Returning to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Reflections and Implications (I)

As readers of rogueclassicism are probably already aware, a couple of weeks ago Ariel Sabar wrote a lengthy piece in the Atlantic documenting his successful search for the owner of the so-called Gospel of Jesus Wife, who we now know is a certain Walter Fritz. It’s a sequel to an earlier piece he wrote for the Smithsonian Magazine back when the story was just breaking and overlaps to a large extent with some of the work Owen Jarus has been doing for Live Science over the past couple of years. It also overlaps with some of my own research, which I never actually had the opportunity to blog at the time (and which was largely covered by Owen Jarus’ pieces). Because of Sabar’s investigative journalism, the questions about the authenticity of the fragment currently loom larger than ever. At the same time, however, the investigative journalism approach tends to focus on the ‘telling of the story’ as much as the information involved, and important things might get lost along the way. The present post is an attempt to bring together as much as possible into one post everything that can be known about the GJW; a second post will consider the implications of this episode for scholars in Classics (soon-to-be-open museums) who are dealing with ‘new’ papyrus finds.

At the outset, I encourage people to set aside an hour or so to read the investigative journalism pieces in order; the Owen Jarus pieces are important because much of what Sabar reveals was already revealed by Jarus in one form or another:

As hinted at above, I’m going to try and organize this in a timeline, which makes the series of events  and assorted reactions a bit easier to follow. The timeline is interspersed with notes and observations along the way. An additional abbreviation to note is (KK), which is information gleaned from Karen King’s various accounts, but primarily:

  • King, Karen L. 2014. ““Jesus said to them, ‘My wife . . .’”: A New Coptic Papyrus Fragment.” Harvard Theological Review 107, no.2: 131-159 (online here)

It’s worth putting a link to Harvard’s collection of materials which include images (in theory; they don’t come up) and the scientific test reports (which may or may not download for you):

We’ll begin with Dr King’s account in Harvard Theological Review of how the GJW came to her:

The current owner of the papyrus states that he acquired the papyrus in 1999. Upon request for information about provenance, the owner provided me with a photocopy of a contract for the sale of “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” from Hans-Ulrich Laukamp, dated November 12, 1999, and signed by both parties.A handwritten comment on the contract states: “Seller surrenders photocopies of correspondence in German. Papyri were acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany).” The current owner said that he received the six papyri in an envelope, and himself conserved them between plates of plexiglass/lucite. The owner also sent me scanned copies of two photocopies.

… a footnote provides some additional information:

The second document is a photocopy of a typed and signed letter addressed to H. U. Laukamp dated July 15, 1982, from Prof. Dr. Peter Munro (Freie Universität, Ägyptologisches Seminar, Berlin), stating that a colleague, Professor Fecht, has identified one of Mr. Laukamp’s papyri as having nine lines of writing and measuring approximately 110 x 80 mm, and containing text from the Gospel of John.

… and away we go!

Annotated Timeline:

1961:  Laukamp swims to Berlin (AS2)

1963: Laukamp acquires papyri in Potsdam (KK)

  • so almost immediately there is a question: If Laukamp escaped East Germany in 1961, is he likely to have gone back in 1963 to ‘acquire’ the papyri?

1982 (July 15): Correspondence from Peter Munro from Gerhard Fecht to Laukamp identifying one of his papyri as being a fragment of the Gospel of John (KK)

1988-1992 or 1993: Walter Fritz is an MA student at the Free University of Berlin  (Freie Universität Berlin) (AS2)

1989:Jürgen Osing new department chair at the Free University;  apparently one tough cookie (AS2)

1991: Fritz publishes an article in Studien zur Altägyptischen Kultur, which apparently is still influential, but wasn’t very original(AS2)

1991 (October): Fritz hired as head of the Stasi Museum (AS2)

1992 (“Spring”): Fritz is dismissed (AS2)

  • It’s worth quoting AS on this one:

In March 1992, five months into the job, the museum’s board members ordered him to shape up. They were concerned, among other things, about valuables—paintings, Nazi military medals, Stasi memorabilia—that had gone missing from the building’s storage during Fritz’s tenure. Drieselmann confronted him about his job performance in the spring of 1992. Not long after, Fritz disappeared, leaving behind a resignation letter.

