The Tenth International Congress of Coptic Studies was held in September 2012 at the headquarters of the Order of St Augustine in Rome. Among the speakers was Karen King, the first woman to hold the Hollis Professorship of Divinity, Harvard’s oldest endowed chair. King had made her name as an interpreter and champion of early Christian texts that asserted the spiritual authority of women but were excluded from the official canon. In 2003 she published The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, which challenged the Church Fathers’ designation of Mary Magdalene as a prostitute and passive embodiment of repented sin with second-century evidence that she was neither, but in fact played an active role in Jesus’s ministry. Catching the tailwind of The Da Vinci Code, the book sold 75,000 copies. Now, nine years later, King was in Rome to announce the appearance of a new text: a fragment of papyrus the size of a business card, which she had named ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’. The fragment contained eight lines of Coptic, including two broken-off but highly suggestive phrases concerning a woman called Mary:
… Jesus said to them: ‘My wife’ …
… she is able to be my disciple …
Among the stunned ecclesiastics and scholars in the audience was a journalist, Ariel Sabar, who was covering the event for the Smithsonian Magazine, to which King had given an exclusive. Sabar’s article, published soon after, mentioned doubts that had been raised about the authenticity of King’s fragment, but largely supported her case that, while the text might not ‘prove’ that Mary Magdalene was Jesus’s wife and disciple, it lent weight to King’s general critique of what she called the ‘master story’ of Christianity. There was no reason for Sabar to be more cautious at the time. The text had been vetted by the Harvard Theological Review, and although two of the three anonymous reviewers had been sceptical, the world’s leading papyrologist, Roger Bagnall, had pronounced the fragment genuine. King had assured Sabar that with some minor revisions the HTR would go ahead and publish, which in due course it did.
Hell hath no fury like a journalist deceived. Four years later, after the text’s claims to authenticity had been systematically undermined, Sabar wrote an article in the Atlantic that all but proved it was a fake, foisted on a suspiciously accommodating historian by a preternaturally devious forger. Now, in Veritas, Sabar details the reporting process that brought him to his conclusion and adds some material that further twists the knife.
Book-length expansions of articles often seem bloated, but this one is a remarkable exception. Every page of its icily forensic narrative advances the story in some unexpected way, continually modifying one’s understanding of its principal players and their complex motives. It is partly a psychological thriller about the danse macabre that goes on between a skilled con man and a well-chosen mark, partly a global-historical blockbuster with variants on the obligatory tropes: lurid sex, wicked priests, Egyptology, Nazis. But it is also, most interestingly, a sustained study of the clash between the idea of historical truth as a set of objective facts waiting to be uncovered by rigorous inquiry and the more contemporary notion of it as a construct, amenable to (and fair game for) deliberate intervention. Sabar is clearly in favour of establishing the historical truth, and the spectacular results of his old-fashioned diligence stand as a 400-page rebuke to those who aren’t. But a surprising magnanimity prevails, with both King and her manipulator retaining a measure of sympathy, even respect, to the end.
King was first approached in July 2010 by a correspondent who preferred to remain anonymous. He said he had read her work and wondered if she might be interested in looking at his collection of papyrus fragments, one of which pointed, as he put it, ‘towards a Gnostic gospel, in which Jesus and a disciple had an argument about Mary’. King, who had publicly suggested that missing pages from the Gospel of Mary might resurface some day, and that any such pages might refer to a dispute about Mary Magdalene’s standing among Jesus’s original followers, replied to say that she was very interested.
Images of a dozen papyrus fragments arrived, among them the one containing those explosive words ‘wife’ and ‘disciple’, in the context of what did appear to be a dispute about Mary’s standing. Here was something that, if genuine, could lay bare the fictions and redactions of the Church patriarchs that underwrote the embrace of celibacy, the repudiation of the body and the exclusion of women from ordination.Sensing it was too good to be true, King closed the email without replying. Three weeks later the owner emailed again, wanting to make sure she’d received his materials. She replied curtly to say she was busy; nearly a year later she wrote again to say that she had taken a look but couldn’t help.
There were, as Sabar points out, plenty of other respected scholars the owner could have tried his luck with at this point, but he kept his sights on King. The day after her rebuff he emailed her a third time, saying he’d been offered ‘a considerable amount’ for the Wife fragment by a European dealer, and wanted to avoid a situation in which it would vanish into some private collection. ‘Before letting this happen,’ he wrote, ‘I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or at least wait until it is published.’ He begged King for a little more of her time, adding disarmingly: ‘I am completely clueless as far as this goes.’
