Book Reviews Museums & Exhibitions Sacrality

Of wives, the academic study of religion, and the pursuit of truth

Some thoughts on Ariel Sabar’s Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

Several months ago while conducting research for an upcoming exhibition about Mary Magdalene, I came across a long-read on the website of The Atlantic. The piece was written by investigative journalist Ariel Sabar, who researched the backstory to the so-called Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. This intriguing name was given to a papyrus fragment, surfaced in 2011, that supposedly has Jesus referring to his wife. The announcement of this discovery by Harvard Professor Karen King made it to news outlets around the globe. I very much remember reading a short article on a Dutch news site about it. I remember because I was intrigued, but the news article also left me confused. No conclusive insights were drawn from the fragment. It made me wonder why it had made the news, while so many questions were still left unanswered.

Sabar traces the origins and consequences of the many unanswered questions in a recent book titled Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. The book meticulously documents his journalistic quest for the true story of the papyrus fragment. And it shows how the saga of this discovery was not only a case of unanswered questions, but just as much of unasked questions.

The papyrus fragment King titled The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

The papyrus fragment and its interpretations have been subject to close scrutiny right from the moment the world got to know about it. Sabar traces how this scrutiny develops into heavy criticism and doubt, from academic disciplines ranging from ancient languages to the study of religion, and theology. He adds another important line of enquiry that casts a lot of doubt, regarding the provenance of the fragment. It leads Sabar to the most unexpected of destinations, and fortunately for us he takes the readers along. Without meaning to spoil the entire plot of the narrative (which is summarized in the The Atlantic article), I’d like to share some thoughts in response to the book.

