BY ARIEL SABAR
Ariel Sabar probably considered “veritas”—Latin for “truth” and the motto of Harvard University—the perfect ironic title for this book. “Ironic,” however, is too mild to describe the contents of Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. As your intrepid reviewer continued reading, the narrative and its cast of characters became increasingly gonzo. But that’s what often happens when people take religion too seriously.
Sabar probably presents his story as clearly as possible, but because of the repetition of incidents and the occasional zigzagging chronology, the tale becomes, at times—oxymoron alert—somewhat baroque. I can only touch on the highlights, which still ought to give a sense of the book’s outlandish events and people.
In 2010 Karen King received an email from someone she didn’t know, a man named Walter Fritz. King was an esteemed professor at the Harvard Divinity School who “had reached the summit of her field as a dazzling interpreter of [early Christian] condemned scripture.” She had, according to colleagues, “changed the face of early Christian studies.” (The documents that were King’s specialty were “sometimes called Gnostic, because of their view that salvation came not from the death and resurrection of Jesus, but from personal knowledge, or gnosis, of the divine.”) Fritz asked King whether she would be interested in seeing some Coptic papyri he owned (Coptic “was the language of Egypt’s earliest Christians”), one of which, a mere three-and-a-half inches long, contained the words “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife.’” King was indeed interested and Fritz emailed photographs of his papyri to her. Other words on the papyrus fragment included: “was a portrait of Jesus—married, living with his wife Mary Magdalene, cursing her detractors—unlike any known to history.”
This was particularly meaningful to King, who had spent her career trying to prove that the origins of Christianity had been hijacked by blinkered zealots who had imposed rules on the mainstream church—restricting the priesthood to males, priestly celibacy, a general animus toward women and sex, to name some—despite the existence of worthier antithetical voices and contradictory doctrines in nascent Christianity. Was Fritz’s provocative papyrus, which King would name the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, astonishing proof, or at least near-proof, at last, of the Harvard scholar’s (putative) subversive theories?
Walter Fritz, a native German, studied Egyptology as a young man in Berlin but never obtained the academic credentials or scholarly success that he considered his due. He was apparently one of those people who think, while growing up, that they are destined for greatness, but whose subsequent failures generate a bitterness that hardens into a kind of free-floating craving for revenge against the world that has spitefully thwarted them. He moved to North Port, Florida, “no later than…1994,” and here is where the book becomes full-fledged funky.
Starting in 2003, Walter Fritz had launched a series of pornographic websites that showcased his wife having sex with other men—often more than one at a time. The couple advertised the dates of “gangbangs”…(The Fritzes noted their convenient location, “about 2 hours away from Disney”).
When Ariel Sabar learned about these orgies—or whatever they were—he writes, “I felt as if I’d tumbled through a trapdoor.” Through the looking glass is more like it. (I do like that proximity to Disney World, which seems so appropriate, considering its blend of high tech and chintzy.)
Sabar speculates that Dan Brown’s crazily successful potboiler, The Da Vinci Code (published in 2003), might have concurrently inspired Fritz, still smarting from his frustrated forays into historiography, to create the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, “a more highbrow pastiche [than Brown’s novel], a postmodern mix and match meant for a single scholar whose subjectivity would blind her to its seams.” (Fritz said he only saw the movie version, but his credibility is less than tenable. And I say crazily about The Da Vinci Code’s blockbuster status because it violates one of Howard Schneider’s Rules for Bestsellers: the prose of a mass-audience success will never get in the way of its story.)
When Fritz discovered Karen King’s work and her agenda, her “subjectivity” must have thrilled his inner Svengali (he was astute about reading people). Sabar writes that “[t]he Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, I came to believe, had begun as a joke and ended as an exorcism. It was a settling of scores with all the male authority figures who had robbed Fritz of his potential.” But who, ultimately, used whom the most?
King embraced the authenticity of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, and while publicizing it displayed a deft touch at manipulating the press, including the New York Times and the Boston Globe. She also persuaded the Smithsonian Channel to produce a documentary on the gospel, and “helped set up a Gospel of Jesus website.” But it became fairly clear early on that the gospel wasn’t genuine and was, in fact, a forgery. Did she know? She had to know. The ominous part of this story isn’t so much Fritz’s role in the con, but the fact that King participated in the cover-up.
