Harvard professor Karen L. King, who presented a small fragment of papyrus that referred to Jesus as married, now acknowledges that the fragment is most likely a fake.
The concession came after the Atlantic magazine’s website published an article investigating the background of the papyrus fragment’s owner, Walter Fritz, from Florida.
“It appears now that all the material Fritz gave to me concerning the provenance of the papyrus . . . were fabrications,” King told the Boston Globe.
King, who’d named the papyrus “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” wrote an academic paper on the fragment in 2014 for the Harvard Theological Review.
Her interview in the Atlantic was the first time she had said the fragment is most likely a forgery; however, she told the Globe that she could not be “utterly definitive” that the fragment was a fake until scientific tests proved it or someone confessed to forging it.
She said she did not think it was necessary to retract her paper as her work was based on the information she had at the time and she said she allowed for the possibility of forgery.
“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.”
Many scholars had long ago dismissed fragment as a fake, based on analysis of its Coptic text and other evidence.
Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke University whose blog became a forum for the fragment’s skeptics, said Harvard needs to update the special Divinity School webpage about the fragment, which still says: “Testing Indicates ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ Papyrus Fragment to be Ancient.”
He said this still gives “the very strong impression, with the Harvard imprimatur, that this was the real deal.”
Fritz, a stranger, approached King, a distinguished scholar of early Christianity, by e-mail in 2010, asking her to have a look at a papyrus fragment he had. The fragment, which was about the size of a business card,referred to a married Jesus.
King took it to other specialists, including Roger Bagnall, a renowned papyrologist, who thought it looked like an authentic fourth-century artifact.
King released her finding in 2012 at a Coptic studies conference in Rome.
Fritz requested that he remain anonymous, and King said she never looked into his background or attempted to authenticate the documents he gave her related to their supposed origin, although she wrote about them in her paper.
She told the Globe that she did not have the time or resources for the sort of extensive detective work conducted by the Atlantic.
“I would never agree to do an anonymous thing again. Lesson learned,” she said.
The Atlantic article says that Fritz first denied then acknowledged that he was the owner of the fragment. He said he did not know if the papyrus was genuine, and he denied forging it.
According to the Atlantic article, Fritz, a German studied Egyptology in Berlin in the late 1980s and early 1990s and worked in a museum in the former East Germany. He now resides in North Port, Fla.
He told the Atlantic he bought a collection of papyri, including the fragment in question, in November 199 from his business partner, Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, in Florida. However, Laukamp’s relatives said Laukamp was in Germany at the time and that he had a limited education and no interest in ancient artifacts.
The Atlantic found many reasons to doubt the authenticity of one of the letters Fritz gave King that purportedly showed that the papyri had been examined by German Egyptologists in the early 1980s. The letter featured anachronistic stationery and spelling and an error in Laukamp’s address.
The article suggested Fritz may have been motivated by money troubles, resentment against elite academics, or perhaps even a desire to “turn a ‘Da Vinci Code’ fantasy into a reality.”
Fritz denied having money troubles to the Atlantic, and the Globe reports he was unavailable to comment.
King never maintained that the fragment proved that Jesus was married, but she did say it suggested some early Christians portrayed him as having a wife.