In 2012, Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard, traveled to Rome to deliver a conference presentation on a compelling historical artifact that had recently come into her possession. It was a piece of papyrus, about the size of a business card, inscribed with several lines of Egyptian Coptic and culminating in the phrase, “Jesus said to them, My wife.” King shared preliminary news of the find with a handful of media outlets, including Smithsonian magazine, which dispatched a reporter to investigate. That journalist, Ariel Sabar, would spend the next few years uncovering a story far stranger and more provocative than the artifact itself.
Part of Sabar’s investigation would become a viral article in The Atlantic headlined “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife.” That reporting also led to his latest book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, which was published in August. Sabar is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Harper’s, and other publications. His previous books include the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Sabar about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: What was your initial reaction when you learned that you would be doing a story about the possibility that Jesus was married?
Ariel Sabar: Well, I wasn’t really investigating the possibility that Jesus was married. I was investigating the possibility that a recently discovered ancient text claimed he was married. I was doing some freelance work for Smithsonian magazine back in 2012 when an editor there reached out to me about a discovery that a Harvard scholar had made—a fragment of papyrus on which Jesus is said to utter the worlds, “My wife.” It was clear from the very beginning that this was never considered to be evidence of a married Jesus. It wasn’t a marriage certificate or a biography. At best, it meant that there had been a group of early Christians—perhaps as early as the second century—who believed that Jesus was married and that his marriage was theologically significant. It would still be a very big deal, though, because there was nothing else like that in antiquity.
I thought it was wild. I didn’t know a whole lot about the subject. I’m Jewish, and I didn’t study the New Testament closely growing up—certainly not the non-canonical or Gnostic gospels. For about three mostly sleepless weeks I did a ton of research, conducted a bunch of interviews, and produced a 6,000-word story on deadline. It was published around the time that Dr. King made her presentation in Rome. As a journalist who covers scholars and is fascinated by their work, I recognized that this could be a pretty exciting find. But I didn’t have any idea in 2012 where it would ultimately lead.
R&P: When the papyrus was discovered, it sparked a scholarly debate over authenticity. King thought it might be legitimate; her critics said it was fake. As you reported that debate, were you persuaded that the piece was real?
AS: I’m a journalist, not a scholar, so I don’t have the qualifications to judge whether a text that a Harvard professor dates to the fourth century is authentic. But I entered the story with an open mind. I really didn’t know one way or the other, and I didn’t think it was my place to say. My job was to interview the people who were involved and try to understand their various arguments. But journalists always have to be skeptical, so I was careful to ask the sorts of questions that would encourage these scholars to identify the relevant gaps, silences, and problems. I wanted to know their levels of confidence in its credibility. If there were reasons to doubt it, then I wanted to know what they were.
R&P: If the papyrus wasn’t authentic, then it would most likely be a finely crafted forgery. Are these common? Is there a market for forgeries of ancient texts?
AS: From the dawn of archeology, and even the dawn of treasure-hunting, there have been people searching the world for important artifacts, and that has created an incentive for other people to fabricate them. Whether it’s a piece of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, a part from a famous sunken ship, or an artwork that went missing hundreds of years ago—as long as there are people who are willing to pay for these items, there will be others who are willing to produce and sell them. If you’re good at forgery, you can make a lot of money. And in some cases, forgers are after something else—a chance to rewrite history, a chance to embarrass the experts, or even just a chance to have a chuckle at having fooled someone. This sort of thing has been around forever.
One thing that is relatively new, however, is the practice of using papyrus as a medium for forgery. In this particular case, the experts found the piece compelling in part because there hadn’t really been a history of papyrus forgery. Papyrus was the throwaway paper of the ancient world. It was seen as so ephemeral, and the languages it contained were often so obscure, that such a forgery would be really difficult to do. It was hard to imagine that anyone would have the classical education, the artistic skill, the motivation, and the nerve to produce something like that.
But in recent years the market for ancient papyri has grown considerably, largely thanks to some wealthy evangelical Christians, especially the Green family of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. They’ve spent millions of dollars acquiring biblical artifacts for their Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C., and among these have been a bunch of fake Dead Sea Scrolls and thousands of looted antiquities from Egypt and Iraq, which they are now being forced to return. When they entered the marketplace in about 2009, there was suddenly a brand new demand for ancient manuscripts.
R&P: Though the papyrus had passed a series of tests corroborating its ancient origin, nothing was known about its more recent history. How did you begin to flesh that out?
