News Revelations

Harvard scholar admits ‘Gospel of Jesus’ Wife’ is likely a forgery

Fragment of papyrus
The fragment of papyrus that offered fresh evidence that some early Christians believed Jesus was married. Photo courtesy Karen L. King

(RNS) If “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” sounds a bit like something out of a Dan Brown novel or an episode of “The X-Files,” that’s because, the Harvard scholar who introduced it to the world now admits, it likely is a fake.


RELATED: Did Jesus have a wife? New historical discovery raises old question


That admission by Karen L. King, a professor at the Harvard Divinity School, comes after an investigation into the history of a papyrus fragment known as “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” published last week by The Atlantic.

“It appears now that all the material [owner Walter] Fritz gave to me concerning the provenance of the papyrus … were fabrications,” King told the Boston Globe.

Harvard Divinity School posted a statement Monday (June 20) on its website from dean David N. Hempton, saying the school is “grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians, and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment.

Video courtesy of The Atlantic

“HDS welcomes these contributions and will continue to treat the questions raised by them with all the seriousness they deserve,” Hempton said.

The scrap of papyrus reads in Coptic, an Egyptian language: “Jesus said to them, ‘My wife… .'” In total, it contains just 33 words across 14 lines.

Karen L. King

Karen L. King, the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University holds a previously unknown ancient papyrus fragment from Egypt that has four words written in Coptic that provide the first unequivocal evidence that within 150 years of his death, some followers of Jesus, believed him to have been married. RNS photo by Rose Lincoln/Harvard Staff Photographer

King had presented her research into the papyrus in 2012 at a Coptic Studies conference held near the Vatican, touching off new debate about whether Jesus had been married, the role of women in the early church — and the authenticity of the papyrus fragment.

Expert papyrologists and scientific tests had concluded it was likely authentic, she said, though critics pointed out errors in Coptic grammar and similarities with the extrabiblical Gospel of Thomas. The Vatican called it a “clumsy fake.”

The fragment had been brought to her by an anonymous collector, she said. In her paper at the time, she said, “nothing is known about the circumstances of its original discovery or early ownership.”

But The Atlantic traced its ownership to a Florida man named William Fritz, who had spent years at Free University’s Egyptology institute in Berlin and studied Coptic.

Fritz told The Atlantic he did not forge the papyrus.

But his background, which includes making porn, among journalist Ariel Sabar’s other findings, “tips the balance towards forgery,” King told The Atlantic. But, she said, she would need either scientific proof or a confession to definitively declare it a forgery.

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About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

35 Comments

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  • Forgive me if my exasperation gives way to sarcasm but it’s been a long time since Harvard Divinity has been associated with much more than fakes and bad jokes. Isn’t this the school the History Channel goes to find professors for shows like Ancient Bible Aliens or Bible Time Travelers? Seriously, when was the last scholarly work out of Harvard Divinity to have any impact on the Church? Seems their faculty are always associated with some silliness or manufactured controversy.

  • Harvard does some very good work and is credible. However, there are a very few profs in HDS who are not as rigorous. You can see that Dr. King did her due diligence to determine the fragments authenticity, or lack. That’s exactly how scientific inquiry works.

  • Now if they would just admit Jesus was merely a myth, our world would be a better place. www (dot) jesusneverexisted (dot) com

  • Hope they close down every theology program and seminary, and just move everyone into the Mythology Dept where they belong.

  • what is a Religion New Forum? and what makes you qualified to make definitive statements about my character?

  • We still can’t say for sure. The Chinese would still have made gunpowder, the Nazi Party could still have existed, there would still be other religions like Judaism — and something like Islam could still arise to oppose it.

  • What is your proof that Jesus is a myth. I would rather have faith in eternal life then damnation in hell.

