Ariel Sabar is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, Harper’s, and other publications. His new book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, recounts a modern-day detective story of biblical proportions.
ECM: What was your initial reaction when you learned that you would be doing a story about the possibility that Jesus was married?
AS: Well, I wasn’t really investigating the possibility that Jesus was married. I was investigating the possibility that a recently discovered ancient text claimed he was married. I was doing some freelance work for Smithsonian magazine back in 2012 when an editor there reached out to me about a discovery that a Harvard scholar had made—a fragment of papyrus on which Jesus is said to utter the worlds, “My wife.” It was clear from the very beginning that this was never considered to be evidence of a married Jesus. It wasn’t a marriage certificate or a biography. At best, it meant that there had been a group of early Christians—perhaps as early as the second century—who believed that Jesus was married and that his marriage was theologically significant. It would still be a very big deal, though, because there was nothing else like that in antiquity.
I thought it was wild. I didn’t know a whole lot about the subject. I’m Jewish, and I didn’t study the New Testament closely growing up—certainly not the non-canonical or gnostic gospels. For about three mostly sleepless weeks I did a ton of research, conducted a bunch of interviews, and produced a 6,000-word story on deadline. It was published around the time that Dr. King made her presentation in Rome. As a journalist who covers scholars and is fascinated by their work, I recognized that this could be a pretty exciting find. But I didn’t have any idea in 2012 where it would ultimately lead.
ECM: When the papyrus was discovered, it sparked a scholarly debate over authenticity. Dr. King thought it might be legitimate; her critics said it was fake. As you reported that debate, were you persuaded that the piece was real?
AS: Well, I’m a journalist, not a scholar, so I don’t have the qualifications to judge whether a text that a Harvard professor dates to the fourth century is authentic. But I entered the story with an open mind. I really didn’t know one way or the other and I didn’t think it was my place to say. My job was to interview the people who were involved and try to understand their various arguments. But journalists always have to be skeptical, so I was careful to ask the sorts of questions that would encourage these scholars to identify the relevant gaps, silences, and problems. I wanted to know their levels of confidence in its credibility. If there were reasons to doubt it, then I wanted to know what they were.
ECM: If the papyrus wasn’t authentic, then it would most likely be a finely crafted forgery. Are these common? Is there a market for forgeries of ancient texts?
AS: From the dawn of archeology—and even the dawn of treasure hunting—there have been people searching the world for important artifacts, and that has created an incentive for other people to fabricate them. Whether it’s a piece of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, a part from a famous sunken ship, or an artwork that went missing hundreds of years ago—as long as there are people who are willing to pay for these items, there will be others who are willing to produce and sell them. If you’re good at forgery, you can make a lot of money. And in some cases, forgers are after something else—a chance to rewrite history, a chance to embarrass the experts, or even just a chance to have a chuckle at having fooled someone. This sort of thing has been around forever.
One thing that is relatively new, however, is the practice of using papyrus as a medium for forgery. In this particular case, the experts found the piece compelling in part because there hadn’t really been a history of papyrus forgery. Papyrus was the throwaway paper of the ancient world. It was seen as so ephemeral, and the languages it contained were often so obscure, that such a forgery would be really difficult to do. It was hard to imagine that anyone would have the classical education, the artistic skill, the motivation, and the nerve to produce something like that. But in recent years the market for ancient papyri has grown considerably, largely thanks to some wealthy evangelical Christians—especially the Green family of the Hobby Lobby craft store chain. They’ve spent millions of dollars acquiring biblical artifacts for their Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, and among these have been a bunch of fake Dead Sea Scrolls and thousands of looted antiquities from Egypt and Iraq, which they are now being forced to return. When they entered the marketplace in about 2009, there was suddenly a brand new demand for ancient manuscripts.
Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.