Four months passed in which he observed a meek (or else supremely confident) silence. And then King sent her reply: ‘I did spend a bit more time on the gospel fragment and was able to make some real progress. I would be very happy to have a papyrologist specialist authenticate and date the fragment, and would myself be interested in publishing it, probably with a colleague from Princeton.’ Within a year of this volte face, King had the fragment authenticated by Roger Bagnall and another papyrologist, filmed a Smithsonian documentary on the find, obtained support from her dean for a six-figure financial arrangement proposed by the owner, fended off the challenge from the HTR reviewers, and made her announcement at the Augustinium in Rome.
Controversy erupted immediately. Participants at the congress pointed out anomalies concerning the Coptic locution for ‘my wife’. The rectangular shape of the fragment, with its clean-edged sides, struck one scholar as odd, as did the grabby centring of the contentious ‘wife’ line. An expert on Coptic script thought the writing ‘looked like 21st-century handwriting’. The historian Elaine Pagels questioned whether the fragment, even if real, merited the sensational title King had given it: ‘When you call it “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife”, I just think, “What are you talking about?” At least 99 per cent of this text is missing …’ Bagnall had dated the fragment to the fourth century but King needed an earlier date to ensure maximum impact, and her argument – that it must have been a translation of a second-century Greek original – was tendentious, to say the least. An Egyptologist at Brown University, Leo Depuydt, found a ‘colossal double blunder’ in the Coptic grammar. As a younger man, Depuydt had once warned the Oxford journal Discussions in Egyptology not to publish a grammatically flawed version of a Gnostic text. They went ahead anyway, only to learn that they had been pranked when a reviewer’s daughter pointed out that the name of the man who had ‘discovered’ the text, Batson D. Sealing, sounded awfully like ‘bats on the ceiling’. The entire issue had to be recalled (it’s now a collector’s item). Depuydt cautioned the HTR not to rush into a fiasco of its own. By the time King stood up to speak in Rome the magazine had already posted her article online, but the editors decided to postpone printing it until scientific tests had been done on the fragment.
Further problems arose in the interim. A British scholar, Francis Watson, noticed that all but one of the phrases in the fragment appeared to have been borrowed from the Coptic Gospel of St Thomas, the exception being that showstopper: ‘my wife’. In itself this proved nothing, and in fact the sixth line also departed from Thomas via a syntactical irregularity that made it all but nonsensical. But it raised the possibility that someone was hunting for ready-made Coptic phrases which, woven together, would create a document guaranteed to get the attention of Professor King: a forger who could read Coptic, perhaps, but not write it without a crib. Another scholar, Andrew Bernhard, found a candidate for that crib: an interlinear translation of the Thomas gospel with idiosyncrasies that not only accounted for the mangled syntax of the fragment’s sixth line, but also replicated a missing letter in its first.
King was careful to maintain the appearance of scholarly detachment throughout all this, while steadfastly coming up with her own, increasingly contorted, explanations for the anomalies. But the tide was turning against her. Late-night comics began mocking the discovery. The press piled on (‘Jesus Khrist! Typo in papyrus scroll derails theory of holy wife’). After weeks of silence from Harvard, Andrew Bernhard began to suspect that King was ‘tiptoeing away’ from the fragment.
But on 10 April 2014 the Harvard Divinity School made a startling announcement: ‘Testing Indicates “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” Papyrus Fragment to Be Ancient.’ By ‘ancient’ they meant eighth-century, which made King’s second-century claim even more of a stretch, but it was still a triumph for her. The old story of the bold thinker vilified and then vindicated had been played out to perfection, and everyone loved King again. The HTR finally published her paper, along with the scientific back-up. There was talk of displaying the fragment at the Smithsonian Museum.
Some years later Sabar unearthed several conflicts of interest that cast a troubling light over the entire process of ‘authentication’ that King and her distinguished enablers had orchestrated. Of the two scientists King chose for the testing, one was wholly unknown in the field of archaeometry and turned out to have been an usher at her wedding. The other, approached by Bagnall, ‘hadn’t the foggiest’ (as he subsequently admitted) when it came to ancient ink identification, but was Bagnall’s brother-in-law and did his obliging best. (He later retracted his validation.) Informed by Sabar of these personal ties in 2019, a co-editor of the HTR said: ‘Whoa! This is the first I’ve ever heard of it.’
