Book Review Chris Hedges Original

The Forged Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

Ariel Sabar masterfully dissects the dishonesty and narcissism inherent in nearly all Christian theological work in his book “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”
Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife by Ariel Sabar. Buy your copy here.

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

Reviewed by Chris Hedges / Original to ScheerPost

No historical figure has been as manipulated, distorted and used for nefarious and self-serving ends as egregiously as Jesus Christ.  Jesus has been trotted out over the past two millennia to justify a litany of evils including the Crusades, the Inquisition, the European conquest and genocide of the native peoples of the Americas, Puritan witch trials and the burning of heretics, slavery, the subjugation of women, the persecution of homosexuals, and, in the latest iteration, the endless wars in the Middle East.  Since there is so little known historically about Jesus, he is infinitely malleable.  Every generation, and every brand of Christianity, has, for this reason, produced a Jesus in its own image.  When I was a student at Harvard Divinity School, we read the German theologian Rudolf Bultmann, who, heavily influenced by Martin Heidegger, was an existentialist, and who, of course, turned Jesus into an existentialist.

The liberal church is as infected with this disease as right-wing Christians who have twisted Jesus into a Rambo-like white, male messiah for American capitalism, American imperialism, white supremacy and patriarchy.  And it is this dishonesty and narcissism, inherent in nearly all Christian theological work, that Ariel Sabar masterfully dissects in his book “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”

Karen King, a professor at Harvard Divinity School, made a startling announcement in September 2012 at a conference in Rome. She had obtained, she told the gathering, a second-century papyrus fragment with a text suggesting that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and that she was considered one of the disciples. King called the fragment, the size of a business card, “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” a clever marketing ploy, especially since it was impossible to know where the text, which turned out to be a crude forgery, came from. Even if it was real, it could have been nothing more than a tiny scrap of paper rolled up and worn in an amulet.  But King, if nothing else, was media savvy, and “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” catapulted her “discovery” to international fame. 

She had already gotten a taste of popular acclaim, hitching herself to Dan Brown’s 2003 novel “The Da Vinci Code,” which was to Biblical scholarship what Raiders of the Lost Ark was to archeology. In the novel Brown makes Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus, pregnant with Christ’s child when he was crucified.  “The Da Vinci Code” was only a few degrees separated from the claims made by scholars like King, who published her book “The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle” the same year as Brown’s novel. She instantly became a ubiquitous media presence, defending the novel despite its numerous Biblical and historical inaccuracies. “She appeared in cover stories about the book in Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report and became a regular on Code-themed TV specials, on ABC’s Primetime, NBC’s Dateline and CNN Presents,” Sabar writes in “Veritas.”  In some of these media appearances she was joined by Brown.  In the movie version, starring Tom Hanks, King is listed as a “consultant.” The novel transformed King from “a scholar whose intellectual passions had been confined to classrooms, academic tracts and the occasional church into a best-selling author with live audiences of hundreds and a television viewership of millions.”  “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” returned her to the epicenter of popular culture and the mass media.

King has spent her career championing the idea that Mary Magdalene and women in the early church played a prominent role in Jesus’ ministry.  She is a scholar of gnostic texts, texts from the second to fourth centuries that did not make it into the church-approved canon. The Gnostics were condemned as heretics by the early church and their writings were banned. The Gnostics believed that an elect group of believers, themselves, had been given a secret knowledge—the Greek word gnosis means knowledge of spiritual mysteries—about the divine status of human beings that was obscured by the Old Testament and revealed to them by Jesus, who was regarded as an illuminator rather than the resurrected savior.  

The Gnostics were, as Sabar writes, “socially estranged, more open to women, less violent, more centered on the self,” a belief system that catered to the inwardly-focused zeitgeist of America’s consumer society. It appears from the fragments of the Gnostic texts that the sect included female leadership, something King explored, although often through very liberal interpretation, in “The Gospel of Mary Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle.” 

King, as Sabar writes, “placed a heavy burden on the Gospel of Mary. It didn’t matter that more than half of its pages were missing, obscuring its ultimate meanings. It didn’t matter that most scholars saw it as too late to compete with the canon. King, who titled her book The Gospel of Mary Magdala, even though the gospel nowhere identifies its ‘Mary’ as Magdalene, wanted the text to say things—and be things—that the available facts didn’t always support. In many fields, an incomplete one-of-a-kind data point might deter a scholar from making sweeping generalizations. But King went in precisely the opposite direction. She not only built ‘the history of Christianity’ atop the discontinuous surviving nine pages of a single text; she called its portrait of the faith’s first centuries ‘in a number of respects more historically accurate than that of the master story.”

