A Provenance Tale More Intriguing than the Forgery

You may remember the excitement, then controversy, when Harvard Divinity Professor Karen L. King (now holder of the Hollis chair, the oldest endowed chair in the country), announced in 2012 (in Rome, the belly of Christianity) the existence of what she called “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” The “gospel” she proffered was a papyrus with eight broken lines of Coptic script on one side and unrecoverable text on the other. The most prominently quoted words were “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife …'” Professor King argued from this scrap that it reflected a second century Greek original gnostic gospel that assumed an equal role for women in the teachings of Jesus.  Modern high tech analysis of the papyrus and ink discovered no reason to deny a 4th century origin of the manuscript. But philological problems existed (the duplication of a typo found in a Coptic version of the Gospel of Thomas) made others doubt the document’s authenticity.

The controversy seems to have ended, with the conclusion that the work is a forgery, by the shoe leather provenance detective work of journalist Ariel Sabar, reported in the July/August Atlantic. Sabar used a few ambiguous clues to track down the person who gave the papyrus to Professor King, and from that he unravelled a curious tale of pure con and its strange motivation. The detective work is interesting in itself, but the story that results, involves an Egyptology department in a prominent German university, the operation (and theft from) a Stasi museum in (formerly East) Germany, the bankruptcy of an auto parts company Florida and a couple who posted pornographic videos of “gangbang” with “America’s #1 Slut Wife” on the internet (as well as the porn star who claims to channel angelic messages). If you agree with Dan Brown that sex, intrigue and the gospel has visceral appeal, you really should read the article, entitled “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife.” It has even shaken Professor King’s belief in the authenticity of the document, although she still maintains some faith, perhaps even a bit bigger than a mustard seed.

You needn’t be interested in Christian Gnosticism or its modern defenders to be reminded of the power of confirmation bias, on which this forgery played. And you certainly don’t need to know anything about it to be intrigued by the bizarre path this particular forgery took.

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