Forgeries and Schadenfreude

Nearly four years ago, Karen King publicized a Coptic manuscript she had dated to the fourth-century. It contains the words, “Jesus said to them, ‘my wife.'” King did not claim the papyrus as evidence that the historical Jesus had married, but she did consider it evidence that early communities of Christians believed that he had. From the start, King encountered intense skepticism about the text and handwriting on the scrap of papyrus, but radiocarbon dating identified it as perhaps medieval or earlier.

Many of you have no doubt read Ariel Sabar’s riveting “The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife,” published several weeks ago in The Atlantic. Those interested might also enjoy Doug Fabrizio’s RadioWest interview with Sabar.

Sabar’s title gets right to the heart of the issue. In the wake of runaway success of The Da Vinci Code, the idea that a very ancient manuscript alluded to Jesus’s wife was too good to be true. So why did anyone believe the story? More to the point, why did Karen King? As Sabar observes, “The Jesus’s-wife fragment fit neatly with what has become her life’s work: resurrecting the diversity of voices in Christianity’s formative years.” In particular, from her studies on the noncanonical Gospel of Philip, King had a preexisting interest in the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. See, for instance, this article on the Gospel of Philip that King completed shortly before she encountered what she titled “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.” In other words, a forger presented King with a manuscript she would have loved to find.

Sabar tirelessly investigated the manuscript’s provenance, which, as he suggests in his RadioWest interview, is something academic scholars are not well equipped to do. He met with the man (Walter Fritz) who gave King the manuscript, and he flew to Germany to investigate Fritz’s stories. Journalists are much better at real-world detective work than scholars of religion. Not surprising!

The end result is that Karen King looks foolish. I recommend that we restrain our Schadenfreude. It’s no fun to be duped, for starters. Furthermore, King is hardly alone.

Sabar briefly narrates the far-stranger-than-fiction story of Mark Hofmann, a “master forger from Utah” who used antique paper, ink made from historic recipes, and other sophisticated technique to create forgeries of historic manuscripts he sold to collectors and the LDS Church. Hofmann was indeed a master. His forgeries included a transcript of hieroglyphics that Joseph Smith’s first Book of Mormon scribe (Martin Harris) had brought to a New York City scholar named Charles Anthon, and a blessing bearing the signature of Joseph Smith declaring his son (Joseph Smith III) his successor. Hofmann fooled both scholars and LDS church officials, who bought several of his forgeries for a handsome price. Then in 1984, Hofmann showed LDS officials a letter purportedly from Harris to William W. Phelps, which retold the story of how Joseph Smith had obtained the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon. In this letter, Harris states that a salamander rather than an angel had appeared to Joseph Smith. The church eventually obtained the letter. Although he did not rule out the possibility of a forgery, the church printed its text, and future church president Gordon B. Hinckley at least seemed to accept its validity. Historians, especially those writing about the involvement of Joseph Smith in treasure seeking, eagerly made use of Hofmann’s forgeries.

On the verge of discovery, Hofmann sent a mail-bomb to Steven Christensen, who had purchased the Salamander Letter. Another bomb killed the wife of Christensen’s business partner. A third bomb exploded in Hofmann’s car, injuring him. Police soon connected the dots.

Despite the tragic nature of the case, critics of the LDS Church relished in the fact that church leaders had been duped. Even though the church was the victim of fraud, critics alleged that the church’s dealings with Hofmann revealed a paranoid desire to control study of its past.

Sabar’s article also reminded me of our own Philip Jenkins’s penetrating analysis of what Morton Smith presented as a Secret Gospel of Mark allegedly referenced by Clement of Alexandria. As Jenkins notes, “the authenticity of that find is still hotly debated,” this despite circumstances rather similar to “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” in their unbelievability.

The simple fact is most of us are rather gullible. We tend to believe information that confirms pre-existing beliefs and hopes. Republicans believe evidence of Hillary Clinton’s venality, and Democrats believe the worst stories about Donald Trump’s business dealings. And the history of religion shows stubborn belief in rather obvious forgeries, such as the Publius Lentulus Letter and the Donation of Constantine.

And, let’s face it, those of us who are religious tend to take a lot of things on faith rather than provenance and scientific analysis. That’s certainly true of our scriptures.

So, yes, Karen King might have been eager to believe Walter Fritz’s claims, but even if an eager victim, she was still the victim of fraud, something outsiders and even scholarly detractors should refrain from celebrating.

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