  • Wilma, you are agnostic on the millions of gods which have existed before your desert god Yahweh came along. The only reason you believe in Yahweh is because you were brainwashed into it before reaching the age of reason. No loving god is going to torture most of humanity for all eternity, and the idea a big Homo Sapien in the sky is going to get you unless you keep praising him is absurd. And unless you ask a 2,000 year old undead carpenter to come and live in your blood pump, he is also going to abuse you forever. Eternal life is torture for almost all of humanity according to your religion. www (dot) jesusneverexisted (dot) com lays out the evidence bit by bit

  • How about the Crusades, Inquisitions, Witchcraft trials, Hundred Years war, Protestants and Catholics killing each other? You fell into a logical fallacy of assuming facts not in evidence: assuming that when I said “better” I somehow must have meant perfect in every way. Wrong.

  • In Christianity you have to believe a snake talks and a couple innocent young people’s choice to eat forbidden fruit then caused the psychotic god to harm every other human (including those too mentally retarded to know anything, children who died, people who never heard of ‘the one true church’ and of course, 34,999 of the 35,000 sects of Christianity to which you don’t belong. Most everyone dies in the same religion he was born into, making the eternal punishment even more arbitrary and insane.

  • Nowhere does it say he was single. Nowhere does it say he was heterosexual. Nowhere does it say he was celibate. the bible does say “the disciple whom Jesus loved” was a dude named John.

  • To understand how insane the concept of hell really is, just put this in human terms. If your daughter came home and said, “Mom, I met this guy who loves me so much he said I can marry him or else he will torture me endlessly in ways so horrible I can’t even imagine.” You would get her away from that sick creep as fast as you could. Yet, that is the character of the god of the bible. It is inherently sick, which is why the Abrahamic religions it inspired are all violent and sick and fighting one another.

  • Likewise, you also assume that that is what I mean. Wrong. Go back to my comment and read between the lines.

    “We still can’t say for sure.” — If there never was Christianity, or if we got rid of it sometime in the past, or if we get rid of it today; we still can’t say for sure if the world will really be a better place today. The list I provided above provide evidence that I know violence can be perpetrated by groups other than Christians, and that without Christianity in the equation, our world could still witness violence.

    What you did, however, is put words into my mouth. You assumed that I assumed “that when [you] said “better” [you] somehow must have meant perfect in every way.” That move is just WRONG.

  • We have no information from when Jesus was 12 to when he was 30. Putting things in context, people then married quite early. He could have been arranged to a woman in between those times and he could have had children (and that wouldn’t be a surprise). That said, if he did have a family, I believe it wouldn’t invalidate the Christian faith. If God told his people “be fruitful and multiply”, it means that sex is not inherently bad. One could perform it to have children.

    Besides, if Christians believe in “One God in Three Persons” God the Father, too, favoured someone above the rest: Mary.

  • What amazes me is how much far right Christians, both fundamentalist and Catholic, have invested in the faith that such accounts are false. It would seem as they laud heterosexual marriage as the answer to everything, that they should be overjoyed to learn Jesus was married. With Catholics, it is a little more understandable given their emotional investment in an all male celibate priesthood and a system for monks and nuns where the celibacy requirement takes precedence over service. I think it reveals a sort of sexual obsession.

  • Depending on how one defines “forgery,” that is certainly true. Established scholarship concludes the Gospels were not written by any of the actual members of the twelve apostles -all of which besides Matthew the tax collector were illiterate fishermen, not counting Judas Iscariot, who may not have been a real person – the name “Judas” simply means “a Jew” – but were instead composed in the 70-90 CE period, some forty to sixty years after the crucifixion. I would not call that a forgery per se, but it is indeed a fabrication not unlike that found on a sign of an old general store building in Luckenbach, Texas, which reads, “This is the oldest store I know of -Moses.”

  • The liberal Episcopal retired Bishop John Shelby Spong, a prolific writer of Biblical commentary, believes the “beloved disciple” was Lazarus, who was raised from the dead. Of course, Spong is a skeptic who believes the raising of Lazarus was a metaphor, too.

  • The word “Lazarus” means “one who was raised,” so it was a descriptor, not a name, at least in the original Hebrew. Now everyone thinks it is a name – just like they think Christ was the last name of Jesus when it was a descriptor “the Christ” in Greek meant “the anointed one”.

