The surreal story of a King, a con, and a false gospel about Jesus’ “wife”

Ariel Sabar’s riveting story opens up unexpected vistas on pornography, academic religious studies, and cultural anti-Christianity, showing what happens when veritas is demoted in favor of personal fictions.

Detail from the cover of the August 2020 book "Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife", written by Ariel Sabar. (Image: Anchor/Knopf Doubleday)

Every now and then, major media outlets run breathless headlines about the discovery of Jesus’s remains or some other archeological find that supposedly disproves Christianity. As any faithful Christian could predict, such “discoveries” have never done what the headlines claim, or else they are outright fakes.

About a decade ago, a papyrus made the news, but this time it seemed credible, mostly because its authenticity was backed by a Harvard professor. Ariel Sabar, a reporter with Smithsonian, covered the story with privileged access to the professor, Karen King. The story, however, didn’t end there. Four years later, he wrote a long article for The Atlantic exposing the papyrus as a forgery, and in 2020 he published Veritas—“truth,” from Harvard’s motto—A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The book is a comprehensive treatment of a story with more angles than an M.C. Escher drawing.

Sabar presents the story in order of discovery rather than in chronological order. This approach enables the reader to experience each shocking revelation as it unfolds. The reader is also, however, challenged to hold all the pieces together, and a timeline would have been very helpful. But it would also lessen the element of surprise. Just when the reader thinks he has figured everything out, a new facet is revealed: and then there’s this! The result is non-fiction that reads like a mystery.

Let’s start with the story of the papyrus and how it was debunked. Surprisingly, this takes only about half of the book.

Dr. King, at the time holding the prestigious Hollis Professorship of Divinity at Harvard Divinity School, gave an exclusive in 2012 to the Smithsonian television channel and magazine concerning a papyrus fragment recently come into her possession. King had made her name arguing for feminist interpretations of Gnostic writings as an alternative history of Christianity. Gnosticism comprised different Christian-adjacent sects and practices with their own “Gospels,” written two to six hundred years after the birth of Christ. The sects were marked by a mistrust of the body, which was considered evil, and propounded a spiritual enlightenment found through secret knowledge accessible only to an elite group. Further—and a problem for King’s feminist readings—the Gnostics frequently denigrated women; for example, the second-century Gospel of the Egyptians has Jesus say, “I have come to abolish the works of women.”

King, however, specialized in the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, which foregrounds Mary’s announcement of the Resurrection to the disciples. King saw this tradition as going against the Gnostic grain of anti-female, anti-embodiment biases while supporting her own feminist ideals. In opposition to most scholars, King argued that this Gospel was an early second-century composition available to us only through later copies. Based on the conjectured early dating, she further argued that the text was proof of an active debate among the earliest Christians about female discipleship and ministry, a debate that was shut down by the winning (Catholic) side.

King did something similar for the papyrus fragment, given to her by an anonymous collector who first approached her in 2010. While King claimed she wanted to avoid publicity, she gave the fragment the sensationalist title of “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” And, although the fragment was in Coptic, an Egyptian version of Greek that appeared as a written language only in the third century AD, King argued it was a later copy of an undiscovered second-century Gospel. The business-card sized fragment had just seven lines, none of them complete, but the key line was: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife—‘” It was, she said, evidence of a silenced tradition of Jesus’s marriage. “This means that the whole Catholic claim of a celibate priesthood based on Jesus’s celibacy has no historical foundation. They always say, ‘This is the tradition; this is the tradition.’ Now we see that this alternative tradition has been silenced.”

Or else that the alternative tradition never existed. In the months after King’s announcement of the papyrus, scholars and interested amateurs alike contributed to its discrediting. The handwriting, grammar, and physical appearance of the papyrus were all wrong. The fragment’s supposed provenance—its history of ownership—turned out to be false. The same collector also had a purported Coptic copy of the Gospel of John; it also turned out to be a fake. King commissioned lab tests to date the fragment, in order to placate a theological journal; the tests were run by friends and family without competence in dating papyruses (and the tests were funded by a wealthy pro-abortion activist who disliked the Catholic Church). The conclusion was inescapable: The fragment was a forgery, and the likely forger, Sabar figured out, was none other than the supposed collector, Walter Fritz, a German with Egyptology training who was living in Florida. While King was the mark, not the conman, she substituted her ample scholarly talents for publicity-mongering.