Still more damning was the timeline of a high-stakes institutional battle that had been waged at Harvard during the four months between King’s dismissal of the fragment and her mysterious change of heart. At issue was whether the Harvard Divinity School could be trusted to teach religious studies as a strictly evidence-based discipline while also being a training college for ministers. In October 2011 Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, told faculty that she was bringing in a panel of outside scholars to assess the matter. It was two days after this ominous development that King reversed her position on the fragment, setting in motion a process that was guaranteed to make her imperilled institution look important, regardless of the final outcome. The following summer the panel submitted its report, recommending that a religious studies department be created outside the divinity school. It was what most people had expected. But on 19 September 2012, the day after the Rome congress, with King’s fragment on the front page of the New York Times, Faust announced that she was rejecting the panel’s recommendation. ‘Did a forgery help save Harvard Divinity School?’ Sabar asks. Faust declined to comment.
But all this came out long after King’s brief moment of glory. At the time, Sabar was pursuing a very different line of inquiry. Close scrutiny of the fragment’s provenance had been avoided during the initial controversies, thanks to the owner’s request for anonymity, which King observed faithfully. The owner told King that he had bought his collection of papyri in the 1990s from a German American called H.U. Laukamp, who had acquired it in East Germany thirty years earlier. There were three supporting documents: the sale contract between Laukamp and the present owner, dated 1999, and a letter and note to Laukamp from an Egyptologist called Peter Munro at the Free University of Berlin, dated 1982, conveying an analysis of the contents of the papyri by a colleague of his, Professor Fecht. That was all.
While lamenting the meagreness of the provenance materials, King was reluctant to discuss the subject and remarkably incurious about the names she did have: ‘I just sort of googled them,’ she told Sabar when he asked. As his role in the story evolved from reporter into something more like bloodhound, he tracked down a Hans-Ulrich Laukamp who had emigrated from Berlin to Florida and died, childless, in 2002. Though well-off (he had owned a company that supplied handbrake components to BMW), this Laukamp was by all accounts poorly educated and an unlikely candidate for a collector of ancient texts. But the man who had taken over the company after his death, Walter Fritz, seemed more promising. Fritz owned another company in Florida, named for the Egyptian word for beauty: Nefer Art. Further research brought up the intriguing information that a Walter Fritz had attended the Egyptology Institute at the Free University of Berlin in the 1980s.
Reached by phone at his home, Fritz denied having studied Egyptology anywhere, and vehemently insisted that he was not the owner of the fragment. Unpersuaded, Sabar searched on a site that tracks web domain history, and discovered that, three weeks before the Rome congress, Fritz had registered the domain name gospelofjesuswife.com. As for Fritz’s disavowal of any Egyptological tendencies, Sabar unearthed a snapshot of him as a student at the Free University in 1987 in the company of two professors: Peter Munro and Gerhard Fecht. When Sabar confronted him again, Fritz was more talkative, improvising a series of semi-convincing feints and dodges, Keyser Söze-style, out of the facts presented to him, while Sabar just as ingeniously kept the evidence coming (the book is worth reading for the virtuoso sleuthing alone). In March 2016 Fritz finally admitted that he was the fragment’s owner.
Meanwhile a fact-checker at the Atlantic found a peculiar error in the address on the letter which Munro had purportedly sent to Laukamp, attributable to someone trying to construct an old Berlin address without realising that the postal codes had changed after reunification. Fritz continued to wriggle, but it became increasingly obvious that he had faked the provenance, creating a fantasy scenario out of two carefully selected experts and one suitably obscure private citizen, all three conveniently dead. With the provenance discredited, even King had to yield some ground on the fragment itself: ‘It tips the balance toward forgery,’ she acknowledged.
