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Saturday, August 15, 2020

How a mystery note proving Jesus was 'wed' led to Harvard prof's disgrace

How a mystery note proving Jesus was 'wed' led to Harvard prof's disgrace

It didn't look like much, but the allegedly ancient scrap of papyrus — the size of a business card — promised to upend Christianity. Translated from the old-Egyptian language of Coptic to English, its eight lines of text offered history's ultimate cliffhanger:

"Jesus said to them, 'My wife …'

"The Roman Catholic church requires celibacy for priests primarily because Jesus was celibate, and the rationale is that his intermediaries should be as well," Ariel Sabar told The Post. If legitimate, "this papyrus creates an alternative tradition to the one that under-girded the church for hundreds of years. The idea that sex is sinful could be stood on its head."

Sabar's new book, "Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife" (Doubleday), unravels the mystery of what has been called the "nonfiction Da Vinci Code."

The tale includes forgery allegations, "hot wife" pornography, the high-wire risk of a glorious academic career and even a cameo from Homeland Security.

It began with a July 2010 e-mail to Dr. Karen King, Harvard University's Hollis professor of divinity, which is the oldest endowed professorship in America. The message came from a stranger by the name of Walter Fritz.

Requesting anonymity, the Florida resident introduced himself as "a manuscript collector with 15 Coptic papyrus manuscripts." He soon followed up with a computer zip file of photographs, including a picture of one find that he particularly hoped King could translate.

Fritz claimed to have no idea what the papyrus translated to. He presented a sales agreement from a man named Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, who had picked it up in East Germany in 1963. Additionally, there was a scan of an unsigned note stating that a university professor in Berlin believed the papyrus could "be evidence for [Jesus'] possible marriage."

It wasn't unusual for King to receive such entreaties, and she initially blew it off.
But something about it stuck with her: Some 15 months after the original e-mail, she reconnected with Fritz.

That's when he provided his own translation for the treasure, which was printed in carbon-based ink on papyrus, a plant-based writing surface that predates paper by some 4,000 years.

King then translated the sliver, which was incomplete because it was seemingly torn from a larger document, herself:

not to me. My mother gave me life
The disciples said to Jesus,
deny. Mary is (not?) worthy of it
not to me. My mother gave me life
Jesus said to them … "My wife . . .
. . . she is able to be my disciple
Let wicked people swell up
As for me, I dwell with her in order to
an image

As stated in Sabar's book, it was the fourth line, with the reference to Jesus' wife — seemingly Mary Magdalene — that "riveted King . . . The phrase was so extraordinary that King didn't quite believe it. But the surrounding words seemed to leave little doubt."

Through a friend, she asked Roger Bagnall, NYU professor emeritus of ancient history, to examine a photo of the papyrus in October 2011. Per the book, he "had a good first impression."

In March 2012, King and the friend visited Bagnall and showed him the real thing, which had been delivered to her by Fritz.

Although there was little that King could provide for provenance, Bagnall thought it looked good enough to not be a forgery.

"I suspended judgment and refused to jump to the conclusion that it was fake until I had more evidence," he told The Post.

While Bagnall's findings were inconclusive, King's hopes were lifted — after all, such a discovery could make someone a star, and Fritz still wanted anonymity. Leaving NYU, King told her friend: "We're not taking the subway. The fragment gets a cab."

"The idea that sex is sinful [for priests] could be stood on its head."

 - Author Ariel Sabar

Then King received a chance phone call from a producer seeking leads for the Smithsonian Channel docuseries "Treasures Decoded." King mentioned the papyrus. Excited, the producer slotted it in for an episode. King was filmed in July and didn't hold back: On camera, she referred to the papyrus as "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife."

Soon after, King was thrust into the national spotlight.

The show was set to air on Oct. 12, 2012, and the Harvard Theological Review had scheduled an article by King about the papyrus. But first, she was due to present the treasure that September at the 10th annual International Congress of Coptic Studies, to be held across the street from the Vatican.

King knew what the consequences could be — telling The Boston Globe, "If it's a forgery, it's a career breaker" — but was willing to risk it all.

The reveal was met with an immediate backlash that included, Sabar writes, a "public rebuke" from experts, "alarmed e-mails" from scholars and ribbing by talk-show hosts. (Jon Stewart yukked, "[Jesus] can raise the dead, but heaven help him when he forgets to put down the toilet seat.")

There were "respectable people not believing that the handwriting was genuine," Bagnall said. "The Vatican commented in a not positive way" on the papyrus, describing it as "an inept forgery."