1990s  (“1992-1995”): Fritz meets Laukamp; various stories(AS2)

  • not sure the ‘met at a von Daniken’ lecture is really necessary; I’m sure this is something which could be checked out …

1993 (at the latest): Fritz in Florida (AS2)

1995: Laukamp and Herzsprung running ACMB (AS2)

1996: Nefer Art’s website is up (my own research)

  • In April of 2014 I came across Nefer Art’s website mentioned on a page advertising various Florida photography businesses after following various online sources which referred to this Walter Fritz fellow.  Nefer Art was ostensibly a photography business, but their webpage seemed to indicate other things were going on. I was particularly struck, by an image (without a label or comment) on one of the pages: a18
  • In July sent this image to assorted  papyrologists for comment, by which time the photography site had been taken down (perhaps as a result of Owen Jarus’ 2014 Live Science piece?), but this image had been up from at least 2011 to November of 2013 (but it was still in the Wayback Machine in the ‘Art’ section).  My query clearly circulated around. Most saw the reference to Hecate and below there is a reference to Phoebe. None of those who responded had ever seen it before and didn’t think it was authentic. In the most recent wave of reaction to Sabar’s Atlantic piece, Christian Askeland brings up the above and gives pretty much the common opinion (More on the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and Walter Fritz). The drawing is pretty ‘simplistic’ and it really doesn’t have any affinities with any known illustrated papyri and the diacritics on the Greek are potentially anachronistic. In passing we might mention the apparent ‘fascinum’ approaching the nude female, which might suggest someone was looking at items from Pompeii, but that’s speculation.
  • What isn’t mentioned in the various sites now mentioning this piece is the page it comes from  has a copyright date 1996-2012, which might provide a terminus ante quem of sorts.
  • Besides this little papyrus scrap, what also interested me about this was the name ‘Nefer Art’. Readers might recall that Frieda Nussberger-Tchacos (of Gospel of Judas fame) had a gallery named Gallery Nefer and obviously had been selling papyri therefrom.  There seems to be a Gospel of Judas connection in here somewhere (possibly coincidental)

1997: Laukamp in Florida (AS2)

1997: Walter Fritz purchases papyri from Laukamp (AS1)

  • not sure if the 1997 date is a typo in the article, something misheard by Sabar in an interview with King, or just some mistake along the way; the papyrus wasn’t sold until two years later according to the contract

1999: (November 12): Laukamp sells papyri to Fritz (AS2)(KK)

1999 (December): Laukamp’s wife dies in Germany (with Laukamp at her side); four days later, the American branch of ACMB is registered in Venice, Florida with Walter Fritz as one of the signatories (AS2)

  • when I was checking out the address of ACMB in Florida it appeared it was little more than an office; there do not seem to be ‘machine facilities’ in a building full of medical services and the like

2002 (August): ACMB bankrupt (AS2)

2002: Laukamp dies in Germany (KK)

2002: Gospel of Thomas posted on the Internet (AS2)

  • mentioned because in the scholarly/blog reaction to publication of the fragment, it was clear that there was some connection to the Gospel of Thomas, specifically the online version which had a significant error in it.

2003: Walter Fritz running a web-based porn site (AS2)

  • As might be imagined, this seems to be the thing everyone (especially the Daily Mail) latches on to. Rather than taking the moralistic stance, however, we really should be looking at this in relation to the timeline and ask why no one has really looked into Fritz’s other sources of income. With ACMB bankrupt, an income stream has clearly dried up. AS2 tells us Fritz and his wife derived up to a third of their income from this. Where was the other two-thirds coming from? Photography?

2006 (December 13): Gerhard Fecht dies (KK) … confirmed

2006 (April): National Geographic publishes the Gospel of Judas

2007 (March) Reading Judas: The Gospel of Judas and the Shaping of Christianity  is published by Elaine Pagels and  Karen King, correcting some aspects of the initial publication

  • Yes, Karen King was connected to the Gospel of Judas; it seems likely that this was how her name was known to Fritz (who clearly had an interest in Gnostic matters)

2008 (January 2): Peter Munro dies (KK) … obituary

2008 (April): Walter Fritz tries (and fails) to sell his house in Florida (AS)

  • possible  further indication of financial difficulties?