But that’s not all.

There’s also “The Jesus Seminar” and Karen King’s less-than-stellar academic credentials when she was hired by Harvard.

In 1995, after King had spent a fellowship year at the Harvard Divinity School, the institution posted a position in New Testament and Gnosticism that “looked custom-tailored for her,” and maybe it was. Nevertheless, she did not get the position, but neither did anyone else. Harvard reposted the position a year later, and she reapplied. What happened in the interim was that King published her first book, a revision of her PhD dissertation written twelve years before. That publication appeared to do the trick; she was offered the job.

As one of her friends, a fellow scholar of Gnosticism, admitted, “A lot of people went, ‘I got four books, and she’s got only one.’” For Harvard to choose someone who had only written one peer-reviewed journal article, plus her dissertation, was surprising, at the very least. The surprises don’t stop there. Both her journal article and her book, plus her second book, were “in some sense self-published,” Sabar concludes. The publisher for both books as well as for the academic journal, Polebridge Press, was the publishing arm of the Westar Institute. Westar is a non-profit founded by King’s former professor Robert W. Funk and fellow participants in the “Jesus Seminar.” And King worked closely with Funk. More damning, she was one of the start-up investors and a long-serving board member of Polebridge.

So, the press she funded was the one that published her only peer-reviewed publications before her Harvard job. As Funk put it to the ten or so original funders of Polebridge, King included: “We’ll own it so nobody can fire us.” Indeed.

The Jesus Seminar, which began in the mid-1980s, presented itself as “high scholarship,” to use Funk’s term—a dispassionate bunch of scholars who would reexamine Christian platitudes about Jesus through the lens of historical erudition. The seminar was famous for its voting system, in which each Gospel passage of Jesus’s speech was subject to a vote via colored beads. Eighty-two percent of Jesus’s words in the Gospels were voted out; “the only part of the Lord’s Prayer to survive the knife were the words ‘Our Father.’”

Notwithstanding the Seminar’s public face of neutral scholarship—or, as King put it, “getting it [history] right”—behind closed doors the group was unabashedly partisan and anti-traditional Christianity. Even more unsettling, the members were ideologically opposed to the very idea of “getting history right.” “The Bible, along with all our histories, is a fiction,” Funk told the Jesus Seminar. “What we need is a new fiction.” The Jesus Seminar members, therefore, publicly claimed a historical accuracy that they did not, privately, believe was possible to attain.

Why work so hard to promote a history that you secretly believe is a “fiction”? Because, according to the seminar’s post-modern scholars, fiction was all that exists; there are no “facts.” So the fiction had better be a good one. Funk was clear on this: “Not any fiction will do. … We require a new, liberating fiction, one that squares with the best knowledge we can now accumulate and one that transcends self-serving ideologies.” This fiction would not be “the fiction of revelation [that] keeps many common folk in bondage to ignorance and fear.” His ideologies, of course, couldn’t possibly be self-serving.

Despite this repudiation of egoism, the Jesus Seminar and all of Westar’s outreaches tended toward mass media, popularization, and publicity. And, here, the mystery of King’s twelve-year vacation from peer-reviewed scholarship prior to her Harvard professorship is explained. King was busy, but not doing scholarship; she was busy appearing before paid audiences to talk about “getting history right,” which for her meant questioning the historical validity of Christian dogma. The reader gets the impression that King’s hastily published dissertation gave her just enough scholarly veneer for Harvard to justify hiring someone who was a popularizing star.

But that’s not all. Then there’s Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code.

If you are familiar with the plot of Dan Brown’s 2003 novel The Da Vinci Code, then you have probably already noticed that King’s convictions mimic the book’s quite well. (Readers of Catholic World Report already know that its editor, Carl E. Olson, co-authored a thorough expose of Brown’s novel called The Da Vinci Hoax.) The Da Vinci Code purported to present “FACTS” about early Christianity. The central claim was that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and entrusted to her the future of the Church. Historically, this feminist truth was covered up by the ecclesial patriarchy; enter the novel’s intrepid protagonist, the “symbologist” (whatever that is) and, ahem, Harvard professor Robert Langdon uncovers the truth in typical thriller style. Big reveal: The villains hide out in Opus Dei.

