Ariel Sabar has a new article out in the Atlantic digging into the provenance of the papyrus known as the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife or the Jesus Wife fragment. Sabar makes a strong case that the fragment’s owner is Walter Fritz, a Florida man with knowledge of Coptic and multiple potential motivations for this endeavor.
Read the article.
I have a few thoughts:
- Sabar writes: “I wondered why no one had conducted a different sort of test: a thorough vetting of the papyrus’s chain of ownership.” Many of us (Roberta Mazza, myself, others) have been arguing that a thorough accounting of provenance is the only means of proving the authenticity of the fragment, and more importantly, that provenance needs to be a more widespread concern in the academy. None of us academics, however, are investigative reporters; the labor and time that Sabar invested in investigating provenance is quite astounding. I thank him for it and hope that this incident leads to more scrutiny and awareness.
- The DaVinci Code may have had something to do with it after all but…
- …perhaps not as the dominant motivation, which may have been financial (which is probably the motivation of most art/antiquity forgeries)
- Sabar writes of Fritz, “He had even more scorn for critics of the Jesus’s-wife papyrus, deriding them as “county level” scholars from the “University of Eastern Pee-Pee Land” who think their nitpicking of Coptic phrases can compete with scientific tests at places like Columbia University and MIT that have yielded no physical proof of forgery.” I have noted for some time the importance of social networks in the scholarship on this fragment, and on the way the academic prestige economy has functioned. Many of the scholars who exposed the document as a forgery or produced important knowledge about the document and the controversy, are NOT at elite universities. I have a forthcoming article that talks about precisely this issue. Fritz derides the people who exposed his work, thus proving my point: that the status of the scholars who authenticated the fragment (status according to markers such as their institution) lent authenticity to the document as much as their methods or work did.
- Ariel Sabar was in my graduating class at Brown #evertrue
Edited to add…
6. The sexual politics in this saga are strange indeed, and one can’t help but wonder, after reading Sabar’s piece, about the relationship between the owner’s personal sexual politics/ views on gender and this episode.
Edited to add on 6/16: It has been pointed out to me that I may have overstated my point on provenance by using the language of “only.” I agree — provenance is not the only means of proving authenticity, and paleography and philology in this case demonstrated the case for forgery. Rather, what I am trying to argue is that provenance should be considered by scholars from the beginning in their work, that it should be more transparent, and that this transparency about provenance gives authenticity to the work.