From the beginning King obscured the origins of the fragment. She refused to disclose the identity of the donor. She did not show the scholars at the conference in Rome photographs of the text, as is customary in academic conferences. She worked with the Smithsonian Channel to produce a documentary before the papyrus was analyzed and vetted. She eventually turned to close friends who lacked expertise to test the papyrus and authenticate the text. She openly dismissed the need for scientific testing, telling Sabar that chemical tests were “not usually done and not relevant.” Carbon dating, she said, “was too imprecise” and multispectral analysis—the imaging technique that can help identify erased or overwritten text—“wasn’t going to show anything.” 

Her disdain for science and fact is only rivaled by the Christian right, which has also fallen prey to forgers. The billionaire evangelical owners of the Hobby Lobby, for example, have spent millions buying up Biblical artifacts to prove “the absolute authority and reliability of the Bible.”  It is the flip side of King’s interpretation of the Bible. They were duped into buying fake Dead Sea Scroll fragments and a forged text, supposedly from Leviticus, condemning homosexuality. 

When King’s claims were peer reviewed by two expert Coptic papyrologists in the Harvard Theological Review, they warned that the fragment was probably a fake. King used her clout with the publication to publish her findings without their critiques, leaning instead on one positive review by a friend who did not specialize in early Coptic Christian literature.  Harvard University and The Harvard Theological Review, it turned out, were not immune to the media frenzy and the obfuscations needed to perpetuate it.    

Sabar’s dogged reporting uncovered not only King’s numerous schemes to pass the forgery off as real, but the identity of the forger, a German expatriate living in Florida named Walter Fritz who had a fake Egyptology degree, was a former director of the Stasi Museum in East Germany, and produced online pornographic videos of his wife having sex with multiple other men. The tissue of lies and deceit, from the hands of the forger up the chain to King and Harvard Divinity School, is staggering.

Perhaps most disturbing is King’s apparent indifference to the truth, even once the text was unmasked as a forgery. She told Sabar she was “not particularly” interested in what he had uncovered, and that she did not realize that an object’s past could be studied.  

“How could a historian, one at Harvard no less, have failed to see provenance as a subject to investigation?” Sabar asks. “Provenance, after all, was nothing more than history—King’s own scholarly discipline.”

King, like many academics, is infected with the disease of postmodernism. To them, there is no discernable, objective truth. Truth is a language game. It is determined by those who tell the best story. History is, they argue, a form of fiction. Facts, along with linear time, do not matter as long as the story told feels true and relevant. 

History, King writes, “is not about truth but about power relations.” She argues that historians must abandon “the association between truth and chronology.” She calls for “reconceptualizing the Western construction of time” and sees history as “discontinuous and unpatterned.” History, she writes, “is not serious, real or true.” History, she insists, is about “enlarging one’s imaginative universe” and never saying “no to a story, a song, a poem that gives life, heartens, teaches, or consoles, and need never fail to call it true.” She calls facts “little tyrannies.” Those bound by facts, she writes, are constricted by “fact fundamentalism.” She even concedes that Jesus’s marital status is finally unknowable, but also says this is irrelevant. As Sabar points out about King and the postmodernists, “a thing is true not if it is real; it is true if—in King’s estimation—it was a moral good.” 

“In this view, every historical account—every piece of writing, for that matter—was a kind of stealthy sales pitch, a self-serving tale that promoted the interests of a particular individual or group,” Sabar writes. “The same held for reading. Whether Mary Magdalene was a prostitute or an apostle, for instance, turned less on ‘what happened’ than on which camp—pro-sinner or pro-saint—best publicized its interpretation.”

Sabar hits on something very important, the corruption and dishonesty of postmodern scholarship, the deforming of fact and history to serve ideologies and beliefs. King is a product of a collective of liberal, postmodern theologians known as the Jesus Seminar, which routinely sacrificed serious scholarship to advance a liberal interpretation of the Christian gospels, making them no different from the owners of the Hobby Lobby. The group dismisses most of the sayings of Jesus in the Gospels as invented, writes off the entire Gospel of John as fiction and does not believe in miracles or the resurrection. But to advance the cause of feminism, it twisted itself into contortions to assert that the scene at the end of the Gospel of John, where Mary witnesses the resurrected Jesus, is a real-life version of an actual historical event.     

“A group that set out to tell the public what Jesus really said and did had decided that a vision in a book it called false could be the basis for the reality of Magdalene’s witness to a resurrection that never happened,” Sabar writes.