She had no interest, she told Sabar, in investigating the provenance of the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. (At a later point she told him that—finally—“she was now inclined to call the Wife papyrus a fake too, but only a probable one.”) She had no interest, presumably, in Fritz’s past. As Sabar’s own prodigious research shows, any reasonably thorough scrutiny of his background would have been a dead giveaway to beware of anything he said. The scientific “analysis” of the Wife papyrus was carried out by two scientists who had family or friendship ties to King. When the Harvard Theological Review planned to run a rebuttal in the same issue (April 2014) that published King’s article endorsing the veracity of the Wife papyrus, King tried (but failed) to have the dissent killed. (The Review—and Harvard—doesn’t distinguish itself in Veritas when it comes to due diligence issues. The critical article was almost killed.)
Near the end of the book, Sabar notes that King’s “field [is] all too prone to counterfeiters and mountebanks,” and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife has by now taken its rightful place on the junk heap of (pseudo) scholarly humbug. Nevertheless, Veritas raises interesting questions. One of the more delicious ones is, who comes off worse, Fritz or King? Fritz had a certain talent for grifting, but, ultimately, Sabar’s research led this reader to believe that he was, finally, a rather piddling chiseler, in over his head and lucky that he wasn’t arrested (he tried to sell most of his bogus papyrus collection to Harvard).
Which brings us to this book’s real villain, the prestigious Ivy League professor who went on for too long as the Wife papyrus’s apologist. “For me,” Sabar quotes King, “the study of religion, whether as a historian or a literary critic, [is] all about deepening one’s understanding and deepening one’s faith.” Also, “For postmodernists in King’s mold, the historical Jesus’s actual marital status was a priori unknowable and in some ways beside the point. ‘Truth’ (a word postmodern thinkers nearly always set between quotation marks) was just a language game, won by the player who told—and sold—the best story.” Hence, “A part of King saw the Wife papyrus . . . much as she had The Da Vinci Code: it was a fiction that advanced a truth”—her truth. (And to hell with the papyrus’s real-world wobbly legitimacy.)
This makes King sound like a misguided but earnest idealist, trying to do justice and bring honor, to those (in particular, women) who she was convinced played significant but now expunged roles in early Christianity. But what if there was something more disquieting going on underneath her efforts? What if King wasn’t a champion of an elusive truth but a media junkie, not so much devoted to unraveling early Christian theology as yearning for the benediction of the ballyhoo? Sabar talks of solving “one of the saga’s most vexing riddles. The title ‘The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ was a product not of scholarship but of market analysis—a hunt for words that would ‘stick’ with a ‘general audience.’” It seems clear from this and other evidence that King was milking The Da Vinci Code and the Wife papyrus for all they were worth, that she reveled in the attendant publicity. (The funniest bit in Veritas is a King quote early on: “In talking to the press…a big part of my task is to throw cold water on sensationalism.” This is, indeed, probably the only funny moment in Veritas. One of the strange things about the book is that it is a black humor artifact without the humor.)
I wouldn’t try to dissuade anyone from reading Veritas, which is the culmination of articles that its author wrote for Smithsonian magazine and the Atlantic. It is well written, fair but not naïve. (While I earlier called Sabar a prodigious researcher, relentless is more like it. If you ever do something naughty, pray that he doesn’t get on your case.) But I have a crucial problem with Veritas: I don’t care about the roots of the shenanigans it depicts. I’m a (secular) Jew and indifferent to the early theological conflicts between those who became mainstream Christian thinkers and the Gnostics. (Based on what I read in Veritas, there seems little difference between the factions when it comes to humanist values; neither side, for the most part, celebrated them). My major interest in the New Testament, such as it is, is how parts of it have been used through the centuries to abet violence against Jews. This is a subject, understandably, not touched on in Veritas.
And, really, what would happen if one day irrefutable proof emerged that Jesus was married? I strongly believe that it would have no effect on institutional Christian churches, or even their dissenters; dogmas and practices would remain unchanged.
I’m quite surprised that Sabar didn’t mention something from the dawn of Christianity that might have thrown an interesting light on the people and antics in Veritas. In the New Testament’s Gospel of John, Jesus says to Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, that he (Jesus) “should bear witness unto the truth” (King James Bible), and Pilate replies: “What is truth?”—“Quid est veritas?” The metaphysical haggling described in this book goes back a long way.
After reading Veritas, I firmly suspect that if Pilate were alive today, he’d probably be teaching at Harvard. Or thinking about running for president.