2009 (August): Fritz’s wife’s blogpost (AS2)

  • this is another one which Christian Askeland has mentioned in one of his recent posts. Fritz’s wife blogs about making little amulets which incorporate bits of papyrus. The interesting quote:

I got these fragments from a reputable manuscript dealer who was restoring a larger papyrus with a christian gospel on it. The fragments were left over and couldn’t be incorporated into the big papyrus any more because they were so small. I have photos of the restoring process.

2009: Walter Fritz in London; visits a dealer with his papyrus collection (AS2)

  • taken in conjunction with the ‘wife’s blogpost’, we now have to wonder: did Fritz go to London before or after August of 2009? Askeland thinks the GJW was created after Munro’s death; perhaps the trip to London was a sidetrip after a funeral? Did he take his papyrus collection there to get it evaluated or was he there to purchase? It would be very useful to know which dealer in London this might have been.
  • restoring a Christian gospel … this definitely requires further investigation. Maybe the Museum of the Bible knows about large Christian gospel papyri that hit the market in 2009?

2010 (February): Walter Fritz tries (and fails) to sell his house in Florida (AS2)

  • again, financial difficulties?

2010 (April): Walter Fritz writes Vatican about sexual abuse as a child (AS2)

  • if we add this to the ‘financial difficulties’ speculation, it’s worth noting that 2010 was a big year for the Vatican compensating sexual abuse victims. For German victims, such compensation was approved in September of that year. It doesn’t appear, however, that Fritz’ claims were compensated.

2010 (July 9): Walter Fritz emails Karen King about the papyrus; she is suspicious and says she didn’t have time.

2011 (June ?): Walter Fritz emails Karen King again …  (AS2)

2011 (December): Walter Fritz delivers the papyri to King. On loan to Harvard for ten years?

2012 (March): Roger Bagnall express the opinion that it is authentic based on ink penetration (AS2)

2012 (August 26): Walter Fritz registers the website: http://www.gospelofjesuswife.com (AS2)

  • This is important insofar as it raises the question of who came up with the title. It’s also important because clearly Fritz is trying to make money off this somehow

2012 (September 18): Karen King announces the details about the papyrus at the International Coptic Congress in Rome (AS1)

2012 (November 14-15, 2012) Malcolm Choat examined the fragment during a visit to Harvard  (KK)

  •  It would later result in: Malcolm Choat (2014). The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife: A Preliminary Paleographical Assessment . Harvard Theological Review, 107, pp 160-162. doi:10.1017/S0017816014000145.

2012 (December 17) Microscopic imaging was conducted by Douglas Fishkind and Casey Kraft with Henry Lie at the Harvard Center for Biological Imaging  (KK)

2013 (March 11-12) Raman testing of the ink was done by James Yardley with Alexis Hagadorn at Columbia University (KK)

  • ink testing suggested there was nothing inconsistent with ancient ink;  it apparently took three months to acquire funding for radiocarbon testing. We note that at one point in this saga that ‘the owner’ was going to pay for the radiocarbon testing; perhaps the fact that it took so long is another indication of his financial situation

2013 (June-July) Radiocarbon analysis was performed by Greg Hodgins at the University of Arizona Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Laboratory. Funding  provided by a gift from Tricia Nichols. (KK)

  • I’m very curious about Tricia Nichols’ involvement in this. She’s a Denver-based philanthropist and  I can’t help but wonder who approached her: was it King? Fritz? What is the connection?

2013 (August 26) Multispectral imaging was performed by Michael Toth and select images were processed by William Christians-Barry (KK)

  • I couldn’t get the images of this to come up today, but I’m wondering why this technology wasn’t used to get a better reading of the faded side …

2013 (November 5) Timothy Swager, Joseph Azzarelli and John Goods performed Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FT-IR) testing at MIT (KK)

2014 (April 10):  Harvard press release about the results of the testing demonstrating that the papyrus is ancient

Now the scientific dating of the papyrus and analysis of the ink (which is not ink at all, but rather lampblack, a pigment often used in ancient Egypt for writing on papyrus) indicate that both are consistent with an ancient origin.

Because the fragment is so small, carbon-dating it proved troublesome. Researchers at the University of Arizona called into question their own results—which dated the papyrus to several hundred years before the birth of Christ—because they were unable to complete the cleaning process on the small sample of papyrus with which they were working, and felt that might have led to spurious results. A second carbon-dating analysis undertaken by Clay professor of scientific archaeology Noreen Tuross at Harvard and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute dated the papyrus, and a separate one (also believed to be of ancient origin) with text from the Gospel of John to approximately A.D. 700 to 800.