A society that severs itself from discourse rooted in verifiable fact commits moral and intellectual suicide. Facts become indistinguishable from opinions. This war on truth, on science and on fact, whether from the liberal postmodern elites or the right-wing Christian fascists, widens the social divides. Believers on each side of the divide can no longer communicate. A culture that disdains truth and fact rapidly calcifies and dies. It bifurcates, as I saw in the former Yugoslavia, into antagonistic warring tribes. This severance from reality fuels hate and finally violence. Competing demographics expend their energy demonizing the other. This is the most important lesson in Sabar’s meticulous study of the dishonesty and moral corruption that is eating away at the heart of America. That this story was set at Harvard Divinity School is not surprising to those of us who have watched the liberal church fold in on itself and orchestrate its own irrelevance. It would be comforting if King was an anomaly. Unfortunately, she is not.

[Chris Hedges writes a regular original column for ScheerPost. Click here to sign up for email alerts.]

Chris Hedges
Chris HedgesChris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for fifteen years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East Bureau Chief and Balkan Bureau Chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning NewsThe Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of the Emmy Award-nominated RT America show On Contact. 

Copyright 2021 Chris Hedges

27 comments

  1. What does Hedges think of “The Lost Tomb of Jesus,” produced by David Cameron? A whole host of geneticists, archeologists, geologists, historians, Bible scholars and literary analysts worked on the east Talpiot ossuaries found in a construction site in Jerusalem. It took 35 years and now the ossuaries are in an Israeli archive. Very convincing video. It shows a connection between a Jesus, a wife and a son, all buried together.

  2. Mr Hedges is always enlightening . When I converted to Orthodoxy in midlife, it was after a rejection of the Christianity of both liberals and Evangelical fundamentalists. I felt drawn to Jesus , but repelled by that representations both “sides” had made of him.
    When I found Orthodoxy it resonated deeply with me. There was an authenticity which rang true in the teachings and rituals and the demands of how to live my life in faith. It was all or nothing. And it was the Truth from ancient days to now. We conform ourselves to this Truth and resist distorting it to our own fancies.

    To my mind, the modern, and I by that I mean Roman Catholicism and Protestantism , have steadily made God and Jesus in their own image, to suit their own ends. Of course, there are exceptions to this from scholars in both these traditions .

    I struggle to express this intuition, but it is akin to consumerism and not to the authentic and truly life transforming life of self sacrifice and radical humility and love that it seems we are seeking to live in Christ.

    Susanna Heschel ,daughter of truly devout Abraham Joshua Heschel, wrote in “The Ayran Jesus “about the propaganda that the Nazis used to transform the image of Jesus from merciful and loving ,ie weak and feminine, to a strong manly leader devoid of kindness and compassion. Do zealous fundamentalists promote something similar, I wonder? I do ask myself if they read the same Bible that I read.

    Modern times certainly are interesting . Everything can be turned to make a profit. Even the very teaching of Jesus who preached against selfishness, greed and hatred. Lord have Mercy.

  3. Organized religion is all a con to keep us guilty, fearful and obedient…

    1. “Go forth and Spread the Word, Whenevet religion is mentioned anywhere thou most protesteth severely .” So sayeth St. Dawkins on the Third Day of Atheist Libations. And doth did his disciples go forth and spread their message to every corner of the Internet whenever religion reered it’s ugly head.

      Seriously atheists get new arguments. You’ve been saying the same thing for hundreds of years, almost like it’s dogma. Kind of proving the author’s point.

  4. THE GOSPEL OF JESUS WIFE

    Which I bought and read part of when it was published, and discarded as nonsense & speculation.

    I was surprised to see Mr. Hedges morph this article into a diatribe on Liberal Christianity, when Conservative Christianity is at least equally culpable, and the entire history of “Christianity” has (as he notes in the beginning) been used mostly to serve the ambitions of ambitious men.

    Religion is the best con there is! Selling a lotta nothing for a lotta money!

    Believe! Send money! We’ll promise you an Eternal Life of effortless bliss in Club Med Heaven!

    Of course, there is no evidence that heaven, hell, or eternal life, are real things. It’s all a mass psychosis, a mass delusional belief disorder.

    If “Eternal Life” were real, immortality, live forever, never die, then you and I would live as many years as there are subatomic particles in the universe, then we’d do it all over again an infinite number of times!

    1. Go forth and Spread the Word, Whenevet religion is mentioned anywhere thou most protesteth severely .” So sayeth St. Dawkins on the Third Day of Atheist Libations. And doth did his disciples go forth and spread their message to every corner of the Internet whenever religion reered its ugly head. Seriously atheists get new arguments. You’ve been saying the same thing for hundreds of years, almost like it’s dogma. Kind of proving the author’s point

  5. I’m confused. A debate over whether what this woman says about Jesus and the Christian church is true, as opposed to what someone else says about Jesus and the Christian church is true, strikes me as similar to a debate between children over which is more real, Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.

