Academia Books Catholicism History

Impressions of “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” by Ariel Saber

Ariel Saber’s Veritas is an amazing book about two individuals who came together, under false pretexts, to convince the world a fake manuscript was a real one. Walter Fritz is a Florida-based pornographer, forger, and author of a legitimately groundbreaking work in scientific Egyptology. He fabricated a phony document purporting to be an ancient gnostic document in which Jesus says, “My wife…” Dr. Karen King engaged in academic dishonesty to subvert the peer-review process, silence critic, and build her own reputation on the basis of this document. Ariel Saber’s work exposed both of them.

This book is amazing, and I’ve never read anything quite like it. The publicity, corruption, and dueling scams recall Bad Blood about Theranos. The debunking (yet again) of the claims of Jesus’s marital status reminds me of The Treasury of Rennes-le-Chateau. And in the fourth-wall shattering twist, Kevin Madigan’s History of Medieval Christianity

The beginning and end of the story focus on Karen King, who received her job at Harvard after self-publishing a book (which she did not disclose was self-published), selected her own peer-reviewers and critics, and declared a forged document “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife,” without proof that it was either a gospel or about Jesus’s wife. King focused on the history of the Gnostics based on “data,” though she rejected the existence of data, history, and gnosticism.

Both Fritz and King seemed to be fans of Dan Brown and Holy Blood, Holy Grail. I also enjoyed those works of fiction and speculative history, but Fritz and King had another motive: a form of Gnosticism in which history was not objective, the Bible could be re-written to provide new lessons, salvation does not come from Christ but from secret esoteric knowledge, and early Christianity was led by women.

This all collided with a culture war at Harvard, which placed liberal atheists such as Steven Pinker against the Harvard Divinity School. King weaponized Fritz’ forgery to provide the highest visibility the Divinity School ever received, including its first New York Times front-page article. Serious academics like Kevin Madigan found themselves complicit in silencing dissenting voices in order to boost King’s findings and the chances of the Divinity School continuing to exist. And the President of Harvard, Drew Faust, found herself rejecting her own investigator’s recommendations and supporting the Divinity School. (Faust survived as President for only one year.

While both Fritz and King were exposed, neither seems repentant. The author reports Fritz targeting him for a scam as tailored to his interests as the hoax was to King. King, for her part, retired early but subsequently gave a lecture on the sexist role of skeptics in Christian history. The Atlantic still hosts a story claiming the papyrus is real, though King herself has accepted it is a forgery.

The New York Times summarizes the sad state of the world in its review of the book:

There was a lot King didn’t see. To test the papyrus, she engaged a friend who had been an usher at her first wedding, with whom she regularly spent New Year’s Eve. She was blind to the conflict of interest. Another tester, who gave the second of two favorable early reports, was the brother-in-law of King’s close academic ally, who solicited him for the job. Complicit were the editors of The Harvard Theological Review, which published these results, and Harvard’s press office, which flogged them to the world with the avidity of Hollywood publicists. King was abetted by a world of academics and higher-ed bureaucrats who forgot that, if we are wise, we should be most gratified to learn when we are wrong.

I read Veritas by Ariel Saber in the Audible edition.

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