The Faked “Gospel” That Duped Scholars and Revealed Academia’s Prejudices and Foibles

September 16, 2020 | Matti Friedman
About the author: Matti Friedman is the author of a memoir about the Israeli war in Lebanon, Pumpkinflowers: A Soldier’s Story of a Forgotten War (2016). His latest book is Spies of No Country: Secret Lives at the Birth of Israel (2019).

In 2012, Karen King, a Harvard professor specializing in Gnosticism and early Christianity, announced to much hoopla that she had in her possession a fragmentary text of a forgotten gospel in which Jesus discusses Mary and refers to his wife. Four years later, the journalist Ariel Sabar revealed that the document—written on papyrus in the ancient Coptic language—was in fact a forgery. Matti Friedman reviews Sabar’s recent book, Veritas, which recounts the story:

Unavoidable throughout the story of the papyrus, and throughout Veritas, is the long, silly shadow of The Da Vinci Code, the bestseller by Dan Brown that posited a marriage between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and a lurid Catholic conspiracy to cover it up. . . . In the frenzy that followed the novel’s publication in 2003, King had become one of the academics interviewed frequently on the subject, seeing the popularity of Brown’s work as an opportunity to talk about the multiplicity of voices in early Christianity and about the greater role that women [supposedly] played before they were sidelined by men.

King saw herself as a historian and spoke much about “data,” but she also wrote, “History is not about truth but about power relations,” and thought the historian’s priority should be to drop “the association between truth and chronology.” All of this made King the perfect mark for the forger peddling the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

One of the book’s unlikely heroes is Christian Askeland, a New Testament Coptologist with a Cambridge PhD and a sharp eye for forgery. Askeland is an evangelical Christian, making him an outsider in the world of the mainstream academy. With the outsider’s sharpened senses and a familiarity with religious modes of thinking, Askeland understands that there are “fundamentalists” on both the left and the right. The world of religious studies at places like Harvard might have more diversity of sex and race than they used to, but “intellectually, Askeland felt, they were monoliths, often blind to their own liberal pieties.” This is an important part of the intellectual landscape of our times, and it turns out to be a key part of the sorry, fascinating, and relentlessly entertaining tale told in Veritas.

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