With her reputation on the line, King did not waver in her belief. "She never ruled out the possibility of forgery," said Sabar. "But she believed it was authentic."
Walter Fritz, a sometime pornographer, brought the papyrus to professor King.
Khari Dawkins

Meanwhile, editors at the Harvard Theological Review had sent photos of the papyrus to scholars for peer review, and two raised concerns of fakery.

But after securing scientific evidence that included carbon testing, the Review went ahead and published King's paper. She continued to enjoy her time in the limelight, giving several media interviews. A headline in the Belfast Telegraph said it all: "'Jesus Wife' Text No Fake."

The debate of authenticity might have remained inconclusive had Sabar, a journalist who encountered King while on assignment for Smithsonian magazine, not become curious about the still-unnamed mystery man behind the alleged artifact. Piecing together scant information and public records, he tracked down Fritz, a German immigrant, in North Port, Fla.

Describing Fritz, 55, as "smart and slippery . . . well-read and a very astute reader of human psychology," Sabar told The Post that the collector's career path has included jobs as an auto-parts exec, a janitor, a museum director and a Web designer.

He was also a semi-professional pornographer, making "hot wife" movies starring his spouse, Jen. She performed as the sexually insatiable "Jenny Seemore" — taking on multiple partners with the approval of Fritz.

Sabar also discovered what could be an ax to grind against the Catholic Church: Fritz claimed that, as a child, he had been sexually abused by a priest.

As for the papyrus, Sabar writes that by 2015, multiple scholars had examined it and cited grammar errors, evidence of copying from another gospel and a handwriting style not known to Coptic specialists. At this point, it was widely believed to be a fake.

After closer scrutiny, Bagnall told The Post, the ink seemed too new: "It was made according to ancient methods. But [carbon] ink seems to age, which we didn't previously know. You can't very well artificially age ink." Other experts, however, initially judged the ink to be suitably aged.

Sabar claims to have found "falsehoods in the provenance document allegedly given to King; I interviewed colleagues and family members of [Hans-Ulrich Laukamp] who supposedly sold the papyrus to Fritz; I was told that he . . . never collected papyri." ­(Laukamp passed away in 2002.)

According to Sabar, Fritz dropped out of an Egyptology program but used "a fake Egyptology ­diploma . . . when applying for jobs. Taken together, I believe there is a strong circumstantial case that Fritz is the forger [of the papyrus text] or knows who is." Fritz denied all of these accusations.

In 2016, King admitted to Sabar that evidence "tips the balance towards forgery."

With Fritz staying in the shadows, it was King who became the fall guy. Risking her reputation on what could have been the biggest religious discovery of the modern age seems to have left her adrift. Now 66, she is, according to Sabar, on a ­retirement track at Harvard.

"In speaking to scholars, my sense is that her reputation has taken a hit," said Sabar.

Fritz isn't surprised: "You can't go out and piss in everybody's jacket and not expect a backlash. Of course there would be," he told The Post

.Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the            Gospel of Jesus's Wife by [Ariel Sabar]

Erin L. Thompson, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said Fritz likely could not be sued or prosecuted, given that no money was lost on the papyrus. Fritz ­denies any wrongdoing and claims to have contacted King to get information on what he believed were legitimate papyri. But, according to Sabar, Fritz also told him that he "probably could have forged something as perfect as this." (Fritz denied saying this.)

Sabar speculates that, if Fritz did forge the papyrus, his motivations "could have been to get back at the Catholic Church, to show up the field of Egyptology, to make money and to add more spark to his life."

Fritz disagreed with that assessment. But in any case, the scrap of paper has a new home — with the US government.

"It is with Homeland Security," Fritz told The Post. "The government of Egypt has contacted the State Department . . . The piece comes from Egypt and they are asking for it back. It cannot be a forgery or else they would not be asking for it."

A spokesperson from ICE/DHS confirmed that Homeland Security Investigations "received an initial request" from Egypt for the return of the papyrus and that "it is in the custody of HSI/DHS."

Sabar disagrees with Fritz's logic as to this being proof of the piece's authenticity. "An Egyptian official from the country's Ministry of Antiquities has never seen the papyrus and told me he had no idea whether it was real or fake" he said.

As for Fritz, he seems to be getting a kick out of the storm he has caused.

"In the end, the papyrus is public and people have to deal with it . . . For me, it's kind of comical."

--   Sent from my Linux system.

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