The dark side of truth. Some thoughts on Ariel Sabar new book.


I have had a very hard time reading the new book of Ariel Sabar on the Jesus Wife fragment saga. (I call it fragment on purpose as the definition of Gospel is misleading, in my opinion). Don’t get me wrong. The author has done a great job and has transformed materials from years of extensive and meticulous research into a gripping tale. I definitely recommend you to buy and read the volume. However, this is also a painful reading for the old and new findings and stories it displays. As many of the actors and spectators of the saga have already commented in social media and other conversations, the book is like going through the whole nastiness of the episode over again.

Although the main thread of the book is forgery, for me this is first and foremost a volume about the dangerous relationship between academics and the trade in papyri, and the importance of provenance. I remember a splendid comment posted by Carrie Schroeder when Sabar published his 2016 article entitled Provenance, Provenance, Provenance. I wrote in that same vein in my blog, as the case of the Jesus Wife papyrus had so much in common with the almost contemporary story of the New Sappho fragments that I was following more closely.

The paradox is that in spite of the many discoveries made by Sabar since the time of that first article, the provenance of the Jesus Wife fragment and the rest of Walter Fritz’s collection remains a mystery. The book shows that the letters that Fritz produced to professor King in support of the acquisition tale were forged; Sabar hints at possible sources, when he writes about how easy it was for students to access unsupervised collections while Fritz was a student and the trips of Fritz to Egypt. It should be recalled that the papyri in the hands of the con man are genuine, including those originally blank on which the Jesus Wife ‘gospel’ and the Gospel of John had been copied by the forger.

An interesting twist in the recent life of the papyrus has been just disclosed by Sabar in an interview to The Atlantic. The Jesus Wife fragment has been seized from Harvard and put in the custody of the American Department of Homeland Security. It transpired that an Egyptian official from the Ministry of Antiquities had raised questions that initiated a process for the repatriation of the papyrus. Whether the rest of the collection will eventually follow the same fate is for now unclear. If I were the Egyptian official or one of his colleagues, I would ask for the restitution of the whole lot of Mr Fritz at this point. The con man has eagerly given his assent to the seizure, it appears. Perhaps he had thought that restitution to Egypt might prompt new discussions on the authenticity or the value of the papyrus, which of course will never happen in the light of what coptologists and Sabar have shown. Sabar warns us not to underestimate Fritz’s intellectual potential, but frankly this book has left me convinced that he is just a very dangerous sociopath who got lucky for some years.

I have been intrigued by the way Sabar reconstructs the personal and cultural trajectories of his main characters. He did the same in his last article on the other academic that has filled the newspaper headlines with papyrus stories in these years, Dirk Obbink. We had a brief discussion about his methodology because I found it fascinating, yet not fully convincing. In my work as an ancient historian, I tend not to give a too great importance to people’s biographies. Personal biographies can become interesting to understand why and how something happens only when they intersect with those of other people at some specific point in history. I think that the writing and reading of biographies can be entertaining but also dangerously deceptive, as it is easy to develop strong positive or negative feelings for the main character. But Sabar is an investigative journalist not a historian – I am just trying to say that this book is intellectually engaging and made me think about methods.

The narrative choice to develop the story of the Jesus Wife fragment around two main personalities – the Harvard professor and the con man of the title – makes the structure of the book tight and the tale exciting, but I am not so sure it helped Sabar and his readers to fully appreciate what has happened and why. I don’t think that the motivations of King’s or Fritz’s behaviours and choices regarding the papyrus in question rest on their personal biographies but rather in a complex of events in which they, and the papyrus fragment too, became entangled. In other words, the two protagonists were involved in something much wider and complex, with roots back in the past. I would say that the Jesus Wife case was a perfect storm caused by a cyclone travelling a long distance for a while that finally found the right place and condition to unleash its power. It was a storm that some had seen coming: those academics and students who have been campaigning for some time to introduce far more serious and tight ethical guidelines in the publication of ancient manuscripts. This book and the article that preceded it have made their job easier, and I am extremely grateful to the author for this.