AS: It was difficult, because Dr. King refused to identify the owner. I asked her about it in 2012, other journalists asked her later, but she consistently replied that he wanted to remain anonymous and she was going to respect that. As a freelancer, I had moved on after the Smithsonian piece and worked on other projects, but I came back to it in 2015 because some of these basic questions were still unanswered. I had a little bit to go on, including some emails that I had exchanged with Dr. King while reporting the story. I had basically said, “Okay, if you can’t tell me his identity, can you tell me a little bit about him? Is he a famous collector? Someone who would be known to people in the world of antiquities?” She said that he was not, and in fact she had never heard of him before he contacted her. When I asked her about the back-and-forth between a novice collector and a distinguished Harvard professor, she agreed to give me her correspondence with him, stripped of all identifying information. From that, I was able to recognize a few threads that I thought I could pull.
I dug into some public records, traveled to Germany, conducted interviews, and gradually began to uncover this wild tale that led me to a former Egyptology student who had studied Coptic at the Free University in Berlin, abruptly vanished from campus after an accusation of plagiarism, resurfaced first as director of the museum of the East German Stasi, and later as an auto parts executive in Florida.
R&P: The search led you to a man named Walter Fritz, who is easily the strangest and most interesting character in the story. How did his history as a pornographer factor in?
AS: When I first spoke with Walter Fritz, he lied to me. He said he didn’t know about the papyrus, had nothing to do with it, didn’t know what I was talking about, and so I then had to go and do some more reporting. Eventually I was able to go back to him and say, “Look, Walter, people have told me that you’re the same guy who studied Egyptology in Germany, that you’ve studied Coptic, that you wrote this article for an academic journal,” and finally he began to tell me at least some of the truth.
One of the breakthroughs in the story came shortly after that when I began putting his email address into Google and got a hit from a site listing domain registrations. It turned out that Fritz had registered a number of web domains, and that one of them was gospelofjesusswife.com. When I looked at the date of that registration, I saw that it was three weeks before Dr. King delivered her presentation in Rome. So I knew that he had to be connected to the inner circle of people who knew about the papyrus before it was announced.
I continued researching Fritz’s web presence and almost fell out of my chair when I discovered a series of porn domains that he had registered and that apparently starred his own wife— advertised as “America’s #1 Slut Wife.” They were part of a porn genre known as “Hot Wife,” the premise of which is that a husband is unable to satisfy his wife sexually, so she engages in sex acts with other men while he—the “cuckold”—is forced to film it all. Apparently Fritz and his wife were quite good at this, because they had a lot of paying subscribers. At one point Fritz’s wife was ranked the #5 Hot Wife in the country, according to a blog that tracks these things.
Aside from her career in pornography, I learned that Fritz’s wife also had a website on which she published her musings on the intersection between spirituality, the ancient world, and sexual promiscuity. It was a very specific intersection of interests for the wife of the man who had discovered the gospel of Jesus’s wife.
R&P: Ultimately Fritz invited you to collaborate with him on a writing project. How did that affect your view of his credibility?
AS: In 2016, as I was wrapping up my story for The Atlantic, I asked Fritz if we could photograph him for the magazine. He agreed, so I went down to Florida with a photographer and met him for lunch on the day of the shoot. We talked for about three hours, and he ended up making me a proposal. He wanted me to write a work of fiction that would tell the story of Mary Magdalene and the alternative gospels, before culminating in a present-day thriller. All the while I was thinking, “This sounds a lot like The Da Vinci Code—it’s already been written.” The idea was also ludicrous because I don’t write fiction and I would never collaborate with someone who is the subject of an investigative story; it would violate journalistic ethics. But I let him go on and explain his idea, and he clarified that he would not even be a collaborator, really—just a background researcher. He would provide me with research that I could adapt into a publishable story.
It was an interesting proposal, because it seems to be exactly what he did with Dr. Karen King. He sought out someone in a position to spread his alternative narrative while also allowing him to remain behind the scenes.
R&P: By the end, Walter Fritz has given us reasons to doubt the authenticity of his big discovery. But some very distinguished scholars did find it persuasive initially. Does this story cast doubt on the authenticity of other canonical texts or historical artifacts that have been accepted as real?
AS: I haven’t studied that, and as a journalist I don’t like to speculate. I wouldn’t suggest that forgeries are widespread in our canons or museums, but there is always a risk that they could be infiltrated. I think that scholars are becoming much more skeptical about newfound objects, in part because of the forces that incentivize forgery, but also because there is renewed attention to provenance—to the sort of background considerations that I researched for this book. It’s important to know exactly where an artifact came from, not just because it speaks to authenticity, but also because it is important to know whether an object has been legally imported. The looting of ancient artifacts has become an increasingly serious problem, particularly in Iraq, Syria, and other war-torn places. In some cases, terrorist organizations have used the sale of antiquities to fund violent activities, and scholars do not want to be unwittingly complicit in funding terrorism.