Who was this Walter Fritz? ‘He was an eel,’ the man who oversaw the handbrake company’s eventual bankruptcy told Sabar. Like an eel, Fritz slithered through a series of diverse habitats. As a student he got a job at the West Berlin Egyptian Museum, where thousands of ancient papyri lay around in tin boxes, uncatalogued and unsecured. He also antagonised his academic supervisor, Jürgen Osing, by stealing his ideas for a journal article. His prospects in doubt, he dropped out of university without a diploma, but possibly with some scraps of ancient papyrus. In 1991 he resurfaced, with the sinister luck that seems to have attended him from an early age, as the director of the Stasi Museum in former East Berlin. His tenure there ended after less than a year, when it was discovered that some Käthe Kollwitz prints were missing from the storage room and he resigned before he could be confronted. (An acquaintance later remembered Fritz pointing out a pair of Kollwitz drawings on his wall.) Some time after this he met Laukamp, either – depending on the telling – in a sauna or at a talk by Erich von Däniken (begetter of the aliens-built-the-pyramids theory), inveigled himself into Laukamp’s manufacturing company, and persuaded him to set up a branch in Florida, where Fritz had met a woman and wanted to move. In Florida Fritz married, bought a house near Sarasota, and continued running the company after Laukamp’s death, shafting colleagues in various ways and defecting to a rival firm with Laukamp’s BMW contracts, but otherwise earning a reasonably honest living until the company went under in 2008. In April that year he put his house on the market. In February 2010 he reduced the asking price by a third. A few months later he sent his first email to Karen King.
These were just the more visible phases of Walter Fritz’s life, but it’s easy enough to extrapolate a con man from them, with the right skills for this particular gambit, and a conventional motive: money troubles and possibly a grudge against academia (Sabar posits that his original mark may not have been King but Osing, whom Fritz was still bitterly denouncing thirty years later). And perhaps that really is all there was to it. Certainly one wants at times to shake off this clammy individual, to say: pah, sociopath, case closed, not interesting. But something about this artful, artless wife-of-Jesus scheme of his, spreading out under King’s Harvard-accredited endeavours like their disreputable shadow, urges a fuller accounting. At any rate Sabar kept digging.
The next thing he found was that from 2003 onwards Fritz had hosted a series of porn sites dedicated to a genre known as ‘hotwife’ and featuring his wife having sex with other men – often more than one at a time. Mrs Fritz, who went by the name Jenny Seemore and billed herself as ‘America’s #1 Slut Wife’, had her own website that jointly celebrated ‘sluthood’ and, of all things, the teachings of Jesus. The latter are given a distinctly Gnostic spin: ‘That’s why Jesus says: THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN IS WITHIN YOU! It means: find your own reality within, then you will know it all.’ References to Aleister Crowley, along with echoes of The Da Vinci Code, Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut and even Karen King’s translation of the Gospel of Mary, appear in the couple’s online writings and videos. The weirdest moment in Sabar’s book comes when, curious to see what Fritz was uploading around the time of the Rome congress, Sabar finds himself watching a video titled Fucking Jen’s Fat Cow-Udders, released a few days after King’s announcement. In one shot he notices a copy of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, a precursor of The Da Vinci Code with its own Jesus/Magdalene scenario, carefully framed in the backdrop along with a wedding photo of Fritz and his wife, while the two have sex in the foreground. Fritz didn’t usually appear in front of the camera, let alone cast himself as his wife’s lover, so the inference is perhaps that some private marital ritual had been completed by King’s public endorsement of the papyrus.
Whatever the case, Fritz’s baroque fantasy life clearly had some bearing on the forged text, and in an effort to clarify the underlying urges, the indefatigable Sabar travelled to Germany to piece together the circumstances of his subject’s childhood. Fritz was the son of a nightclub waitress and her married boss, who refused to acknowledge him as his child. His mother, Inge, went on to marry an insurance agent, who accepted Walter and his sister but vanished after Inge began an affair with a former Waffen SS officer. As a single mother in the deeply Catholic town of Bad Wurzach, Inge lived under what her son later described as ‘the verdict administered by the Church … “Whore!”’, and for a period Walter was treated as a pariah. Eventually Inge’s Nazi moved her into one of his properties, banishing Walter and his sister to a separate apartment. The social stigma was lifted, but the enforced separation from his beloved mother wounded Walter badly.
You can see how this enmeshment of betrayals and hypocrisies may have shaped the behaviour that followed. Sabar suggests that the provenance story in the papyrus scheme was a reckoning with the father figures in Walter Fritz’s life – or the voids created by their absence – while the text itself was a homage to his sexually adventurous mother, a latter-day Mary Magdalene. It’s an ingenious hypothesis, though it doesn’t account for the sheer dynamism of his compulsions or the energy with which they went on warping his fate, decade after decade.
