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CRAIG BROWN: How a dodgy tour guide duped a professor into thinking Jesus was married

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, And The Gospel Of Jesus’s Wife

Ariel Sabar                                                                                                   Scribe £18.99

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In 2012, at a conference theatrically staged across from the Vatican, the Harvard Professor of Divinity, Dr Karen King, announced that she had discovered a fragment of ancient papyrus she called The Gospel Of Jesus’s Wife. 

Though it consisted of only a few words, and was no bigger than a business card, this fragment seemed to point to the astonishing fact that Jesus had been married to Mary Magdalene.

This extraordinary finding made headlines all over the world. If true – and who could doubt a Harvard Professor of Divinity? – it suggested that the Christian interpretation of the New Testament was seriously awry, and that the Church had been wrong to sideline women.

Pictured above, Correggio’s Noli Me Tangere (c 1525), depicting Mary Magdalene and Jesus after His resurrection

Pictured above, Correggio’s Noli Me Tangere (c 1525), depicting Mary Magdalene and Jesus after His resurrection

‘It makes a big difference…’ declared Dr King, some years later. ‘It affects who gets to be in charge, who gets to preach and teach, who can be pure and holy. Should people be married or not? 

Can you be divorced or not? Is sexuality sinful, by definition? All of this depends on the kind of story you tell.’

As well as being a renowned theologian, King had long been a vehement advocate of women’s rights within the Christian churches. From what she said, this ancient fragment confirmed everything she had ever believed.

But it did not take long before her extravagant claims for The Gospel Of Jesus’s Wife met a backlash. The Vatican newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, dismissed the papyrus as an ‘inept forgery… with a twisted bias to match a modern ideology’.

Scholars of all denominations, and none, were almost as sceptical. One said that the script on the papyrus looked like 21st Century handwriting. Another called it ‘hilarious’, the work of a modern author who might have benefited from more lessons in Coptic, the language of the New Testament.

Scholars of all denominations, and none, were almost as sceptical. One said that the script on the papyrus (above) looked like 21st Century handwriting

Scholars of all denominations, and none, were almost as sceptical. One said that the script on the papyrus (above) looked like 21st Century handwriting 

But Dr King stood her ground. She was adamant that the papyrus was genuine: after all, it had been authenticated by experts. One papyrologist, a professor at Princeton, had been particularly impressed by the clumsiness of the fragment.

‘If you were a forger, you wouldn’t do that,’ she said.

Others agreed that a competent forger would have employed better handwriting, and a better pen. ‘That is one of the things that tells you it’s real,’ said the director of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. 

‘A modern scribe wouldn’t do that.’

The logic of this argument is that if something looks like a fake, then it must be real, as a proper forger would have made more of an effort.

Dr Karen King (above) stood her ground. She was adamant that the papyrus was genuine: after all, it had been authenticated by experts

Dr Karen King (above) stood her ground. She was adamant that the papyrus was genuine: after all, it had been authenticated by experts

Interestingly, this has been the same argument used to validate countless frauds down the years. My wife, Frances Welch, wrote a book about Anna Anderson, the woman who claimed to be the Grand Duchess Anastasia, saying she had, as a child, miraculously escaped the assassination of the rest of the Russian royal family. 

Anderson didn’t look anything like Anastasia, could speak neither French nor English, both of which were used in the Russian court, and muddled up basic facts. But her supporters – who included prominent members of the Romanov family – insisted that these discrepancies were signs of her authenticity. 

After all, they reasoned, a halfway-competent fraud would make a better job of lying.

The same was true of the Tichborne Claimant. In 1854, Roger Tichborne, the skinny 25-year-old heir to a vast fortune, was lost at sea, presumed dead. Twelve years later, a butcher from Wagga Wagga in Australia appeared on the scene, claiming to be Tichborne. 

He spoke with a broad Australian accent, showed no knowledge of the childhood or education of the person he claimed to be, and didn’t have any of young Roger’s tattoos. 

