Seeing What We Want to See: Reflections on the Saga of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

Michael J. Kruger

Posted on

September 3, 2020

While Narnia is a land filled with magic—where animals can talk and even sing—not all people can hear them.  In C.S. Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew we learn that Uncle Andrew is one of those people. When the animals speak to him, Uncle Andrew hears only animal sounds. Just noise, not words.

Why? He is closed to the idea of a magical world. He assumes (in his worldview) that animals are nothing but dumb creatures. Thus, when Aslan sings, Uncle Andrew is able to rationalize it away: “‘Of course, it can’t really have been singing,’ he thought, ‘I must have imagined it. I’ve been letting my nerves get out of order. Who ever heard of a lion singing?’”

Then Lewis (as the narrator) offers the most profound insight: “What you see and what you hear depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

This inestimable lesson, one it seems every generation needs to learn anew, is perhaps the big take away from the book I have just finished: Ariel Sabar, Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife (Doubleday, 2020).

Sabar’s fascinating page-turner has garnered quite a bit of attention over the last few months and it is easy to see why. Utilizing his skills as an investigative journalist, he has taken a deep dive into the saga of the so-called Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, building upon his 2016 article in The Atlantic.

The saga began in 2012 when Karen King, professor of divinity at Harvard University, announced the discovery of a provocative new papyrus fragment where Jesus utters the phrase, “my wife…” Needless to say, the academic world was stunned by this new “gospel” and the implications it might have for the history of Christianity.

Indeed, issues of gender and sexuality have been at the forefront of biblical studies for sometime now, particularly when it comes to what Jesus himself might have taught, and also what his earliest followers might have believed.

Much of this was stirred up, at least a popular level, by Dan Brown’s 2003 fictional bestseller, The Da Vinci Code, which suggests that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and had children. Even more, it argued that Christians through the ages have memorialized this marriage through illicit sexual rituals.

Could this new Gospel of Jesus’ Wife be the historical proof of this alternate version of Christianity? Proof that Jesus was married, or at least that some early Christians thought he was?

Well, whatever vision King might have had for the way this fragment could have transformed Christianity, it all came crashing down rather quickly. Sabar reveals how this fragment, as soon as it landed into the hands of other scholars in the broader academic community, was quickly exposed as a forgery.

The textual details about how we know the fragment is a forgery are fascinating in their own right and I will leave you to Sabar’s recap (and I have written about it here and here). But, the more intriguing aspect of the story is how easily and quickly it was exposed as a forgery.

If these textual problems could be uncovered by these other scholars, then why weren’t they uncovered by King (or by those few scholars to whom King showed the fragment prior to her announcement)?

Even more remarkable is that King herself had never undertaken a rigorous investigation of the document’s origins and provenance. She knew very little about the man who gave her the fragment, and relied solely on his own testimony for how he acquired it. Moreover, she refused to reveal the man’s name to the public.

The heart and soul of Sabar’s book is the remarkable detective work that led him to the owner (and likely forger) of this fragment. It turns out it belonged to a rather shady German-American business man, and washed-out Coptic student, named Walter Fritz.

There is not space to review the details of Sabar’s investigations here, but Fritz (if he is the forger) appears to have been motivated by a number of causes.  At the core, he seems to have been frustrated with the Catholic church and its teachings (apparently due to abuse he suffered at the hands of a Catholic priest).

More than this, he and his wife apparently were fascinated with Da Vinci Code-style conspiracy theories of the history of the church and the suppression of women.  Needless to say, this presents a rather compelling motivation for a forgery such as this one.

So, this leads us back to the question of why King didn’t “see” all these problems with the fragment from the start. Is it possible that she ended up seeing what she wanted to see? This is essentially the argument of Sabar’s book.

Sabar explores how King herself was committed to a theological vision of a Christianity that liberated women from masculine-dominated world of the institutional church—a vision derived from other early Gnostic texts like the Gospel of Mary. And a vision, argues Sabar, that would have made this new gospel fragment very appealing:

What fired her intellect 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 lacunae. Whether or not the Gospel of Jesus’ wife was authentic, it had what King’s mentor, Bob Funk, called ‘operational effectiveness.’ It felt true to many people’s experiences today (328).

Put simply, King was operating less like a historian and more like a theologian. Sabar writes:

Liberating faith from the grip of insular elites was a worthy cause. But King’s approach to it looked scarcely more like history than the work of a theologian at the Vatican or Moody Bible Institute who cherry-picked other ancient texts as ‘historical proof’ for the righteousness of their beliefs (327).

This entire saga puts us face-to-face with a very important lesson as it pertains to the study of early Christianity (or, for that matter, the study of anything), namely that sometimes we find what we want to find. Sometimes we see what we want to see.

And what determines what we see/find?  As Lewis observed in the opening quote, it “depends a great deal on where you are standing. It also depends on what sort of person you are.”

In other words, it is determined by your beliefs, your values, and your assumptions about reality. It is determined by your worldview.

Now, normally such observations are made about evangelical scholars. Evangelicals, we are told, look at the evidence through the lens of their belief system and therefore end up finding what they want to find. Their scholarship is less trustworthy, it is argued, because it is ideologically conditioned.

And to be fair, that is a concern that evangelicals need to pay better attention to. We need to make sure that we are not just finding what we want to find.

But the saga of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife reminds us that is not just evangelicals that have a worldview. It is not just evangelicals that are influenced by their beliefs, values, and assumptions when they do history.

This goes a long way toward helping college students understand why so many of their professors reject Christianity. Is it just because these professors are following the “facts” and that Christians are following their “hearts”?  Perhaps. But Sabar’s book shows us that things are rarely that simple.

Even professors at major universities sometimes follow their hearts instead of the facts. Even professors from Harvard.


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