Because the text concerning Jesus’s wife is written in Sahidic, a language of ancient Egypt, it may be a transcription of an earlier Coptic text that was based on a Greek copy, as many early Christian gospels are. Given similarities in wording and subject to the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the Gospel of Philip, the text of the GJW may originate in a time as early as the second half of the second century C.E.

2014 (April): the critical edition is published by the Harvard Theological Review

2014: Porn sites associated with Fritz  are taken down (AS2)

  • I wonder how closely this coincides with  the publication; was Fritz going to admit he was the owner of the papyri? Whatever the case, that income stream has apparently dried up.

2014 (by December): comparison of the fragment of the Gospel of John which was also part of the package which King was given was demonstrated to be much later, and so the doubts about the authenticity of the GJW were renewed.

  • The December 2014 article in the Atlantic provides an excellent summary: The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife
  • it is worth noting that King continued to refuse to believe the item was a forgery

2015 (November): Fritz denies being an Egyptologist; denies being the owner of the papyrus and doesn’t know who is (AS2)

2016 (March): Fritz denies being the owner, but says he knows the owner. He also denies forging the papyri (AS2)

2016 (two weeks later): Fritz admits he is the owner of the papyrus (AS2)

  • not sure why the ‘forging’ angle wasn’t pursued

2016 (April): AS meets Fritz face to face and ‘fleshes’ out the tale.

In short, the whole story of Walter Fritz and his admission that he is the owner of the piece clearly suggests that the Gospel of Jesus Wife probably isn’t living up to its billing. Without getting into the salacious side of things, he clearly has the knowledge to pull off a forgery — whether he had the talent is not clear (but his wife is an artist! Hmmmm). He seems to have had numerous opportunities to acquire papyri.  He had a spell of financial difficulty which might provide motive; he seems to have some chip on his shoulder in regards to academia, which might also provide motive; he seems to be somewhat charismatic and probably made use of that as well. Still, all we know for sure now is that he is the owner of the fragment of papyrus known as the Gospel of Jesus Wife. I’m sure we’ll be hearing more from/about Walter in the next few months.

In the wake of the article, Karen King would concede that the information provided ‘tipped the balance’ in favour of forgery: Karen King Responds to ‘The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife’

I asked why she hadn’t undertaken an investigation of the papyrus’s origins and the owner’s background. “Your article has helped me see that provenance can be investigated,” she said.

Many news reports in the wake of the Atlantic article give the impression that this is something ‘shocking’, but is it? Karen King did a lot of things right:

  • she was initially skeptical of the claim
  • she showed the papyrus to several people for their opinion (including Roger Bagnall, who isn’t someone who would be directly connected to her ‘school of thought’)
  • she announced the discovery at a scholarly congress and not on some significant date like Easter or Christmas
  • she made preliminary versions of her paper and photos available
  • she acted on peer review suggestions to have it tested

… but she did at least one thing wrong:

  • after being so up front about the announcement and preliminary paper, she did not keep us similarly informed about the testing (i.e. she should have said ‘we are going to do this, that, and the other thing which will probably take x number of months’
  • she was not suspicious that she was given photocopies of documents; photocopying can cover up a number of ‘peccadilloes’ when one wants to fake a document (I’m sure I’m not the only one who (ages ago) photocopied any typewritten page which had used whiteout/correction fluid in order that the ‘need for correction’ wasn’t apparent in the good cop)

Notice that I did not include ‘not investigating provenance’ in there. What she had and what she told us was probably more than we’ve had in regards to a papyrus from many times. If we are ever told anything, it’s usually something like ‘acquired at an auction’ or ‘some famous dead guy acquired this from a shop in Cairo in 1922). From what I can tell, King actually gave us more than we usually get and she pretty much decided it was a closed case since everyone involved was dead. She really should not be criticized for doing what pretty much the whole discipline has been doing for at least a century.

Clearly, however, things have changed. We’ll consider the implications of all this (and the growing interest in provenance/collecting history) in a subsequent piece. One last thing to mention, however: we have been told that there were six papyri in this collection and the owner — who we now know to be Walter Fritz — was trying to sell them to Harvard. The Gospel of John piece is obviously one of the six along with the GJW. What about the other four? Is everything still being offered for sale to Harvard? Is someone else working on the other four papyri? These are some rather large questions which still need to be answered.