  • Trained as an art historian and religious studies scholar, and working as curator of an upcoming exhibition about Mary Magdalene, it is intriguing to see once again how her relation to Jesus is of such great fascination in contemporary times. No other book has impacted the popular image of Mary Magdalene in the 21st century more than Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003). The novel is one of the world’s all-time bestsellers, offering an intoxicating mix of forbidden knowledge, religious hierarchies, hidden symbols, and a quest to unveil suppressed truths. Its mixture of religious history, famous art and architecture, and fictitious interpretations resonated to a great number of readers. To the extent that religion scholars felt the need to get involved in public discussions and reinforce the fictive nature of the story. Nuance was especially needed where it came to the described relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I alone have heard from scholars in the US, UK, and Denmark that they gave such lectures to high demand, and I can only imagine this happened in many other places as well. Remarkably, as Sabar shows, the interaction between popular culture and the academic study of early Christianity worked both ways. While many academics tried to debunk The Da Vinci Code, there existed also a strange form of appreciation of how this novel drew attention to a diversity of perspectives in the times of early Christianity. While the novel presented a fiction, for a lot of people this didn’t mean that discussions about potential reconsiderations of early Christian times – and particularly the role of women during this period – were off the table as well. A recent feature film, of wholly other nature than The Da Vinci Code, titled Mary Magdalene (2018, directed by Garth Davis) reinforces the call for new viewpoints and reconsiderations as well.
  • In Veritas, Sabar explores how King is one of the people who appreciates The Da Vinci Code for doing just that. As professor she spent decades working on early Christian – or Gnostic – texts. These manuscripts do not necessarily receive equal academic valuation as the canonical texts, while they offer remarkable alternative insights. Throughout her career, King has attempted to alter the primacy given to canonical texts towards a more favorable, widely-shared intellectual appreciation of the Gnostic texts. In addition to this fight for Gnosticism, the other anchor in her work has been the role of women in early Christianity. Mary Magdalene being one of them. This is why, after a phase of initial hesitation, King eventually became enchanted by the papyrus fragment. In addition to having Jesus utter the words “My Wife”, the lines on the fragment also refer to a woman worthy of being his disciple. In other Gnostic texts, Mary (often interpreted as Magdalene) is portrayed as one of the disciples. This made for an easy association between Mary Magdalene and the notion of a wife, who in turn was also fit to be a disciple. Interpreted this way, the papyrus suited King’s lines of academic inquiry. The fragment would be able to offer a way into broader debates about the position of women in early Christianity. From there it was a short distance to the role of women in the later church – and perhaps even a reconsideration of that church altogether. These were all topics King strongly pursued. Being enchanted by the potential of the papyrus’ message, King did not pursue an incredibly important part of humanities research dealing with objects of history, archeology, and art: the questions of authenticity and provenance. Question she hardly addressed, after being satisfied with initial positive responses from befriended colleagues. These colleagues did not necessarily possess all the required expertise (i.e. they have expertise in related academic areas). They also urged her to ask other experts for their insights on the fragment. However, instead of following up on these recommendations, the desire to transmit the perceived enchantment to a much wider audience in the end seems to have carried more weight.
  • As an enthusiastic attendee of (pre-Covid19) academic conferences, I loved Sabar’s detailed descriptions of King’s presentation of the fragment during the tenth international Congress of Coptic Studies in Rome and the initial response from scholars in the room. Although it may sound dull, I thought these passages make for a thrilling read (and made me terribly miss religious studies conferences!). Sabar also tracked what had happened before the conference presentation, behind the scenes. How media had been lined up beforehand, how the academic article presenting the find was received by peer-review (one favorable, two negative reviews), and how in the end these two very different outlets have dealt with publishing about the fragment and King’s interpretation of it. Descriptions of such scenes from behind the scenes reinforce the perceived significance of King being a Harvard professor. The weight of the university’s reputation is enormous in the entire endeavor – and it is time and again a reason for doubts to be cast aside. Peer-review and scholarly ethics are important pillars on which academia is built. They are essential components in its proper functioning. Sabar traces how boundaries of both these pillars are sought, making them ill-function at several stages in how the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was processed in the academic publishing trajectory. It reinforces how, of course, academic institutions have a particular reputation for a reason. Yet, academic innovation and ethical conduct are the prime responsibility of individual scholars – and there should absolutely be no difference between faculty at regional community colleges or ivy league institutions.
  • Veritas reinforces the many required disciplines for the study of religion – and particularly for the study of early Christianity. Expertise in ancient languages, biblical studies, history, archeology, theology, and not to forget the disciplines involved in material-technical research: this case of the papyrus fragment shows how interdisciplinary research is required before one is able to make any statements at all. Theological interpretations of the written text on the papyrus fragment lose all meaning if the fragment’s authenticity is contested. One perspective cannot (or should not?) exist without the other. Studying objects requires an interdisciplinary effort, which ideally is facilitated or at least encouraged by the academic institution scholars are based at. Towards the end of the book, Sabar draws a parallel between the timeline of the events around the fragment and tumultuous institutional events at the Harvard Divinity School, where King holds her professorship. One of the main questions raised at the faculty was – and still holds relevance for a great many institutions around the world – how the fields of theology and the study of religion relate to one another. Whereas at Harvard these two are maintained as interrelated, interdependent even, the alternative is to have separate departments for the two fields. It is fascinating – and frankly a little heartbreaking – to read where this interdependent approach took King in her interpretation and presentation of the papyrus fragment.

Finally, what remains most with me from reading Veritas during the research stage for the exhibition I am currently curating, is how the figure of Mary Magdalene has the ability to resonate with the zeitgeist. She has throughout history, and still does so this present day. The desire to open up a widespread debate about the role of women in early Christianity, and particularly in relation to Jesus, led King to a particular type of interpretation. It is a type of interpretation that very much parallels how throughout the past decades increasingly, both academic and popular, attention has emerged for underrepresented and previously ignored voices and figures beyond the canon. While she is referenced in the synoptic gospels as well, Mary Magdalene allows herself to be part of this framework that moves perspectives beyond the canon. This multiplicity provides her figure a remarkable strength, mystique, and endurance. Both the forger of the papyrus fragment and the scholar ran with that strength, adding yet another chapter to Mary Magdalene’s rich and varied reception history.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (New York: Doubleday, 2020).

Mary Magdalene: The Exhibition opens on 19 February 2021, at Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, The Netherlands. It will run until August 29, 2021.


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