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Too good to be true?

Updated: Aug 10, 2020

In 'Veritas,' veteran journalist Ariel Sabar examines a sweet religious historical find that turned sour

Bill Greene/Globe Staff/File

August 9, 2020

See if this rings a bell: In September 2012, a professor at Harvard Divinity School announced a potentially earth-shaking discovery. A hitherto unknown papyrus fragment suggested that Jesus might have been married.

A flurry ensued, but then what? Veteran journalist Ariel Sabar is here to explain.

Sabar is a widely published journalist and the author of two previous books. His first, “My Father’s Paradise: A Son’s Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq” (2008), won the National Book Critics Circle Award. His latest book, “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” presents a cast of obsessed academics, freelance scholars, art-world hustlers, pornographers, and all-purpose eccentrics. Did I leave out auto-parts manufacturers?

Sabar didn’t, nor did he omit much else in this scrupulous inquiry that reads, much of the time, like a thriller for eggheads. Expanding on a 2016 article he wrote for the Atlantic, Sabar raises crippling doubts about the original discovery, and the choices of those who promoted it. Along the way, readers will find lucid accounts of early Church history, the state of antiquities trading, the art of forgery, the psychology of scammers, and more.

At the heart of the story is Karen King, a scholar specializing in early Christianity, whose meteoric rise coincided with a wave of interest in non- canonical texts. Often lumped together as the Gnostic gospels, these writings shed new light on the shaping of the Bible. Seeming to support a less hierarchical, more inner-directed faith, they were excluded by early Church fathers as heretical, a deficiency King hoped to set right. She was particularly interested in the question of women’s spiritual authority.

The 2003 publication of “The DaVinci Code” gave her an opening. A phenomenal bestseller, the novel scavenged freely from ancient texts. King became a go-to expert on its central idea: suppressed evidence (discovered by a Harvard professor) that Jesus was married.

In Sabar’s portrayal, King emerges as the solemn, independent-minded child of a small town in Montana. A college course in Gnosticism helped propel her to graduate school at Brown, and her first job at Occidental College. There, she thrillingly challenged students’ assumptions about Christianity and won honors for her teaching. A 1994 fellowship paved her unlikely way to a top post at Harvard.

The email that would vault her onto the world stage arrived in 2010. The anonymous writer claimed to own several papyrus fragments in Coptic, the language of Egypt’s earliest Christians. One seemingly referred to an argument between Jesus and a disciple concerning Mary. Might King be interested?

What troubles Sabar is that King initially said no. Four months later, however, she had apparently become convinced that the Mary fragment referred to a wife, probably Mary Magdalene, and was real.

The owner pledged to donate the fragment if King could facilitate a sale of the rest. Ultimately no money changed hands, but the university did take possession of what King now treated as a revolutionary find. Having first ginned up the publicity machine, which included eager filmmakers at the Smithsonian Channel, she hastily announced the discovery at a conference in Rome.

After that, dubious decisions snowballed. Despite ongoing pushback from doubters, King’s article on the fragment hurtled through a sloppily handled peer review process and into the Harvard Theological Review. In 2014, less than two years after the original announcement, Harvard publicized laboratory tests supposedly affirming the fragment’s age. Yet, as Sabar shows, the tests received embarrassingly little scrutiny.

While King was taking her show on the road, Sabar was on the trail of the fragment’s still anonymous owner. The chapters on Walter Fritz, a German who arrived in Florida in 1994, are among the most astonishing in the book.

Ultimately admitting possession, Fritz had concocted a preposterous chain of ownership, essentially destroying the fragment’s claim to authenticity. All of this Sabar duly reported in the Atlantic. Yet to his amazement, when confronted, King seemed indifferent to the question of provenance.

In his article, Sabar was careful to note that she had never ruled out the possibility of forgery. Speaking with a Globe reporter that summer, King conceded that the fragment probably was phony. Yet she saw nothing in need of retraction.

As Sabar would discover, the fragment had other problems scholars had overlooked. He eventually turned his focus to Harvard. Around the time of the original announcement, the Divinity School was in the throes of an identity crisis. Since its founding, the school’s mission had been to prepare students for the ministry. Centuries later, its relationship with fact-based inquiry remained fairly casual. Star faculty were fleeing for more rigorous programs.

In 2011, Drew Gilpin Faust, then Harvard’s president, convened an outside panel to advise on the Divinity School’s future. She seemed poised to accept its recommendation that the school be separated from a new department of religious studies. In 2012, however, she backed away. Sabar’s attempts to find out why were rebuffed. What he did learn was that Faust officially rejected the panel’s advice on the very day news trucks stood outside the Divinity School, waiting to cover King’s discovery.

Beneath the surface of this meticulously reported book lies the slow burn, recognizable to any journalist, of a scorned professional. How could a properly trained academic have so little regard for evidence? How could so many colleagues reach beyond their expertise, and established scholarly standards, to join her on a raft of wishful thinking?

In an era when journalists taught to revere the truth are routinely dismissed as peddlers of falsehood, it can be hard not to take such lapses personally.

King still teaches at Harvard. Walter Fritz evidently does as he wishes. If “Veritas” presents a world weirdly free of consequences, it also abounds in uncomfortable truths.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, By Ariel Sabar

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