Christian women for centuries have dealt with biblical passages and dogmatic teachings that have severely constrained their opportunities for leadership in the church and consigned them to subordinate roles in marriage.
No words in the Christian Bible are more demeaning to women than those attributed to the apostle Paul in his first letter to Timothy, where he is said to have counseled women to “learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men.” The epistle continues, “She is to keep silent.”
There are, as well, the ideas that Jesus chose only men as his original disciples and that Jesus himself was celibate. In recognition of that history, women for hundreds of years were not allowed to lead congregations, and the Roman Catholic Church has excluded women from the priesthood.
Evangelical Christians still promote the principle of “complementarity” in gender relations, with messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention as late as 2018 affirming that women must play “distinctive God-assigned roles” in the church and family.
Karen King, now the Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard University, was raised as a devout Methodist in small town Montana and underwent an “evangelical conversion” in high school. She began to question the orthodox Christian attitude toward women, however, once she began university studies in the early 1970s, a time of social unrest and countercultural challenge.
At the University of Montana, a religion professor introduced her to the Gnostic gospels, ancient Christian texts that were not included in the Bible when it was organized by church authorities in the first centuries after Christ’s death. In the view of some New Testament scholars, the texts were excluded because they did not support the patriarchal outlook prevailing at the time.
For King, the Gnostic texts suggested that debates over the role and authority of women were contentious even in ancient times. Her earnest hope to find that the early Christian community was in fact gender-inclusive led her to embrace an ancient papyrus fragment with the words, “And Jesus said to them, ‘My wife …’.” In King’s view, the text hinted that Jesus was actually married, a possibility that would upend two millennia of Christian teaching.
Only after she had enthusiastically promoted the text as “The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” and discussed it in a documentary film did she learn that the fragment was in fact a forgery and that the “Egyptologist” who brought it to her attention was an Internet pornographer.
It is a sad but fascinating tale, and Ariel Sabar digs out every detail in his engrossing book, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.
Sabar, whose father is a Kurdish Jew and an expert in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, clearly believes it is legitimate for biblical scholars to question how and why some books were included in the New Testament, while others, such as the more mystical Gnostic texts, were viewed as heretical.
But Sabar is less interested in that question than in how a respected scholar like Karen King could be duped by a bumbling fraudster. His book is largely an exploration of the personal lives and motivations of his two main characters, King and Walter Fritz, the shady porn producer who managed to convince King that the papyrus fragment he gave her was genuine even when so many others questioned its authenticity.
In Sabar’s telling, King’s determination to find a different Christian history reflected her own “ideological commitments,” the product of her experience with the misogyny in her evangelical past.
“What fired her intellect,” Sabar writes, “was the papyrus’s text, its story — a narrative that amplified her long-standing views about women’s wrongful exclusion from the Church, a lullaby that filled a long-lamented lacuna.”
In the case of Fritz, Sabar concludes after reviewing his troubled family history that his forgery “was a settling of scores with all the male authority figures who had robbed [him] of his potential” and that the Gnostic gospels gave Fritz “the vocabulary to simultaneously skewer the Church for its sins and absolve his mother of hers.”
Sabar arrived at such amateur psychoanalytic insights only after exhaustively (obsessively is a better word) digging into King’s and Fritz’s personal histories. He takes the trouble to track down local newspaper reports of King’s 1977 wedding and court records of her divorce five years later, even though her marriage seems irrelevant to the larger story. Sabar’s account of how he uncovered Fritz’s childhood history in Germany is similarly tedious and mostly unnecessary, as when he details how he perused old episodes of a German soap opera in order to verify the identity of Fritz’s half-brother.
But such digging also produced some priceless nuggets, giving credence to a fantastical story whose elements would otherwise be unbelievable.
The interaction of these two characters, one with a deep need to deceive and the other with a desperate need to believe, presents a wholly human story of frailty and weakness.
“The key to their improbable union,” Sabar finally concludes, “was an idea on which they’d both found purchase: that truth is in the eye of the beholder.”