It took trips to Germany and Florida, an interpreter, dozens of phone calls, lessons on spotting forgery and a very persistent journalist, but the mystery of the so-called "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" may finally be solved.
"For four years, Karen L. King, a Harvard historian of Christianity, has defended the (document) against scholars who argued it was a forgery. But Thursday, for the first time, King said the papyrus — which she introduced to the world in 2012 — is a probable fake," The Atlantic reported on June 16.
King's admission came less than a day after the magazine released an investigative report on the origin of the papyrus fragment, in which journalist Ariel Sabar learned who had given King the "Gospel of Jesus' Wife" and then exposed him as a fraud.
"By every indication, (Walter) Fritz had the skills and knowledge to forge the Jesus'-wife papyrus. He was the missing link between all the players in the provenance story. He'd proved adept at deciphering enigmatic Egyptian text. He had a salesman's silver tongue," Sabar wrote. "Perhaps most important, he'd studied Coptic but had never been very good at it."
Sabar stumbled upon Fritz by following up on information related to the papyrus fragment's provenance, or record of ownership. The anonymous owner claimed to have purchased "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp.
Laukamp was a German, but he briefly lived in Venice, Florida, in the 1990s. Sabar determined that Fritz, who is also a German immigrant, was Laukamp's business partner in the sunshine state.
By interviewing Laukamp's living family members and other business associates, Sabar learned that Fritz had a history of taking advantage of people. He once talked his way into a job as a museum curator, but then resigned when board members expressed concern about missing valuables.
"But if Fritz did do it, what was his motive?" Sabar asked, wondering if he wanted money or fame and saw a Harvard scholar concerned with women in the early church as an easy target.
King first shared "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" with the public at a 2012 conference in Rome. The "tiny fragment of ancient Egyptian papyrus included one sensational half-sentence: 'Jesus said to them, 'My wife,'" The Boston Globe reported last year.
The announcement was followed by front-page reports in the Globe and The New York Times, sparking a flurry of predictions about how the discovery would affect modern Christianity.
Some scholars were skeptical from the beginning, noting strange grammatical errors and highlighting excerpts that appeared in other ancient documents.
"When you show something like that to people who spend their lives staring at these things, a lot of them could straightaway tell there was something fishy about it," said Mark Goodacre, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, to the Associated Press.
However, since its introduction to the scholarly community, the papyrus fragment has passed a variety of lab analyses.
It "appeared to be of ancient origin, and the ink had no obviously modern ingredients," Sabar reported.
The academic community was stuck: Many scholars continued to reject "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife" but King defended it.
In his article for The Atlantic, Sabar explains how Fritz could have faked the fragment, why he might have done so and how King could have been fooled.
"I asked Fritz whether there was anyone alive who could vouch for any part of the provenance story," Sabar wrote. "Did he have a single corroborating source to whom he could refer me?"
"I don't," Fritz told him. "It's very unfortunate."
Fritz denied "forging, altering or manipulating the papyrus or its inscription" in an email to the AP.
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