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On Contact: Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man & the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to journalist and author, Ariel Sabar, about his new book Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife. Sabar’s book exposes much about the bankruptcy of contemporary theology and the yearning by academics to be lionized by the mass media and popular culture, even at the expense of truth.

In 1945 a collection of early Christian codices, or books, in fourth century A.D. script, were discovered at Nag Hammadi near the Nile, about 300 miles south of Cairo. The 52 works were translated from earlier Greek texts, many of them written by Gnostic sectarians. The Gnostics were condemned as heretics by the early church and their writings were banned. The texts, available to scholars, languished in relative obscurity until they were popularized by Elaine Pagels in her 1980 book The Gnostic Gospels. The Gnostics believed that an elect group of believers, themselves, had been given a secret knowledge about the divine status of human beings that was obscured by the Old Testament and revealed to them by Jesus, who was regarded as an illuminator rather than the resurrected savior. Women appear to have had a more prominent role in the sect than in the early Christian Church, although this is likely because these women rejected the “works of femaleness.” But the Gnostic Gospels played to the zeitgeist of the moment when the church was being challenged for its misogyny and believers were shifting from the demands of the Social Gospel, which call on believers to fight on behalf of the oppressed, and turning inward to the kind of self-referential spiritualism that now poisons the liberal church.

In 2003 Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code, which was to Biblical scholarship what Raiders of the Lost Ark was to archeology. In the novel, he makes Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus, pregnant with Christ’s child when he was crucified. This fiction was only a few degrees separated from the claims by some feminist scholars of the Gnostic Gospels, especially Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King. In 2012 Professor King announced that she had found an ancient fragment of papyrus in which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene “my wife.” The fragment, however, was a crude forgery, passed on to Professor King by a German expatriate living in Florida who was an internet pornographer with a tortured relationship with the Catholic Church.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss a “A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife” with author Ariel Sabar.

Ariel Sabar: Because, look, this papyruses, it’s the size of a business card.  There’s eight fragmentary lines of Coptic.  Now it happened to extremely well-chosen forged lines of Coptic because in the course of just eight sort of cryptic lines, it manages to topple two of the sort of central pillars of Catholic tradition.  One is that, you know, Jesus was a celibate bachelor, the other is that the church can’t ordain women.  And in the course of actually just two of those eight lines, this Coptic papyrus knocks down both of those pillars or attempts to.  But she really viewed this less as--you know, that--those are powerful things, you know, those shouldn’t be discounted.  If this were authentic, that would be potentially meaningful.

CH: In 1945, a collection of early Christian codexes or books in fourth century AD script were discovered at Nag Hammadi near the Nile about 300 miles south of Cairo.  The 52 works were translated from earlier Greek text, many of them written by Gnostic sectarians.  The Gnostics were condemned as heretics by the early church and their writings were banned.  The text, available to scholars, languished in relative obscurity until they were popularized by religious historians such as Elaine Pagels in her 1980 book “The Gnostic Gospels.”  The Gnostics believed that an elect group of believers themselves had been given a secret knowledge about the divine status of human beings that was obscured by the Old Testament and revealed to them by Jesus who was regarded as an illuminator rather than the resurrected Savior.  Women appear to have had a more prominent role in the sect than in the early church, although this is usually because these women have rejected the works of femaleness.  But the Gnostic gospels played to the zeitgeist of the moment when the church was being challenged for its misogyny and believers were shifting from the demands of the social gospel which call on believers to fight on behalf of the oppressed and turning inward for the kind of self-referential spiritualism that has now poisoned the liberal church.  In 2003, Dan Brown published “The Da Vinci Code,” which was to Biblical scholarship what “Raiders of the Lost Ark” was to archeology.  In the novel, he makes Mary Magdalene the wife of Jesus, pregnant with Jesus’s child when he was crucified.  This fiction was only a few degrees separated from the claims by some feminist scholars of the Gnostic Gospels, especially Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King.  In 2012, Professor King announced that she had found an ancient fragment of papyrus in which Jesus calls Mary Magdalene “my wife.”  The fragment, however, was a crude forgery, passed on to Professor King by a German expatriate living in Florida who was an internet pornographer and had a tortured relationship with the Catholic Church.  This story is pieced together through the dogged reporting of Ariel Sabar in his book “Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Conman, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”  His book exposes much about the bankruptcy of contemporary theology and the yearning by many academics to be lionized by the mass media and popular culture even at the expense of the truth.  Joining me to discuss his book is Ariel Sabar.  So before we begin, I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It is incredibly textured.  It’s, you know, has that kind of you peeling back the layers of the onion to find out and expose the kind of fraud and mendacity perpetuated by several figures in the book.  I would argue including Professor King herself.  I think it says something about the state of theological education today.  So yes, it’s--if you don’t have a book to read this summer, go out and get it.  Let’s begin with what happened, because the--this fragment, the size of a business card shows up, and just to give readers a context before we go into the details, explain the setup.

