholar declared, “robust affirmation that women who are wives and mothers are worthy and able to be disciples of Jesus.”
At the time, King was known for her work on the early Christian dissidents known as the Gnostics. She held an august position at Harvard as Hollis Professor of Divinity, the oldest endowed professorship in America. The papyrus, to which King attached the flamboyant name “the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” bore her beyond the world of academic religious studies to mainstream celebrity. She staked her reputation on its authenticity. The spectacular failure of that bet is the subject of Sabar’s gripping investigation.
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