Magazine: German Pornographer Faked "Jesus' Wife Gospel" Fragment to Live Out "Da Vinci Code" Fantasy
I know I had said that I’d be devoting Fridays this summer to discussing the good work that others are doing, but this Friday I ran a bit short on time to catch up on my reading. So let me make up for it today by discussing an article equal parts fascinating and devastating about the apparent forgery of the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” papyrus fragment that made headlines in 2012. According to Ariel Sabar, writing in the new edition of The Atlantic, the entire affair was inspired by the toxic stew of fringe history, with special appearances by ancient astronaut theorist Erich von Däniken, Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, and that perennial favorite, hatred of academics who are allegedly conspiring against an unsung genius to protect pseudoscientific paradigms.
In 2012 the scholarly world went into a tizzy after Harvard scholar Karen L. King published a small fragment written in Coptic which was provisionally dated to the fourth century CE and featured Jesus calling a woman, presumably Mary Magdalene, “my wife.” Skeptics doubted the text was genuinely ancient, but no one could quite prove that it wasn’t due to the ancient carbon dating of the papyrus, though the ungrammatical and plagiarized Coptic strongly implied a modern forgery.
I want to strenuously recommend that you read the article, which is a terrific piece of investigative reporting and crafts a devastating case for when, why, and how the Jesus’ Wife Gospel fragment had been forged. I can’t do justice in summary to what Sabar found out in his investigation, but a few key points stand out:
The alleged forger (who denies the charge) is identified as Walter Fritz, an expatriate German small business owner and former recreational pornographer specializing in creating gangbang videos starring his wife, a self-described psychic clairvoyant whom the couple billed as “America’s #1 Slut Wife.” She wrote a “channeled” book of “universal truths” that she learned from the lips of angels.
Fritz had been a student of Egyptology in a Master’s program in Germany in the early 1990s, where he developed a rudimentary knowledge of Coptic, before dropping out of school after rumors spread that he had “borrowed” others’ ideas for an academic article on Akhenaten. He went on to develop a hatred for academia that he nurtured at a lecture by Erich von Däniken. Fritz says he bought the Jesus’ Wife Gospel papyrus from a von Däniken fan he met in the early ’90s. Although Fritz claims not believe in ancient astronauts, von Däniken was on the tip of his tongue when he tried to explain his drive to explore fringe history, which culminated in him and his wife becoming adherents of the Holy Bloodline Conspiracy.
Sabar speculates, based on interviews with Fritz, that he and his wife forged the fragment in order to both seek revenge on academia and to live out a Da Vinci Code fantasy in which their libertine sexuality could be justified through an appeal to a more female-centric form of Christianity. “The Gnostic texts that allow women a discipleship and see Jesus more as a spiritual person and not as a demigod—these texts are probably the more relevant ones,” Fritz said. He added that while having sex with his wife, whom he believes to have prophetic powers, she began to scream out in what he believes was Jesus’ native Aramaic.
Sabar believes that Fritz took the forged fragment to King because the Harvard scholar’s feminist scholarship and books about Mary Magdalene in the Gnostic tradition made her an easy target for a text that would seem to promote the existence of a feminist form of Christianity. King came out of the article looking very bad, as someone who failed to do basic due diligence on the fragment, to the extent of never bothering to check into Fritz’s background or the provenance of the papyrus fragment.
King initially refused to accept that the fragment was a forgery when Sabar tried to seek comment from her in March. She actually refused to hear evidence that the piece was a forgery, saying that issues of provenance were not relevant to her research. Indeed, Sabar said she claimed to be unaware that provenance could be critically investigated at all. But after reading the article, and how bad it made her look, she reversed herself and on Thursday conceded that forgery is the most likely scenario.
It’s rather astonishing that so much effort went into creating something that would not change history as much as some of its supporters claim. The existence of a belief in the wife of Jesus in the fourth century wouldn’t impact earlier history in any meaningful way, since it implies nothing about the historical Jesus, or even about the formative years of the Church. It would have been an interesting heresy, but little more.
The trouble is that the fragment didn’t really fit with the broader evidence as it is currently known. The Church Fathers were exhaustive in their refutation of heresies, criticizing every possible variation of Christian belief. And many of these alternative beliefs find voice across multiple texts. Consider, for example, the claim that Jesus did not die on the cross but substituted another in his place. Originating in the claims of Basilides, a Gnostic, we can find reference to the idea in Irenaeus’ Refutation of All Heresies 1.24.4, in the Nag Hammadi codices’ Second Treatise of the Great Seth, and even in the Qur’an 4:157-158. By contrast, there isn’t a single mention of Jesus’ wife in any ancient literature. The first mention of anything similar occurs in Mormon arguments about Jesus’ alleged polygamy and likely children, followed by Louis Martin’s nineteenth century allegation that Jesus married Mary Magdalene and had a son with her. The closest thing we find before that is the statement of a medieval priest that the Cathars believed that an evil twin of Jesus had taken Mary Magdalene as concubine, based not on a secret Holy Bloodline conspiracy but rather on an idiosyncratic reading of John 8:3 that would make the evil Jesus the one who took an unnamed woman, traditionally identified with the Magdalene, in adultery.
Similarly, the ancient libel that Jesus was the son of a Roman soldier who raped the Virgin Mary finds voice in a wide range of texts, from Origen’s Contra Celsum 1.32 to the Talmud and a satirical parody of the Gospels.
If there had been a widespread, or even sufficiently popular local, tradition of a married Jesus, surely the heretics, the Jews, the Muslims, and the other assorted critics of mainstream Christianity would have mentioned it. It isn’t completely impossible that a local tradition went otherwise unrecorded and unobserved, but it is very odd that no one among the heretic hunters of the ancient world and the faiths that challenged Christian claims noticed.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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