A Harvard professor who rocked the musty world devoted to studying early Christianity when she presented a tiny swatch of papyrus that referred to Jesus as married now concedes the fragment is probably a fake.
Karen L. King’s acknowledgment about the papyrus she’d named “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” came after the Atlantic magazine’s website published an investigative article that delved into the background of the fragment’s owner, Walter Fritz, a Florida man.
“It appears now that all the material Fritz gave to me concerning the provenance of the papyrus . . . were fabrications,” King told the Globe Friday. Her interview with the Atlantic the day before marked the first time she had said the fragment is probably a forgery.
She said in the Globe interview that she could not be “utterly definitive” until scientific tests proved the fragment was fake or someone confessed to forging it. Fritz told the Atlantic he didn’t know whether it was genuine, and he denied forging it.
Most scholars had long ago dismissed it as a fraud, based on analysis of the fragment’s Coptic text and other evidence. The Globe reported in November that serious doubts had arisen about the authenticity of the papyrus fragment, stoking debates across continents.
The Globe was unable to reach for comment Dean David N. Hempton or anyone associated with the Harvard Theological Review, which published King’s 2014 paper on the papyrus. A statement from Harvard Divinity School said the school is reviewing the Atlantic story.
King said she did not think a retraction of her academic paper was warranted, because she had allowed for the possibility of forgery and her conclusions were based on what she knew at the time.
“I don’t see anything to retract,” she said. “I have always thought of scholarship as a conversation. So you put out your best thoughts, and then people . . . bring in new ideas or evidence. You go on.”
Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke University whose blog became a forum for skeptics of the fragment, said Harvard should swiftly update the special Divinity School Web page about the fragment, which still declares: “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient.”
This, he said, still gives “the very strong impression, with the Harvard imprimatur, that this was the real deal.”
Another critic, Leo DEPUYDT , a Brown scholar who is among King’s harshest detractors, said Friday evening: “I see that King is still at Harvard. Unbelievable.”
King, a distinguished scholar of early Christianity, holds the oldest endowed academic chair in the country. Fritz, a stranger, approached her by e-mail in 2010, asking her to have a look at a papyrus fragment roughly the size of a business card that he owned. It referred to a married Jesus. King eventually took it to other specialists, including a renowned papyrologist, Roger Bagnall, who thought it looked like an authentic fourth-century artifact.
King released her finding with great fanfare at a Coptic studies conference in Rome in 2012.
Until this week, little was publicly known about the fragment’s origins or recent history. King allowed Fritz, at his request, to remain anonymous. She said she never checked into Fritz’s background or attempted to authenticate the documents he gave her related to their supposed origin, though she wrote about them in her paper.
King said Friday this kind of detective work was not her area of expertise, and she did not have the time or resources for the sort of extensive investigation conducted by the Atlantic.
Despite calls to do so from other scholars, she previously declined to release images of the supporting documents Fritz gave her related to provenance. King said they were “not good data” because they were not originals.
“I would never agree to do an anonymous thing again. Lesson learned,” King said in the Globe interview Friday.
The Atlantic article, written by Ariel Sabar, says that Fritz acknowledged, after an initial denial, that he was the fragment’s owner — and that he was not the “civic-minded family man” that King said Fritz presented himself to be.
The Atlantic reported that Fritz, a German living in North Port, Fla., studied Egyptology in Berlin in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He worked in a museum in the former East Germany, leaving amid questions about missing items (Fritz denied any wrongdoing). He eventually moved to Florida, where for some time he ran pornographic sites featuring his wife, who believes that she can channel God and the Archangel Michael, the Atlantic said.
Fritz told the Atlantic he bought a collection of papyri, including “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” from his business partner, Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, in Florida in November 1999. But Laukamp’s relatives said Laukamp was in Germany then. They also said Laukamp had a limited education and no interest in ancient artifacts.
The Atlantic article found many reasons to doubt the authenticity of one of the letters Fritz presented to King purporting to show that the papyri had been examined by German Egyptologists in the early 1980s. It featured anachronistic stationery and spelling, as well as an error in Laukamp’s address.
The Atlantic suggested Fritz may have been motivated by money troubles, a grudge against elite academics, or even a desire to “turn a ‘Da Vinci Code’ fantasy into a reality.” Fritz denied having money troubles.
Fritz could not be reached for comment Friday.
Asked about “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” in an interview with the Globe last October, Fritz suggested he did not know much about the papyrus.
“Jesus’s girlfriend?” he said.
Fritz said in the Globe interview he did not believe he knew Laukamp, despite public documents showing they had been involved in a Florida business together.
“Not off the top of my head, no,” he said.
King never maintained that the papyrus showed that Jesus was actually married. But she said the fragment suggested some early Christians portrayed him as having a wife as they debated celibacy and the role of wives and mothers in the church.
The chorus of critics only grew louder over time, as scholars — including some who were relatively young and unknown —
Goodacre said he felt some hesitation about critiquing King, who he said is a major figure in her field, well-read by students and well-liked by her colleagues.
“Sometimes I would think, ‘Oh, gosh, do I really want to put this on my blog?’ ” Goodacre said. “But I think at the end of the day, as long as one is being gracious . . . the ultimate respect is to engage.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.