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Veritas
Cover of Veritas
Veritas
A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife
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From National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author Ariel Sabar, the gripping true story of a sensational religious forgery and the scandal that engulfed Harvard.
In 2012, Dr. Karen King, a star professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced a blockbuster discovery at a scholarly conference just steps from the Vatican: She had found an ancient fragment of papyrus in which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene "my wife." The tattered manuscript made international headlines. If early Christians believed Jesus was married, it would upend the 2,000-year history of the world's predominant faith, threatening not just the celibate, all-male priesthood but sacred teachings on marriage, sex and women's leadership. Biblical scholars were in an uproar, but King had impeccable credentials as a world-renowned authority on female figures in the lost Christian texts from Egypt known as the Gnostic gospels. "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife"—as she provocatively titled her discovery—was both a crowning career achievement and powerful proof for her arguments that Christianity from its start embraced alternative, and far more inclusive, voices.
As debates over the manuscript's authenticity raged, award-winning journalist Ariel Sabar set out to investigate a baffling mystery: where did this tiny scrap of papyrus come from? His search for answers is an international detective story—leading from the factory districts of Berlin to the former headquarters of the East German Stasi before winding up in rural Florida, where he discovered an internet pornographer with a prophetess wife, a fascination with the Pharaohs and a tortured relationship with the Catholic Church.
VERITAS is a tale of fierce intellectual rivalries at the highest levels of academia, a piercing psychological portrait of a disillusioned college dropout whose life had reached a breaking point, and a tragedy about a brilliant scholar handed an ancient papyrus that appealed to her greatest hopes for Christianity—but forced a reckoning with fundamental questions about the nature of truth and the line between faith and reason.
From National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author Ariel Sabar, the gripping true story of a sensational religious forgery and the scandal that engulfed Harvard.
In 2012, Dr. Karen King, a star professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced a blockbuster discovery at a scholarly conference just steps from the Vatican: She had found an ancient fragment of papyrus in which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene "my wife." The tattered manuscript made international headlines. If early Christians believed Jesus was married, it would upend the 2,000-year history of the world's predominant faith, threatening not just the celibate, all-male priesthood but sacred teachings on marriage, sex and women's leadership. Biblical scholars were in an uproar, but King had impeccable credentials as a world-renowned authority on female figures in the lost Christian texts from Egypt known as the Gnostic gospels. "The Gospel of Jesus's Wife"—as she provocatively titled her discovery—was both a crowning career achievement and powerful proof for her arguments that Christianity from its start embraced alternative, and far more inclusive, voices.
As debates over the manuscript's authenticity raged, award-winning journalist Ariel Sabar set out to investigate a baffling mystery: where did this tiny scrap of papyrus come from? His search for answers is an international detective story—leading from the factory districts of Berlin to the former headquarters of the East German Stasi before winding up in rural Florida, where he discovered an internet pornographer with a prophetess wife, a fascination with the Pharaohs and a tortured relationship with the Catholic Church.
VERITAS is a tale of fierce intellectual rivalries at the highest levels of academia, a piercing psychological portrait of a disillusioned college dropout whose life had reached a breaking point, and a tragedy about a brilliant scholar handed an ancient papyrus that appealed to her greatest hopes for Christianity—but forced a reckoning with fundamental questions about the nature of truth and the line between faith and reason.
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About the Author-
  • ARIEL SABAR is a prize-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Harper's Magazine, The Washington Post, and many other publications. He is the author of My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for His Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Reviews-
  • Kirkus

    May 15, 2020
    Intriguing religious/true-crime story involving a possible wife of Jesus. News outlets came alive in 2012 when Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King announced the discovery of a papyrus fragment suggesting that Jesus may have had a wife. The fragment, soon dubbed "The Gospel of Jesus' Wife," stirred interest as well as controversy, as scholars across the world warned it may be a fraud. King, who had obtained the fragment from a mysterious and anonymous collector, doggedly defended the ancient piece of papyrus even as the evidence of its authenticity grew weaker. Journalist Sabar--whose book My Father's Paradise (2009) won the National Book Critics Circle Award for autobiography--happened to be following the story from the beginning, and he shares a sometimes-riveting, occasionally odd tale of academia gone awry. Though the author goes to great pains to portray King in a positive, compassionate light, a central reality emerges: The professor's excitement over the social impact of the fragment blurred her sense of what was historically accurate. After introducing King biographically as a brilliant and respected scholar, "a dazzling interpreter of condemned scripture," Sabar moves on to the story of how King came across the fragment and decided it was most likely legitimate. Her debut of the fragment at a conference in Rome led to a storm of media attention. Over time, however, other scholars began to see signs of forgery in the way the document had been created, and the media tide turned against King. The sordid source of the fragment--a former student of ancient languages-turned-pornographer--overshadowed King's hopes that what it represented for women in the church was worth believing in, above the papyrus' actual authenticity. "Her ideological commitments," Sabar concludes, "were choreographing her practice of history. The story came first; the dates managed after." A lengthy yet fascinating tale of how one scholar was duped, both by a con man and by herself.

