From the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning author comes the gripping true story of a sensational religious forgery and the scandal that shook Harvard.
In 2012, Dr. Karen King, a star religion professor at Harvard, announced a breathtaking discovery just steps from the Vatican: she’d found an ancient scrap of papyrus in which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene “my wife.” The mysterious manuscript, which King provocatively titled “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” had the power to topple the Roman Catholic Church. It threatened not just the all-male priesthood, but centuries of sacred teachings on marriage, sex, and women’s leadership, much of it premised on the hallowed tradition of a celibate Jesus.
Award-winning journalist Ariel Sabar covered King’s announcement in Rome but left with a question that no one seemed able to answer: Where in the world did this history-making papyrus come from? Sabar’s dogged sleuthing led from the halls of Harvard Divinity School to the former headquarters of the East German Stasi before landing on the trail of a Florida man with an unbelievable past. Could a motorcycle-riding pornographer with a fake Egyptology degree and a prophetess wife have set in motion one of the greatest hoaxes of the century? A propulsive tale laced with twists and trapdoors, Veritas is an exhilarating, globe-straddling detective story about an Ivy League historian and a college dropout—and how they worked together to pass off an audacious forgery as a long-lost piece of the Bible.
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.
I read a NY times review while reading this book that said the book was "too long". As someone who spent nearly their entire career as a research manager in academia, i wished the book could have been longer. It's one of the best stories about the foibles of researchers i've ever read. The author's painstaking research was spot on and provided a gripping account of how far off the rails even a great researcher can find themselves when the ends become more important than the means.
A fascinating investigative journalism
I first came across the story when I read the same author’s journal article "Did Jesus Have a Wife?” at The Atlantic. Since I’m a professional historian, I was totally stunned that an esteemed Harvard religious historian was duped by a person who never finished his Ph.d. Now, after four more years of research and investigation, the author has presented a full-length account of this fascinating and bizarre story. A big takeaway: if something is too good to believe, then don’t believe it without thorough investigation.