  • Well personally I’m glad she’s taking the pills and loosing weight. She was getting so big it was starting to turn me off watching her even though I love her. She’s beautiful inside and out NOW! Good for you Melissa! Be proud of what you’ve accomplished so far. 🙂

  • Thanks- that makes sense. Also for us science fiction afficianados there is also Robert A. Heinlein’s character Lazarus Long, so named because of his longevity.

  • Did the posters on this thread read the article? You’re playing on the team that lost, folks. And, no, there is no evidence that the gospels were forgeries-quite the opposite.

  • Rusty writer,
    You have misunderstood the message. It is just a loving invitation to a wedding feast where everything has been prepared and not a dating scheme or engagement for marriage.

    John Padinjarekutt

  • What are you smoking? That made no sense, Johnny old boy. You believe the ‘good news’ is 99% of all humans who ever lived will spend eternity being tortured by the loving god. What pure garbage.

  • Which gospels? Over 50 were written, but Emperor Constantine instructed the church on which ones to burn. Some copies have been found and show a wide diversity of thought for the mythology you call the gospels (a word which is supposed to mean ‘good news’ but has come to mean 99% of humans are going to be tortured for eternity by a loving god). PS if Jesus was an actual person, nobody noticed at the time – not the Romans, not the Jews, nobody outside the much later gospels, written 50 to 150 years after mythical Jesus Christ (Greek name and title) allegedly lived.

  • The formation of the canon, yes, is a process of affirmation and editing. And, yes, of course, and inevitably there were ideological elements at work. It could hardly have been otherwise. Also, there is no doubt that Jesus was a historical figure. Please stop the tin-hat speculations and sober up a little.

  • Dear Rusty,
    You seem to be excited about your findings according to the rash judgments you have formed without getting into the spirit of what is said. Each narrative has meaning only in the language-game within which it has been conceived. This applies to all branches of knowledge including empirical sciences as well as Philosophy and Religious language. You are not supposed to import your funny ideas from one language-game to another and be proud of the same!.

  • Rusty,
    You seem to have a convoluted idea of eternal life. Eternal life already starts here and now to be continued and fulfilled after our death. I suppose you were never brainwashed before reaching the age of reason! You seem to have a notion of a loving god only to condemn his actions. The law books of each country have certain crimes and punishments written into them about which you don’t seem to be agitated. Why? There is a long process reaching up to the judgment, which alone applies the measures mentioned in the law books. Similarly, there is a time for judgment of God, whereas you have already passed judgment on the vast majority of humanity. In fact, God does not have to judge anyone, because in His presence each one will judge himself or herself for which Jesus Christ has been set up as the criterion.

  • Rusty,
    Please don’t expose your ignorance in understanding the Bible and the nature of God etc. If you knew the ‘etiology’ of the Old Testament writings, you wouldn’t be indulging in silly remarks. As for salvation and damnation, do you know anything about the role of religions and their salvific value from the teaching of the Church? If you knew anything, you wouldn’t be appalled by the consequences of the teaching of the Church.

  • Rusty,
    What do you think was the criterion in selecting the four Gospels as authentic, whereas the remaining few were rejected by the Church? There is a difference between the Apostolic Church that is constitutive of the Bible and the post-Apostolic Church that was, is and will be constituted by the Bible. The Apostolic Church could see the life lived according to the Gospel values reflected in the four Gospels as against others that were rejected. Have you any idea of the Council of Nicea in A.D. 325 when emperor Constantine was still a pagan baptized only just before his death in A.D. 337? As the political master of the empire, his role was limited to the arrangement of the Council in the deliberations of which he never interfered.

  • Rusty,
    Do you have any idea of what a mythology is and how it is used in literature in general? You have to distinguish between the content and the form of a mythology in the original myth where the content is important. When it is used in literature, including the Bible, the content and the form of a mythology together is used merely as the form of the new content that is quite other than what the original myth intended to say.

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