It was Fritz himself who offered Sabar a possible solution to that mystery. Having avoided discussion of his early life, he emailed Sabar one night to tell him that at the age of nine, during the pariah stage of his childhood, he had been plied with sacramental wine by the local priest, Father Mayer, who then raped him in a closet by the altar. Given Fritz’s record, the story had to be treated with caution. But unlike his shifting accounts of the papyrus, it was supported by solid details: names, dates, doors, locks, spatial arrangements and so on. Moreover, Fritz had reported it to the Vatican when the Catholic Church’s abuse scandal first broke, and his story had been found credible by a church investigator. At one point in the book, having turned up evidence from other former altar boys that the seemingly genial Father Mayer had indeed been a predator, Sabar retraces the young Fritz’s fateful steps into the sacristy of St Verena’s in Bad Wurzach. It’s a disturbing but astonishing passage, a vivid demonstration of the power of scrupulous research to penetrate the past without mythologising. Everything is exactly as Fritz described it, except for one charged detail relating to a possible escape route from the ‘closet’. Fritz himself hesitantly brings up this detail later, unprompted, in a moment of seemingly involuntary recollection. It’s possible he’s playing Sabar – he was especially clever at deploying hesitancy – but it tips the balance towards plausibility. If true, the story certainly explains Fritz’s psychological stake in his forged gospel. If Jesus could marry, then priests could marry. And if priests could marry, he told Sabar, ‘they wouldn’t have to abuse kids.’
Like all good mysteries, Veritas is full of spooky internal rhymes and echoes. The notorious U-Bahn stop for the Stasi HQ, later the Stasi Museum, was Magdalenenstrasse. Fritz’s childhood home was a few minutes’ walk from Holy Blood Chapel. King’s favourite Gnostic text, a Coptic poem found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 known as ‘The Thunder, Perfect Mind’, reads like something from Jenny Seemore’s website: ‘I am the whore and the holy one.’ There are symmetries between King’s life and Fritz’s: a shared preoccupation with subverting Christian orthodoxy; a recurring female figure combining sacred and profane power. There’s an uncanny way in which the misogyny of the early patriarchs resurfaces among some of King’s detractors (‘Jesus Had an Ugly Sister-in-Law’ was the title of one rebuttal).
At one point Fritz proposed that Sabar collaborate with him on a novel about Mary Magdalene. There’s no mirroring proposal from King, his other subject, but in a way he is her instrument, even her unwitting ghostwriter. A consistent aspect of King’s role in this saga is her curious indifference to the prospect of exposure, whether as Fritz’s victim or for her own ethical lapses. She must have known it was all going to explode eventually, and she certainly understood the risks to her own reputation. ‘If it’s a forgery, it’s a career breaker,’ she told the Boston Globe. But even as the machinery of exposure ground into gear she remained strikingly unperturbed. She had little interest in hearing what Sabar had found out about Fritz, and none at all in confronting Fritz himself, as Sabar suggested. Nor did she offer any mea culpa when her fragment was discredited.
You could read this as the product of a lofty postmodern sensibility, unbound by crude categories of true and false. King’s statements over the years certainly support that. ‘History is not about truth but about power relations,’ she wrote in one paper. Sticklers for the former were guilty of ‘fact fundamentalism’. But such relativism, for her, was never an end in itself. It was always in service of a larger goal, and from the beginning of her career that goal was unabashedly religious. A committed Christian as well as a feminist, she has insisted that her academic work has always been about ‘deepening one’s understanding and deepening one’s faith’, just as it is about ‘enlarging one’s imaginative universe’. Its object, as she put it at one stage (a little too aptly), is ‘to forge the world’.
In several articles King lamented the sexual neutering of women in the Gnostic texts, even those as hospitable to her vision of restored female authority as the Gospel of Mary: ‘It seems to me that even when the feminine is highly valued, it is often done so at the expense of real sexuality.’ A gospel revealing Mary Magdalene as not just Jesus’s disciple but also his wife would restore that forfeited sexuality. If it turned out to be genuine, so much the better. But even if it didn’t, might it not do some good all the same, if it stirred up enough debate? By that calculus, of course, its champion would have to be resigned in advance to every kind of public scolding and shaming. But what could be a more radically Christian gesture?
In 2006 King announced that she was contemplating a book about martyrdom. She has borne her own martyrdom well: she is still Harvard’s Hollis Professor. The book remains unwritten, but in a sense Sabar has written it for her: a Gospel of St Karen in which her risky advocacy of an incendiary scripture joins a familiar tradition, as does her composure as the arrows start flying. More to the point, it embeds her fictional text in a factual story that amplifies her reimagining of Christianity in a way that the text alone would not have achieved even if it were genuine. And it leaves you with the potent image of a woman who, far from being anyone’s dupe, knew exactly what she was doing all along.