    1. Go forth and Spread the Word, Whenevet religion is mentioned anywhere thou most protesteth severely .” So sayeth St. Dawkins on the Third Day of Atheist Libations. And doth did his disciples go forth and spread their message to every corner of the Internet whenever religion reered it’s ugly head. Seriously atheists get new arguments. You’ve been saying the same thing for hundreds of years, almost like it’s dogma. Kind of proving the author’s point

  6. “Moreover, the paramount concern of a popular religion cannot and never has been “truth” , but the maintenance of a certain type of society, the inculcation in the young and refreshment in the old of an approved ‘ system of sentiments’ upon which the local institutions and government depend”. Joseph Campbell

    I think the Roman emperor Constantine 1st changed Christianity for the worse at the council of Nicaea. He and his henchmen turned Jesus into a mythical and very useful super hero. Simcha Jacobovici found evidence that “Jesus” was a title rather than a specific person. And the bible–seems all Greek to me.

    So I’ll put my religious money on Aesop.

  7. Money, fame and authority.
    We are so easily seduced by the superficial.
    Truth is unutterable and beyond the ken of our limited minds.
    ‘Be still’ Jesus said.
    That’s all that’s required, Everything else is mind fodder.

  8. Very interesting I like to go more in depth on both sides. Thank you for sharing this. Take care.

  9. Yes, the RW disdains science, and yes, Karen King (whom I’ve read) fell for what she wanted to believe. However, there are modes of understanding that are most often alien to leftist activists, prophetics, left-brain rationalists, and empiricists. That is; the right-brain mystical, artistic, and poetic.

    Yes, I realize “R v. L brain” is simplistic; both sides process everything, but they do so differently. For 588 pp of the neuroscientific details, read Iain McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary.” Which also goes into how usurpation by the left hemisphere has resulted in the abstract, competitive, imperialistic, analytical, literal, administrative, and technologically created “reality” we now suffer from. Including the dreaded uber intellectual deconstruction and irony. And McGilchrist does so by means of empirical evidence! While reminding us that the right hemisphere (which controls the left side; being a leftist artistic and intuitive type, I find that delightful) is about intuitive appreciation for and participation in the natural world, metaphor, ambiguity, interdependence, and meaning.

    In terms more theologically oriented, there has always been tension between the prophetic and mystical sides. The mystics are the ones who directly encounter transcendence, non-consensus realities. From my own experience, I know how difficult it is to put such events into words. That’s what poets do. Or philosophers and systematic theologians, who take the raw data and arrange it logically and/or into dogma (rules.)

    In simpler terms, mystics (and shamans and analytical psychologists) say that until each person is grounded in the experience of a different reality, they will perpetuate the same errors. Exchanging one set of the politically motivated for another does not change the lust for power. They’re right. On the other hand, as the prophetics insist, there’s a threatened ecosystem or a starving child that can’t wait for us to get to personal spiritual enlightenment. They’re right, too.

    In scientific terms, a painting is a chunk of cloth with splotches of pigment. It is the other human mode–the mystical, the poetic, the artistic, and the religious–which give it meaning.

  10. “History is mostly guessing, the rest is prejudice.” Will Durant

  11. Clearly King is involved in distortion in the name of feminism; but to label her deliberately twisted opportunism as “postmodernism” is a too-easy generalization. Postmodernism, originally post-structuralism, has wide application, to be sure, but in principle has nothing to do with King’s self-aggrandizing distortions.

  12. I finally feel validation for my own beliefs that Christianity is in fact a root of mental illness and causing more harm than good throughout history and into present day. Frankly, screw freedom of religion! I prefer freedom from religion!! Can’t wait to read the book.
    Patrick Jeffery

  13. Is not history ultimately written by the victors?

    In this case, it was an attempt to write history by a loser.

    RE: “every historical account — every piece of writing, for that matter — was a kind of stealthy sales pitch, a self-serving tale that promoted the interests of a particular individual or group,” Sabar writes.”