Most other scholars could not stomach Brown’s slapdash treatment of historical data and frankly said as much. King’s fact-agnosticism, combined with her passionate embrace of an “alternate Christianity” centered around a sexualized Mary Magdalene, made her much more sympathetic. If King was a popularizing star in the 1980s and 1990s, by 2003, when The Da Vinci Code was published, she was a Harvard professor, which gave her immense credibility. King became a fixture in interviews on the book with major news channels, papers, and magazines, demonstrating that she was willing to throw her professional weight behind a false history if it conformed to her biases. A decade before the “collector” Fritz reached out to her, King was broadcasting that she was an easy mark for a con.

But that’s not all. Then there’s the precarious state of Harvard’s Divinity School.

For those who are surprised to see the words “precarious” and “Harvard” in the same sentence, Sabar’s dissecting of university politics is revelatory. It’s illuminating to understand the history of why Harvard has a divinity school in the first place.

Harvard is happy to trumpet the fact that it is the oldest institution of higher education in the US, dating back to 1636. What it usually neglects to add is that Harvard was founded to be a divinity school—that is, a school for the training of ministers. But, by the nineteenth century, the research-model of a university began to change the landscape of higher education, and religion was no longer taken seriously. When the divinity school was founded in 1816, its founding served as a symbolic as well as real rupture with Harvard’s history. Now Harvard was a firmly secular university, with its divinity school tucked away out of sight and generally out of mind.

What happened on “the Yard”—Harvard Yard, that is, with its dorms and libraries and classrooms—is where real scholarship happened; off in its corner, the divinity school was considered a professional school at best, a wooly-headed academic fraud at worst. The influential, atheist Harvard professor Steven Pinker put it straight-forwardly: “If I were designing a university from scratch, I wouldn’t give it a divinity school. A school of divinity presupposes there is such a thing as a divinity, and I’m not sure universities should be taking a stance.”

Further, Harvard’s divinity school struggled to keep star faculty and uphold a Harvard-level reputation. On October 13, 2011, Harvard president Drew Faust informed the school’s faculty that she was convening a panel to consider radical changes. The panel’s final report recommended just that: the institution of a religious-studies department on the Yard and the reduction of the Divinity School’s status to the practical training of ministers.

Yet, despite Faust’s insistence that the panel’s recommendations would be taken seriously, in January 2012 the members began receiving messages to temper their recommendations. When their report was released in June, it was accompanied by a cover letter from Faust that quashed any hope she would follow its advice and demote the school. What could explain the pivot?

One of Sabar’s best insights is his realization of the timeline. 10/13/2011: Faust announces her panel. 10/15/2011: After putting off Fritz for about a year, King tells him she is interested in his papyrus. In other words, the timing suggests that King wanted to use a fabulous archeological discovery as leverage to stave off an existential threat to her professorship and the divinity school as a whole. Faust’s reversal to the status quo, Sabar hints, could have been obtained in exchange for the promise of positive publicity to the school (which it got, at least for a few months, before everything blew up). But we don’t know for sure; Faust refused to speak with Sabar.

But that’s not all. Then—most clarifying of all—there’s the pornography.

As a reader, I gasped out loud at this totally unexpected twist in the story. Sabar thought to run Walter Fritz’s info through a website-ownership finder, and the results were, Sabar said, like “tumbling through a trap door.” Fritz and his wife owned multiple pornography sites. They were, in fact, pornographers, specializing in group sex and a weird mystic mashup of porn and—yes—Gnosticism.

Here The Da Vinci Code once more haunts this story. The novel’s suppressed proto-Christians participate in a group ritual centered on watching a couple have sex (a pre-technology form of porn). Sabar speculates that the Fritzes attempted to create, first in pornography and then in forgery, their own version of Dan Brown’s novel. “To turn art into life, all the Fritzes needed was material proof of Jesus’s marriage [the papyrus] and a real-life Robert Langdon,” Sabar writes. “Perhaps the Fritzes found their Langdon in Karen King.”