AS: Sure, sure.  So I was a relatively new freelancer at Smithsonian Magazine back in 2012 when I got a call out of the blue from one of the top editors there who said we’ve got a scoop.  This major Harvard professor is about to announce a very big discovery.  How would you like to go to Harvard to interview her and then follow her to Rome where she’s going to announce the discovery of this papyrus at a scholarly conference across from the Vatican, in front of basically the top people in her field.  And so it really took King completely out of the blue and I thought it would--I--you know, to be honest, didn’t really have any sense of where it might lead.  I’m not a typically religion journalist.  It wasn’t sort of something I’ve covered before but it sounded just like just this sort of phenomenal story because of how much seemed to be at stake in what this--what this papyrus was--appeared to be saying.

CH: And so she gets up, but from the moment there are questions because she speaks about this fragment, this forgery, very crude forgery it turns out and she doesn’t show pictures of it to her colleagues.

AS: Right.  And that was--I wound up being the only journalist in the room in Rome.  And so, you know, one of the things one expects at a--at a presentation of a major discovery, if you can’t bring the artifact itself to the place where you’re announcing it, you would think that you would want to present photos, particularly when you’re talking about an ancient manuscript because one of the really important things scholars do when they’re evaluating the authenticity of an ancient manuscript isn’t simply looking at what the text says.  It’s not sort of like the medium doesn’t matter.  The medium matters a lot in the study of ancient manuscripts.  And oddly, Karen King did not have photographs to present to her own colleagues when she presented the papyrus at this conference in Rome and that frustrated a lot of them, because that’s how they--that’s how they do their work.  And so Karen King very quickly wanted to move to sort of the message of the papyrus, what did it mean without asking the sort of first question of, like, is it authentic?  And I mean she will tell you that she did ask those questions but to a lot of people in the room that day, they felt they were deprived of that important piece of evidence, just the image of the--even the very image of the papyrus while they were being asked to consider it for the first time.

CH: Well, she also would not disclose the origins of the papyrus.

AS: That’s right.  You know, in the course of writing that first story for Smithsonian Magazine, you know, as a journalist, I’m, of course, very interested in sources.  I mean, as you know, as a former journalist yourself, sources matter a lot.  If someone comes into your newsroom with a sensational scoop, yes, you should vet the scoop.  You should, you know, fact check, you should call other sources but you also--it behooves you to ask questions about the source themselves, like who are they?  Do they have a record of truth telling of integrity?  What might they have at stake in something like this becoming public?  What might they have at stake in remaining anonymous?  And so I’ve asked Karen King several times, look, I’d really love to know who this individual is.  Can you just tell me anything about him?  And the answer was no, I promised him anonymity.  I can’t tell you that.  And so, you know, and her explanation was, you know, this was all he asked of me.  It’s the least I can do.  But I didn’t.  I pressed.  And I said, look, is this, like--is this a famous collector or is this someone were his name known that it would sort of ring a bell with people who collect art and collect manuscripts?  And she told me quite frankly, nope, he was a complete stranger.  Never heard of him before.  Seemed to have no footprints anywhere.  Complete stranger gave me this and then, you know, essentially about a year later, this object that she--that this man gave her winds up being announced across from the Vatican and on the front pages of both the New York Times and The Boston Globe.