  14. I’ve been following this whole thing since it first broke all the way back in 2012. New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre of Duke University was immediately skeptical, and gave a voice, and constantly updated his blog (NT Blog) with work from scholars investigating the fragment’s authenticity. He did a very good job of giving King the satisfaction of a doubt, but she ignored the doubts of other experts at practically every turn. By the time the Smithsonian Channel documentary came out hyping King’s “discovery,” it was all but certain that the fragment was a forgery, but the documentary only gave passing mention to those who questioned its authenticity. Harvard was nearly as stubborn as King on the subject, side-stepping questions of forgery, and refusing to retract King’s paper. Things finally came to a head after Harvard hosted images they assumed were authentic of the forger’s other work (included with the Jesus’s Wife fragment), a fragment from a copy of the Gospel of John. As discovered by NT scholar Christian Askeland the structure of the Gospel of John forgery was identical to another copy of John found in a book from 1924 (which could be found online) down to typos and all. Between the scholarly evidence, and Sabar’s investigation that tracked down the actual forger, the evidence was finally irrefutable, and Harvard quietly took its page on the “Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” down, and King weakly conceded with “the evidence presses in the direction of forgery.”

    The lack of accountability on the behalf of King, Harvard, and the Smithsonian, should be absolutely shocking, but in this post-truth world, unfortunately not. The most prestigious institutions in the nation, and a highly regarded historian lied by omission, or downplayed the genuineness of a discovery that they were hoping would turn both Biblical scholarship and the church on its head. Though King always highlighted that the fragment was late (2nd to 4th century), it was clearly her hope that it would have academics and Christians alike discussing whether or not women held higher positions of authority in the early church than originally thought, and more importantly, if the Catholic concept of clerical celibacy made any sense in the light of the early church’s views on Jesus’s own marital status. My views on both are that women DID hold higher positions of authority (which we can glean from the New Testament), and that the discipline of clerical celibacy is unnecessary and ultimately damaging, but what makes King’s stance on the subject so damning was that she let her biases on these and other subjects form the basis for her research. She was specifically targeted by the forger because he knew that, as a feminist scholar, she would buy into his con where others would show greater objectivity. The whole thing should have blown up in everyone’s face, but it’s mostly been quietly distanced, with many offering pity to King for being duped.

    I’m really hoping that a documentary or film will come out exploring this whole subject, because the whole thing is just fascinating, and absolutely out there, but I’m not sure these powerful people and institutions will allow themselves be seen with egg on their face.

  15. I thought the Gnostics had already been blamed for everything possible, but Hedges, bless ‘im, manages to scapegoat them for a new sin, thus bringing joy to thought police everywhere: “The Gnostics were, as Sabar writes, ‘socially estranged, more open to women, less violent, more centered on the self,’ a belief system that catered to the inwardly-focused zeitgeist of America’s consumer society.” Yeah, Chris, that’s the ticket. The Gnostics gave us the Kardashians. Anyway, this is all old news; see this 2016 article from Biblical Archaeology Review: https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/news/first-person-gospel-of-jesus-wife/ There, Hershel Shanks covers both the forgery and King’s mea culpa following the reveal of the fraud. But he also characterizes Hedges’ hero here, Sabar, as a hack journalist who traffics in ad hominems. And let’s note that Sabar published his original exposé in the necon/neolib rag The Atlantic. Hedges, who is a High Culture snob of the old school, would ordinarily turn his nose up at anything appearing there. But Sabar’s book provides Hedges with another opportunity to rant like Jonathan Edwards about “liberals” and “postmodernism,” so it’s full speed ahead. Let me add that Hedges’ comfort with the New Testament canon (and, by implication, the very political process by which it was formed) is not a good look for someone who thinks of himself as a radical. Mind you, I have no brief for Karen King or, goddess help us, The DaVinci Code, and I generally admire and appreciate Hedges. But if he wants to go to the mat about Gnosticism (itself a contested term and category, as he should know), let him pick on somebody his own size like, say, Elaine Pagels. And without the assistance of hack journalists.

  16. Jesus is the Anointed. Question. What was Jesus Anointed with? In the Religion of the Anointed ones, what is, ‘the Way’ that is referred to so often in Acts? The recent discovery of the ‘Cave of John the Baptist’ demonstrates a reasonable hypothesis that both Nathaniel and Pilate agreed upon.

  17. Followed the whole narrative without the least quiver of misapprehension, until this second to last paragraph. For the umpteenth thousandth time, the obligatory Hedges Yugoslavia reference:

    “A culture that disdains truth and fact rapidly calcifies and dies. It bifurcates, as I saw in the former Yugoslavia, into antagonistic warring tribes. This severance from reality fuels hate and finally violence. Competing demographics expend their energy demonizing the other.”

    What is he even beginning to imply?
    Have you seen the fact-based film, Dara from Jasenovac, Chris? Some other “fractional key” to the history of the ethnic dispute from Hell?

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