“Being a pornographer,” Sabar observes, “hardly makes one a forger.” Yet, upon further reflection, the commonalities between forgery and pornography are significant. Both displace reality in favor of its simulacrum. Both are as indifferent toward truth—veritas—as King and her fellow Jesus Seminar participants. For both there are only fictions, so you better make the best and most “liberatory” story you can. Porn pretends some fictions about sex are true: that sex never results in conceiving babies; that pain is pleasure; and that sex is most satisfying when disentangled from love and commitment. Porn is a kind of forgery, not simulating ancient texts but rather human bodies—an artificial and technological replicant. These fictions do not liberate; they stunt lives and relationships.

That’s why the last revelation in the book is shocking but not incomprehensible: Fritz’s claims to be a survivor of priestly sexual abuse.

In tracking down this story, Sabar makes it clear that there is no way to confirm or deny the forger’s testimony. Fritz is a singularly unreliable narrator, and a conman could conceivably fabricate such a history as a ploy for sympathy. Further, the alleged events happened in a small town in Germany, and the key figures are long dead. Yet some pieces of the story are credible. If true, it would certainly give reasons for Fritz’s animosity toward traditional Christianity, not to mention his troubled sex life.

This last revelation puts a capstone on the book, whose riveting story opens up unexpected vistas on pornography, academic religious studies, cultural anti-Christianity, and more. The book shows what happens when veritas is demoted in favor of personal fictions. The book is not without its flaws, such as a rather tendentious but mercifully brief reading of Augustine. But such quibbles are minor compared to the breadth and depth of reporting that Sabar accomplishes and the high quality of his prose. Reading it will certainly help the equanimity of believers the next time headlines proclaim that an archeological find has debunked Christianity.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife
By Ariel Sabar
Anchor/Knopf Doubleday, 2020
Paperback, 432 pages

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About Angela Franks, Ph.D. 3 Articles
Angela Franks, Ph.D., is professor of theology at St. John's Seminary in Boston. She has written books on sexual ethics, as well as scholarly and popular articles. Her writings are found at


  1. Very interesting article. In many ways highlights how intellectual anti traditional Christian B.S. makes its way into the culture, becoming readily accepting by media, and fodder for those pushing non traditional Anti Christian Tradition thought. Satan is clever and this highlights some of his methods. Another example why the St Michael Prayer is needed and important for all to pray.

    • It seems that intellectual conceit, the root of Gnosticism, echoes the Father of Lies “ye shall be as gods”.
      Why would a fantasy book “The DaVinci Code” or a fake scrap of papyrus gain any foothold in our country?
      Wouldn’t people better serve themselves by studying in depth the most examined artifact in the history of mankind – the Shroud of Turin?
      The Beloved One of God never wrote a book; rather he founded a Church and His Passion, Desth and Resurrection left behind a miraculous artifact which no one can duplicate.

  2. Please check the editing for the line “While King was the mark, not the conman, she substituted duebetrayed her ample scholarly diligencetalents for publicity-mongering.”

    I have no idea what the author is trying to say here.

    • That was entire my fault as editor. It has been corrected to: “While King was the mark, not the conman, she substituted her ample scholarly talents for publicity-mongering.” Thank you.

  3. An image of the papyrus fragment appears in this New York Times story by Laurie Goodstein, published on April 10, 2014:

    Papyrus Referring to Jesus’ Wife Is More Likely Ancient Than Fake, Scientists Say

    Excerpt (links omitted):

    The new information may not convince those scholars and bloggers who say the text is the work of a rather sloppy forger keen to influence contemporary debates. The Harvard Theological Review, which is publishing Dr. King’s long-delayed, peer-reviewed paper online on Thursday, is also publishing a rebuttal by Leo Depuydt, a professor of Egyptology at Brown University, who declares the fragment so patently fake that it “seems ripe for a Monty Python sketch.”

  4. While not so bold, the industry of deception and the promotion of new notions is the bread and butter of a portion far too large of the “theological” academy. Publish, publish, publish…who wants to publish “the same old thing?” That which liberates anyone of the admonition to take up one’s cross is the preferred fare in the Ivy League and among the wannabees.

  5. King and her associates are victims of relativism. Anything goes for the cause. No truth? What a way to live. We pray for her and her colleages, including Harvard.

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