Ariel Sabar’s extraordinary account of the imbroglio surrounding the scrap of papyrus known as the “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” begins with Prof. Karen King of the Harvard Divinity School, a scholar best known for her work on the Gnostic “Gospel of Mary.”
In 2010 she received an e-mail from a “collector” who claimed to have an ancient fragment of papyrus containing a few incomplete lines written in Coptic from the early Christian era. Read with a willing eye, they suggested that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that she was one of Jesus’ chosen spiritual leaders — two notions that greatly appealed to King. (She had welcomed “The Da Vinci Code” and served as a consultant for the movie.)
At first it seemed too good to be true and King dismissed the fragment as a modern forgery. Despite further e-mails, she did not bite — until, seemingly out of the blue, she did.
Moving quickly, she prepared a paper for presentation at a conference in Rome — giving the tiny fragment the exalted and decidedly buzzy title, “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.” She starred in a Smithsonian Channel documentary on the discovery’s implications. Her paper on the supposed gospel was rushed into the queue for publication in the Harvard Theological Review.
Shortcuts and expediency reigned: The people who could have vouched for the fragment’s provenance were all dead; the papyrus was not subjected to technical analysis; peer reviews of her paper were conducted by friendly scholars; and dissenting views were suppressed. (“The papyrus fragment seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch,” commented one naysayer.)
What was going on?
A lot. And the stakes were high. Without revealing the denouement of this astonishing tale, I can say that, thanks to Sabar’s tenacious sleuthing in his new book “Veritas,” we find that the “collector” was a German, a former director of a museum in the former Stasi headquarters in Berlin, an operator who hijacked an auto-parts business, and a pornographer who ran a series of websites featuring his wife (“America’s #1 Slut”) having sex with other men.
Eventually — and inevitably — the fragment was proved to be a fake. But, oddly enough, that did not diminish its significance for King, who was convinced, whatever the evidence, that Jesus’ married state and Mary’s role as prominent disciple had been covered up by the misogynist Church Fathers.
You could not find a better demonstration of the central truth about forgeries: that historical verisimilitude does not lie in reflecting the sensibility of the past but rather in fulfilling the persuasions and aspirations of the present. But there is more to this story than wishful thinking. Why did King suddenly change her mind about the authenticity of the scrap of papyrus and decide to accept it? Why did she move so quickly in presenting it to the world?
It would be unfair to tell you, for, in truth, the book is as good as a detective novel, possessing plot, subplots, hidden motives, bees in eccentric bonnets and startling revelations.
Katherine A. Powers, a Minnesota native, also reviews for the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal.
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife
By: Ariel Sabar.
Publisher: Doubleday, 416 pages, $29.95.