CH: There were other disturbing elements of that moment when the fragment was made public, and that is the complicity of Harvard Divinity School itself.  And I should just say that I graduated from Harvard Divinity School with a Master of Divinity.  I have no argument with your portrayal of divinity school at all.  But when they publish in the Harvard Theological Review, it has to be given out to independent scholars and it--the fragment should be tested.  And just explain again, there was a level of mendacity around all of those issues which I’ll let you speak about.

AS: Sure.  I mean, of course, I think one of the reasons Smithsonian Magazine, a very prestigious magazine, was willing to sort of take this story out initially was that this story was coming from Harvard.  And Harvard is supposed to mean something.  Harvard should mean something.  I mean, it’s the, you know, it’s the most prestigious university in the world.  It’s the--it’s the wealthiest and most powerful university in the world.  And when the Harvard brand is attached to something, it should stand for, well, veritas.  You know, the Latin word for truth.  It’s in its own 400-year-old slogan.  And so I think it came with this imprimatur of sort of being sort of unassailable.  And, you know, one of the things that one expects before an announcement like this is for all the normal checks that scholars do to be done before you make a public announcement, before you bring in major journalists.  And so, you know, one of the things that was supposed to happen was peer review.  You know, Karen King had submitted her article to Harvard Theological Review.  It’s a hundred-year-old publication published by Cambridge University Press.  Very well regarded.  And, you know, in the course of reporting my book, I discovered that there were lots of problems right away, even almost as soon as she submitted the article.  Two out of the three peer reviewers that Harvard Theological Review asked to look at this papyrus.  And these are, by away, I figured out who they were.  It was a double blind process, but I figured out through my reporting that they were--these are like the number one people in the world that you’d go to, to assess a papyrus like this.  The number one, you know, undisputed number one and two people you go to.  Both of them wrote back in their peer reviews this looks very much like a modern forgery.  Be very, very careful.  This--it’s filled with grammatical errors.  The ink looks funny.  There’s no--there’s no ancient precedent for the handwriting.  This looks very, very fishy.  Be--you know, stay away from this thing.  Now there was only favorable peer reviewer and at first, that seemed like sort of a saving grace for Karen King because, well, at least one of the three scholars, you know, said maybe the papyrus is authentic.  However, what I discovered in the course of my reporting is that that one scholar, Roger Bagnall, he’s an acclaimed papyrologist that used to a Columbia Dean, former Head of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU.  He had helped King draft the article that Harvard Theological Review was asking him to review, which is like a big no-no.  It’s like being asked to be a referee for your own team.  And he only--and he wrote to them, he said, look, I am--I am in no way the right person to be asking a peer review from.  I helped Karen King draft this article.  In fact, they even sat down for the Smithsonian Channel Documentary touting this thing as authentic.  And by the way, I’m not an expert in early Christian papyri.  So, like I’m happy to say some things about it if you’re interested, but I’m not the right person to go to.  And the Harvard Theological Review anonymizes reviews sent into King anyway.  So in her mind, she has one positive peer review, even though it comes from somebody who basically helped her write the paper.  And so the peer review process wound up being this sort of charade.  And then what we also learned, and I think a lot of people have questions about, was why did Karen King not take the basic step of seeking scientific testing before going public?  I mean, a hundred years ago obviously we didn’t have all the science.  We don’t--we don’t have carbon-14 testing.  We don’t have, you know, all the laboratory equipment we do now.  But nowadays, there’s a lot of high tech equipment.  There’s a lot of archaeometrists.  That’s a fancy word for saying archaeological scientist, whose job it is to try to figure out whether an ancient object is legitimately ancient and then whether, you know, there are there any indications of modern forgery.  She took none of those steps before going public.  And nowadays, that seems to be standard.  And when the--when the National Geographic announced the Gospel of Judas, another authentic Gnostic text, they did all those tests before announcing to the public.  Because if you don’t, you can have those things coming back to bite you later, which is never a good look.

