Veritas: A Harvard professor, a cheater, and the gospel of Jesus' wife
Ariel Sabar Clerk £ 18.99
In 2012, Harvard Professor of Divinity, Dr. Karen King, told the Vatican at a theater conference that she had discovered a fragment of an ancient papyrus that she called the gospel of Jesus' wife.
Although it consisted of just a few words and was no bigger than a business card, this fragment seemed to indicate the amazing fact that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.
This extraordinary result made headlines around the world. If so – and who could doubt a Harvard professor of divinity? – It indicated that the Christian interpretation of the New Testament was seriously wrong and that the church was wrong about getting women out of the way.
Pictured above is Correggio's Noli Me Tangere (around 1525), which shows Mary Magdalene and Jesus after his resurrection
"It makes a huge difference …" explained Dr. King a few years later. “It affects who is in charge, who can preach and teach, who can be pure and holy. Should people be married or not?
Can you be divorced or not Is Sexuality Sinful By Definition? All of this depends on the type of story you are telling. "
In addition to being a renowned theologian, King was also a staunch advocate of women's rights in the Christian churches. From what she said, this ancient fragment confirmed everything she had ever believed.
But it wasn't long before their extravagant claims for the gospel of Jesus' wife met a backlash. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, dismissed the papyrus as "incompetent forgery … with a twisted tendency to conform to a modern ideology".
Scholars of all denominations and none were almost as skeptical. One said the writing on the papyrus looked like 21st century handwriting. Another called it "hilarious," the work of a modern day writer who may have benefited from more lessons in Coptic, the language of the New Testament.
Scholars of all denominations and none were almost as skeptical. One said the writing on the papyrus (above) looked like 21st century handwriting
But Dr. King held his own. She insisted that the papyrus was real: after all, it had been authenticated by experts. One papyrologist, professor at Princeton University, was particularly impressed with the awkwardness of the fragment.
"If you were a forger, you wouldn't do that," she said.
Others agreed that a competent forger would have used better handwriting and a better pen. "That's one of the things that tells you it's real," said the director of the Institute for the Study of Antiquity at New York University.
"A modern writer wouldn't do that."
The logic of this argument is that if something looks like a fake, it must be real, as a real forger would have tried more hard.
Dr. Karen King (above) held her own. She insisted that the papyrus was real: after all, it had been authenticated by experts
Interestingly, this was the same argument that has been used to validate countless cases of fraud over the years. My wife, Frances Welch, wrote a book about Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, and said she miraculously escaped the murder of the rest of the Russian royal family as a child.
Anderson didn't look like Anastasia, couldn't speak French or English, both used in the Russian court, and confused basic facts. But her followers – which included prominent members of the Romanov family – insisted that these discrepancies were signs of their authenticity.
After all, they argued, halfway competent fraud would make lying better.
The same applied to the Claimant from Tichborne. In 1854, Roger Tichborne, the meager 25-year-old heir to a vast fortune, was lost, presumably dead, at sea. Twelve years later, a butcher from Wagga Wagga, Australia who claimed to be Tichborne appeared.
He spoke in a broad Australian accent, showed no knowledge of the childhood or education of the person he claimed to be, and had none of the young Roger's tattoos.
But those who wanted to believe the deceiver – and that included the dead man's mother, who longed for her son's life – saw all of these anomalies as sure signs that he was telling the truth.
And more recently, the same skewed logic has been applied to the fake Hitler diaries by those who wanted them to be real. The handwriting was different from Hitler's, the ink was too new, the paper was dodgy, and the bindings were made from material from 1953.
But once again wishful thinking prevailed and the believers – journalists, historians – convinced themselves that the diaries had to be authentic because no forger would be so hopeless.
Biblical forgeries are not uncommon. In 1991, Oxford University's Discussions In Egyptology magazine published a version of The Gospel Of Thomas, which was rediscovered by a specialist named Batson D. Sealing.
When a scholar was writing the find for the Financial Times, his daughter noticed something funny about the name of its discoverer. Didn't Batson D. Sealing sound suspiciously like Bats On The Ceiling?
This particular edition of the journal was immediately recalled and republished without forgery.
The author of this book, Ariel Sabar, followed the fall of the gospel of Jesus' wife from the beginning. As the most persistent investigator, his suspicions multiplied at every turn.
IT'S A FACT
The theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene was a persistent and is in the heart of Dan Brown's bestseller The Da Vinci Code.
Who gave Prof King the original fragments and why? Karen King refused to divulge her source, saying she guaranteed his anonymity. But Sabar stuck with the case, and step by step the story he uncovered was almost incredibly strange.
He traced the fragment back to a Walter Fritz, a German who was living in Florida at the time. Fritz had once worked as a tour guide in the West Berlin Egyptian Museum, where loose pieces of papyrus had mysteriously disappeared.
At the beginning of the nineties he was head of the Stasi Museum in the former East Berlin. When he moved to Florida, his career took a surprising turn: in 2003, he developed a successful online pornographic video business for his wife, Jenny Seemore.
In her spare time, Jenny Seemore ran a craft store called Cute Art World, which sold teddy bears and mermaids, as well as pendants of the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus adorned with tiny fragments of papyrus 1,800 years old – for a very reasonable $ 12.99.
It seemed unlikely to Sabar that a man with such a shady background should be trusted as a key source for ancient Christian texts. But when he returned to Prof. King with his discoveries, she refused to listen.
"I don't get the point of a conversation," she said, adding that she was "not particularly" interested in where her precious fragments came from.
The gospel of Jesus' wife is now recognized as a forgery. With the fraudster's acute antennae, Fritz had targeted Karen King because he sensed her willingness to believe in anything that supported her feminist beliefs.
He lured her with all the methods of the skilled deceiver, explaining that he had an ancient fragment, but he did not know if it was worth anything. As Sabar suggests, Fritz's first e-mails to the professor "King went to the water, but she had decided to have a drink".
"The real deceiver doesn't force us to do anything," a psychologist is quoted as saying. "He doesn't steal. We give. He doesn't have to threaten us. We deliver the story ourselves.
We believe because we want to, not because someone made us. And so we offer everything they want – money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support – and we only realize what happens when it's too late. "
King was so keen to believe the scam that, as Sabar was supposed to find out, she secretly lured old friends and relatives in to authenticate him.
Ariel Sabar tells a fascinating story, but too long. After years of playing around with extraordinary care, he is understandably reluctant to reveal details of his investigation.
This means that, despite its integrity, the book lacks zip: page by page, attention is paid to whether the forger was abused as a child or not, or to the intricacies of the various Gospels that had to fight for a place in the Bible.
By the way, I just noticed that Ariel Sabar is an anagram of the Israeli Arab. What on earth can that mean? When a cheater has an explanation, I'm all ears.
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