But those who wanted to believe the impostor – and they included the dead man’s mother, who longed for her son to be alive –took all these anomalies as sure signs that he was telling the truth.

And, more recently, the same skewed logic was applied to the bogus Hitler diaries by those who wanted them to be real. The handwriting was unlike Hitler’s, the ink was too new, the paper was dodgy, and the bindings included a material dated to 1953. 

But, once again, wishful thinking won out, and the believers – journalists, historians – convinced themselves that the diaries must be authentic because no forger would be so hopeless.

Biblical forgeries are not uncommon. In 1991, a version of The Gospel Of Thomas, newly unearthed by a specialist called Batson D. Sealing, was published by the Oxford University journal Discussions In Egyptology. 

When a scholar wrote up the find for the Financial Times, his daughter noticed something funny about the name of its discoverer. Didn’t Batson D. Sealing sound suspiciously like Bats On The Ceiling? 

That particular issue of the journal was immediately recalled, and republished without the forgery.

The author of this book, Ariel Sabar, followed the case of The Gospel Of Jesus’s Wife from its start. The most dogged of investigators, his suspicions multiplied at every turn. 

IT’S A FACT

The theory that Jesus married Mary Magdalene has been a persistent one and is at the heart of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code.

Who had given the original fragments to Prof King, and why? Karen King refused to reveal her source, saying that she had guaranteed his anonymity. But Sabar stayed on the case and, step by step, the story he uncovered was almost unbelievably odd.

He traced the fragment to one Walter Fritz, a German then living in Florida. Fritz had once worked as a tour guide in West Berlin’s Egyptian Museum, where bits of loose papyrus had mysteriously gone missing. 

In the early 1990s he had gone on to run the Stasi Museum in what had been East Berlin. When he moved to Florida, his career took a surprising turn: in 2003 he developed a successful online business charging for pornographic videos of his wife, ‘Jenny Seemore’.

Meanwhile, in her free time, ‘Jenny Seemore’ ran a home crafts business called Cute Art World, selling teddy bears and mermaids, as well as pendants of the Virgin Mary and the Baby Jesus, which came complete with tiny fragments of papyrus ‘over 1,800 years old’ for a very reasonable $12.99.

It seemed to Sabar unlikely that a man with such an exceedingly dodgy background was to be trusted as a key source of ancient Christian texts. But when he returned to Prof King with his discoveries, she refused to listen. 

‘I don’t see the point of a conversation,’ she said, adding that she was ‘not particularly’ interested in where her precious fragments had come from.

The Gospel Of Jesus’s Wife is now acknowledged as a forgery. With the acute antennae of the con man, Fritz had targeted Karen King because he sensed her eagerness to believe in anything that backed up her feminist beliefs.

He lured her using all the methods of the skilled con man, explaining that he had an ancient fragment, but he didn’t know if it was worth anything. As Sabar suggests, Fritz’s initial emails to the professor ‘led King to water, but it was she who had decided to drink’.

‘The true con artist doesn’t force us to do anything,’ a psychologist is quoted as saying. ‘He doesn’t steal. We give. He doesn’t have to threaten us. We supply the story ourselves. 

We believe because we want to, not because anyone made us. And so we offer up whatever they want – money, reputation, trust, fame, legitimacy, support – and we don’t realise what is happening until it is too late.’

King had been so keen to believe the fraud that, as Sabar was to discover, she secretly roped in old friends and relatives to authenticate it.

Ariel Sabar tells a fascinating story, but at too great a length. Having sleuthed around with extraordinary diligence for years and years, he is understandably reluctant to shed any details of his investigation. 

This means that, for all its integrity, the book lacks zip: page after page is devoted to whether or not the forger was molested as a child or to the intricacies of the various gospels that had to compete for a place in the Bible.

Incidentally, I’ve just noticed that Ariel Sabar is an anagram of Israel Arab. What on earth can this mean? If any con man has an explanation, I’ll be all ears. 

 

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