CH: Well, first of all, she hired friends who weren’t qualified to test the papyrus.  When it finally is tested, it turns out it’s from the seventh century.  She’s arguing that this is from the second century I believe, just as she did with the Gospel of Mary which she wrote about, although she’s alone in the scholarly world to argue that.  But she also--it’s all--and I want to talk after the break about the Jesus seminar which she comes out of but it’s also--it was all catered to the media.  You had this tiny fragment and she names it the Gospel of Jesus’s wife.  She tapes her interview, the show with Smithsonian before any of the tests are done, without any kind of evidence.  And as Elaine Pagels in your book is quoted, the whole idea that you would assume that this is a gospel, there’s no way to determine whether it’s an independent, a Gnostic gospel, one of the gospels that didn’t make it into the canon of the New Testament, it could’ve been--if it was real, it could’ve been just a few words that were wrapped up in papyrus and put in an amulet.  So this was from the beginning, a kind of media--a well-orchestrated media show without anything to back it up.

AS: Yeah, and I think--I think it became very clear in the course of my reporting that Karen King saw this papyrus less significant for its own sake, although it was certainly provocative, but as a sort of platform to get a broader public to begin asking questions about the origins of Christianity that she has spent her career wanting people to care about.  She wanted this, and as she put it to me in one of her interviews, she wanted to start a conversation.  Because, look, this papyrus is, it’s the size of a business card.  There’s eight fragmentary lines of Coptic.  Now it happened to extremely well-chosen forged lines of Coptic because in the course of just eight sort of cryptic lines, it manages to topple two of the sort of central pillars of Catholic tradition.  One is that, you know, Jesus was a celibate bachelor, the other is that the church can’t ordain women.  And in the course of actually just two of those eight lines, this Coptic papyrus knocks down both of those pillars or attempts to.  But she really viewed this less as, you know, that--those are powerful things.  You know, those shouldn’t be discounted.  If these were authentic, that would be potentially meaningful.  But she was less interested, I think, in having this papyrus stand on its own than having it be a kind of entry point for progressive Christians, for doubters, for lapsed Catholics, for anyone questioning their faith or wanting to reform their faith to have a sort of a true version of “The Da Vinci Code” they could use to sort of begin asking their questions of faith leaders.

CH: Great.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the bankruptcy of contemporary theology with the author, Ariel Sabar, who wrote “Veritas.”  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the book “Veritas” with the author Ariel Sabar.  So, yes, I think we have to bring up as we did before the break, The Da Vinci Code, because that’s what they’ve done in Karen King.  So with--she was one of the defenders of the Da Vinci Code, I admit to not reading the book, I did finally watch the movie for this interview.  It is, theologically speaking, schlock, all sorts of, and yet it caters to the message that has predominated throughout her career and I just, as a caveat, want to say that the investigations into the historical Jesus has long been away by which groups, and we’re going to talk about Hobby Lobby, has justified their own belief system, Albert Schweitzer actually wrote a book exposing all of this in the early 20th Century.  So when I was a seminarian, we were reading Rudolf Bultmann who was an existentialist, so of course Jesus became an existentialist and this is really--is part of King’s career from the onset, and it begins, as you do in the book, with the Jesus seminar started in the middle ‘80s, I think around 1985 and these were people who claimed that they were going to recover the historical Jesus but they made all sorts of claims such as they rejected the virgin birth, they rejected the myth of the resurrection, they rejected all of the gospel miracles, they rejected over 80% of the traditional teachings of Jesus, one of my favorites was they determined they only words that were authentic in The Lord’s Prayer were Our Farther, but this is what she comes out of, she comes out of a clearly ideological-driven movement that buttresses her own theological review.  So in fact what you’re writing about is not new.