The book is important not so much for the account of the sexual life of the con man and the rebellious childhood of professor King, but rather because it is an enduring witness of the collective failure of an academic system that should have ensured that that fragment – as others before and even after it – would have never been presented at a conference and would have never been published. The fact that it was discussed at the 2012 Rome conference without showing a picture is something I didn’t know before, and reminded me of the Green Initiative students covering the images of the papyri they presented at past SBL and of the pathetic images, blurred and cut, that I found in the catalogues produced by Carroll and later Trobisch for the Green exhibitions in Rome and elsewhere.

What the book demonstrates is that the academy as a whole had not enough antibodies to react to what was happening. It is here that I see some weaknesses in the way the book has been structured; the reader is lead to dissect the lives of the two main characters, and some other key-actors, while instead they should have been brought to look at the wider context and the many issues surrounding the fragment, first and foremost its provenance. We get glimpses into all of this – the university pressure on academics to make headlines, a professor hoping to oppose the restructuring of her School through making those headlines, the young scholars who nailed the decisive arguments to prove the fragment to be a forgery but don’t have jobs and even run away from academia, the influence that opinions coming from some top-professors had on the way the debate unfortunately developed. To some extent the prominent space occupied by the Harvard professor and the con man gives even the opportunity to all the other culprits in the story to get out clean. More importantly it impairs the reader’s ability to appreciate that the Jesus Wife fragment case is deeply rooted in the long history of our disciplines – papyrology, Coptic studies and others – and the far too close relationship academics have had with collectors and the market. We were all in this together, I would say, although with different degrees of responsibility.

A comment of Morag Kersel recently posted in Brent Nongbri’s blog summarizes the brutal simplicity of what went wrong:

‘In 2012 I participated in Society of Biblical Literature panel on publishing unprovenienced artifacts. I examined whether Dr. King would be able to present her findings on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” at the annual meetings or publish her findings in the scholarly journals of the American Anthropological Association or the Society for American Archaeology. The answers were resounding no.’

Scholars in biblical studies, and the other textual oriented disciplines involved, were not culturally prepared to appreciate the unethical choice made by King and others to research and publish an ancient artefact fresh from the market without performing a careful due diligence on its provenance. As argued in a brilliant recent article of Jodi Magness and Dennis Mitzi, you shouldn’t even start discussing if a papyrus is authentic or not, without having clarified beforehand if its collection history is sufficiently documented and legal.

In other words, Karen King should not have been given the possibility to present and publish this papyrus not because it was a patent forgery but because she did not check if the provenance story provided by the owner was solid or even true. She was indeed warned about the oddities of the provenance tales by at least one of the Harvard Theological Review readers, professor Emmel. In the report that Sabar showed me, the coptologist pointed out that the provenance of the papyrus was highly suspicious and inconsistent, and that increased his already serious doubts about the authenticity of the fragment – not a word about ethical issues were in the report, however. King and the editors of the journal seem to have ignored those wise words. In the light of what has happened, I would recommend  journals and also publishers in our fields to learn the lesson and amend their publication ethics policies accordingly, as Brill has recently done adding a section on unprovenanced artifacts, after the nasty experiences they had with the New Sappho fragments and the Museum of the Bible series.

I have suffered reading the book because it sadly reminded me of my old self, of how naïve I have been when the Jesus Wife and the New Sappho fragments first came to light. At that time, I had a blind trust in senior colleagues and the universities they belonged to. I was sincerely convinced that both texts had some shady aspects in their collection histories but I was far from suspecting the amount of problems that were going to come to light. Having seen what I have seen happening in this last 6-8 years, I have become very cynical about the profession. While everyone is indeed responsible of their own actions, I think that as lecturers/professors we should internalise the failure of a certain way of teaching and practising textual disciplines. We did not insist enough on teaching and researching manuscripts as archaeological objects and the ethical issues behind their circulation not only on the market but also on our desks.

Are there any positive outcomes from the Jesus Wife affair, apart from the entertaining brilliant book written by Sabar? Certainly there is more awareness on the issues at stake as a result of this and other scandals. At the moment, however, I feel just low, confused and also a bit ashamed. We can all be definitely better than this.