    COPYRIGHT(2020) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Booklist

    Starred review from June 1, 2020
    In 2012, a papyrus fragment in which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene his wife made headlines worldwide. Karen King, a Harvard expert on Gnosticism, introduced and championed the piece as an alternative look into Christianity's beginnings, but she didn't practice proper due diligence as to its provenance. There was pushback at the time, and, after several years of examination, even King acknowledged that the so-called Gospel of Jesus's Wife was probably fake. Sabar, an award-winning journalist, was there at the beginning; unable to let the story go, he's produced an exhaustive examination of the whole affair in a work of exemplary narrative nonfiction. Fitting neatly into the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction category, the story hops from Berlin to Rome to Nowheresville, Florida, and finally to Harvard Yard, introducing in the process con-man Walter Fritz, both an internet pornographer and a forger of ancient texts. Sabar details his time with Fritz, trying to cut through the man's many obfuscations, but the real focus is on King. Sabar makes the case that King's determination to validate women's role in early Christianity led her to cut corners while pushing her Gospel. But Sabar also seems to have an agenda, often going out of his way to throw shade at King. (A note reveals she wouldn't speak to him for this book.) Provocative and probing, this will entice readers interested in the history of early Christianity.(Reprinted with permission of Booklist, copyright 2020, American Library Association.)

  • Publisher's Weekly

    July 6, 2020
    In this entertaining outing, journalist Sabar (My Father’s Paradise) tells the story of a mysterious scrap of papyrus and the scholar who staked her professional reputation on it. As a writer for Smithsonian magazine, Sabar investigated the story of Harvard professor Karen King and her so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, supposedly discovered in 2012, which quoted Jesus as calling Mary Magdalene “my wife.” If it was in fact an authentic document, it would have unsettled conversations about Jesus’s life, ministry, and relationships. King’s fall comes after carbon dating established the papyrus to be of medieval origin and an article of Sabar’s forced King to retract her claims of authenticity for the “gospel.” In the second half of the book, Sabar allows himself to emerge as a character in his own right—the hero who ferrets out fraudster Walter Fritz, who fabricated documents of authenticity for the papyrus fragment and had fooled some of the brightest minds in biblical studies. Sabar’s narrative can be challenging to follow at times, in part because of the large cast that spans centuries, and also due to a frustrating aimlessness about exactly what mystery Sabar sees as central to his narrative: how the fraud happened, or the reasons—political, financial, and psychological—people were carried away by it. Still, this meticulous account is packed with enough intrigue to keep readers piqued.

  • Library Journal

    July 1, 2020

    Journalist Sabar (My Father's Paradise) has written a true story of mystery and intrigue. In 2012, Karen King, professor at Harvard Divinity School, announced that she learned of an ancient papyrus fragment in which Jesus referred to Mary Magdalene as his wife; this discovery challenged conventional wisdom about not only the life of Jesus but also biblical teachings in general. Sabar wrote an article on the announcement yet felt there was more to the story. His research led him around the world before he discovered the true nature of this fabricated document. Blending religious history with a tale of deception, this account also describes the work and research of King and explores how she, despite impressive credentials as a biblical scholar, believed a contrived manuscript was a historical document. Sabar continues by examining the motives of all involved, and detailing his ongoing search for the truth. VERDICT This is a well-researched, engrossing backstory of failed discovery from a noted scholar. Best suited for readers interested in biblical studies and papyrology.--Jacqueline Parascandola, Univ. of Pennsylvania

    Copyright 2020 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife
Ariel Sabar
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