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"Jesus said to them, My wife ... "
Written in an ancient script on a 1,300-year-old papyrus scrap, those six words have attracted huge amounts of attention. If true, those words could shatter one of the long-held tenets of Christianity. The announcement alone of the scrap's discovery at the International Congress of Coptic Studies in 2012, before peer-reviewed publication, came as a shock though what was initially greeted with applause quickly turned to skepticism.
Professor Karen L. King of Harvard University's Divinity School made headlines when she revealed what would become known as "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife." In a paper published later in the Harvard Theological Review, King wrote: "On the basis of the age of the papyrus, the placement and absorption of the ink on the page, the type of the handwriting, and the Coptic grammar and spelling, it was concluded that it is highly probable that the fragment is an ancient text."
She unveiled the papyrus in Rome, not far from the Vatican. If her goal was to construct a theological lightning rod, King succeeded. After the announcement, but before the paper's publication, journalist Ariel Sabar asked Harvard Theological Review editor Kevin J. Madigan if the questions hounding the text would be an impediment.
"Everything is now on hold until we are able, with Professor King's help and by scientific dating, to establish the authenticity of the text," he replied, in an email interview published by Smithsonian Magazine. The journal awaited "further verification from Coptological papyrologists and grammarians."
It took two years, but the editors, it seems, were satisfied. King's paper was ultimately published in 2014, writing that the scrap likely originated in the sixth or ninth century if not earlier.
But King's report was not the only discussion of the papyrus in the 2014 issue of the Harvard Theological Review. In a blistering critique, Brown University's Leo Depuydt compared the bold Coptic lettering on the "my" in "my wife" to a "Monty Python sketch."
As The Washington Post reported, Depuydt wrote: "If the forger had used italics in addition, one might be in danger of losing one's composure."
In addition to the scrap's academic doubters, one avenue remained curiously unexplored: where the scrap came from in the first place. That no one had pursued the provenance of the scrap struck some observers as strange.
Importantly, it struck Sabar as strange. Sabar was one of the first journalists to break the story with his Smithsonian coverage. He had never quite let the mystery go. As he recently wrote in a detailed feature in The Atlantic, there was too much uncertainty all of the people said to have had the scrap before King had died. King argued, therefore, that despite the unfortunate "lack of information," uncovering its origin was "impossible."
"But was there a lack of information?" Sabar wrote. "Or just a lack of investigation?"
Sabar took it upon himself to investigate, and the resulting saga swerved from Harvard to East Germany to Florida and, finally, landing on a well-educated German man named Walter Fritz. Though he steadfastly denied fabricating the scrap, Fritz appeared to have the necessary grasp of Coptic and the ability to source ancient papyrus. (Which, according to The Atlantic, takes little more than an eBay account.) It was Fritz who gave the scrap to King, and Sabar found historical inaccuracies from the 1980s in Fritz's documents accompanying the text. Already hammered by academics like Depuydt, "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" was dealt an all but mortal blow by Sabar's Atlantic investigation.
For her part, King is no longer convinced the text is ancient.
"If you ask me today which direction am I leaning more toward ancient text or a modern forgery based on this new evidence, I'm leaning toward modern forgery," King told The Associated Press on Monday.
The dean of the Harvard Divinity School, David N. Hempton, quoted King's new belief in forgery in a statement Monday. The school, he added, is "grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment."
Where the papyrus has left an indelible mark, it seems, is on the Harvard Theological Review. The journal will not retract the 2014 King paper, The Boston Globe reported Monday. "Given that HTR has never endorsed a position on the issue," the editors wrote in a statement to The Globe, "it has no need to issue a response."
Though criticism remains that academic provenance remains under-investigated, King was praised for her acceptance of the fact she had been misled. As Duke University professor of religious studies Mark Goodacre told the AP, that takes "a lot of guts."