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3 thoughts on “Returning to the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife: Reflections and Implications (I)

  1. Thanks.
    According to
    http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/tentative-chronology-on-coptic-jesus.html
    The owner (Fritz) emailed Prof. King on July 9, 2010, contacting her again “before I sell it.” Whether he had a real offer to buy it or whether that was a sales tactic may be an open question. (Also, why would a buyer retract an offer on hearing a professor had seen a photo of it?) In other words, the provenance story is false in many respects, so possibly in this case also.
    The “Cute Art” description of a “reputable manuscript dealer…restoring” a 2nd century AD Christian text and discarded fragments left over may be–notwithstanding the assurance that “This is no hoax”–a hoax. Where is that 2nd c. AD ms?
    Without speculating whether Prof. Bagnall’s learned views are close to King’s “school of thought,” they both supervised the Luijendijk Ph.D. Nothing wrong with that, but a closeness.
    Prof. King was informed last year that the Munro archive in Hannover was available for comparison of documents through the kind offer of Dr. Ch. E. Loeben, who was a student of Munro, and who also knew Fritz. One need not have had the investigative skills of Ariel Sabar to have made that simple inquiry.
    A somewhat related paper and discussion led by Eibert Tigchelaar concerns “Dead Sea Scroll” mss that appeared on the market in the 21st century–are some of them genuine and some fake? What texts? What hands? What provenance information? (Also mentioned in the discussion: so-called “palm pen/stylus” objects supposedly from Qumran sold to two private collections and an apparent mix-up of Qumran silver hoarded coins mixed in with non-Qumran provenance coins in the Amman museum, apparently leading a few to misdate the Qumran coin hoards.) If interested see:
    https://www.academia.edu/s/281d6818e8

  2. Thanks.
    Peter Munro died on Jan. 2, 2009, not 2008 (despite the typo in the English translation), according to the German original obituary by Ch. E. Loeben, as confirmed by the statement that he was born in 1930 and died “six days before his 79th birthday” as confirmed in the following locations:
    http://archiv.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/propylaeumdok/203/1/Nachruf_Munro_deutsch_.pdf
    https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/zaes.2012.139.issue-1/zaes.2012.0001/zaes.2
    https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Munro
    https://www.uni-marburg.de/cnms/aegyptologie/aktuelles/news/munro
    http://www.fitzmuseum.cam.ac.uk/er/oldnews/oldnews19.html
    http://ntweblog.blogspot.com/2014/04/tentative-chronology-on-coptic-jesus.html

    Prof. King reportedly did not show much interest when first contacted by Fritz in 2010. When he wrote her again in July 9, 2011 he claimed to inform her “before I sell it.”
    But did he really have an offer to buy it or was that a sales tactic.
    Also his wife’s blog account of a 2nd century AD Coptic gospel may not be reliable.

  3. In case the comment about her actions being “shocking” applies to my critical article, “The Jesus Wife Fragment and the Axis of Shockery”, (originally posted here, http://christiancadre.blogspot.com/2016/06/the-jesus-wife-fragment-and-axis-of.html, and reposted by my permission with slight editorial upgrades and some humorous illustrations and photos added by the editor here, http://www.altarandthrone.com/the-jesus-wife-fragment-and-the-axis-of-shockery/) — the “shockery” of the title refers to the marketing of the fragment by Dr. King, and her supporters at the Harvard Divinity School and the Smithsonian Institute (the “axis” of my title), in a way designed to make the fragment itself looking “shocking”. In fact I am quoting Sabar’s own investigative article where, even at this late date, he’s following the original marketing script and trying to make the fragment seem “shocking” and historically relevant had it been legitimate. This is also the context of my calling the fraud a “shocking fake” toward the end: a fake designed to shock people (for no good reason).

    I am however making the case in the article that all three groups of people contributed to the fraud, in the sense that they all knew well enough that the fragment couldn’t possibly bear the marketing weight they insisted on assigning to it anyway; and that they did things they shouldn’t have done, and didn’t do things they should have done, if the fragment really was as important as they were trying to make it out to be.

    I’ll gladly add a link to the comments back to this article as a corrective to any errors I made in trying to sift through the timeline.

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