AS: No, that’s true and I think--I think as you’ve pointed out, for as long as people have been searching for the historical Jesus or even for the Jesus of Faith, in many ways, they’ll be making Jesus in their own image.  So you’re absolutely right, there’s nothing sort of new about that, I think what--what’s troubling in this case is that there’s a kind of crossing of the wires.  So are people doing faith or are they doing history?  And I think you sort of need to be--you have a sort of a contract with your reader or the people in your pews that sort of tell me which you’re doing because if--I think if you’re doing faith then we don’t need to footnote faith, right?  I mean you can allow yourself a sort of imaginative fancy to find whatever it is that inspires you to rewrite your sense of what happened in the past, in the context of your own, you know, personal or communal religious experience, that’s what’s great about faith, we can take those kinds of flights of fancy.  But when you self-present as a historian, at a place like Harvard or when you present to the public as a person’s who’s--who only wants good fact and wants good datasets, and King has actually used these highly sort of scientific terms like datasets, the--and then you go back and you use the sort of methodologies of kind of theology or faith-based inquiry, that’s where I think the trouble arises and I think that that was one of the problems with perhaps with the Jesus Seminar as well is that while they claim to be looking for the things that Jesus actually said and actually did, there was, you know, there was a sort of ideology behind that, that didn’t always get--didn’t always get plainly disclosed and Karen King was the, you know, was the--a charter member of the Jesus Seminar and she was a pioneering feminist member.  In fact she was the only woman in the--in the--in the--in the charter group and then of course she grows out of that and winds up becoming a scholar of Harvard Divinity School where she continue to do the work of the Jesus Seminar in a--in a sense on another platform.

CH: Well she even twists the Jesus Seminar into they have codes.  I don’t remember what they are, gray, and red, and black, for the level of veracity of a particular biblical passage or biblical statement and they violate their own ideological creed by including the Gospel of Mary, which is a synoptic gospel, that talks about Mary as the witness to the resurrection of Christ, so I think they certify it as red, is that the highest level for accuracy and yet they don’t even believe in resurrection.  I mean, that tautology threw me, it’s in your book, but maybe you can explain.

AS: Yeah, yeah, I mean, so, you know, the Gospel of Mary is a text that most scholars believe was written in the late 2nd Century, so after all, you know, the--after the texts that you find in the new testament and most of them view it as a kind of gnostic reaction or critique of the books that wind up making the new testament.  Karen King is almost alone among scholars, possibly alone to date to the early 2nd century so it actually gets under the threshold you need to make it sort of a competitor of some of the text that make the New Testament and that allows her to further the argument that essentially texts like The Gospel of Mary were cut out because their portrayal of a strong Mary Magdalene was at odds with this sort of patriarchal impulses of the early church.  And so, you know, the Jesus Seminar did--of course doesn’t believe in the resurrection.  However, my sources, you know, told me that because of Karen King’s arguments, that Mary Magdalene was an important strong female voice in the early church, which by the way may have well been completely true, that because of those arguments, they should credit the Gospel of Mary and Mary’s witness of the resurrection as essentially historically true, even though the Jesus Seminar itself doesn’t believe in the resurrection.  So they--in fact, members of the seminar, leaders of the seminar told me, “Yeah, that wasn’t our finest hour.  We sort of twisted ourselves into a pretzel to make that one work.”

CH: I want to talk about Hobby Lobby, just explain what they’re doing, because I really--and this is an evangelical movement that believes every word in the Bible is true, although having written a book on the evangelical movement, they are selective literalists just like the liberal church because I think it’s the mirror image of what King did.

AS: Now, and that’s a great point, I mean, you know, Hobby Lobby’s owned by the billionaire evangelical Green Family.  This is the chain of retail, you know, arts and crafts stores people are familiar with in strip malls across the country.  But they’re--I think the largest private funders of evangelical causes in United States and they are famously the founders of the Museum of the Bible which is a museum that looks like a Smithsonian museum, it’s a block from the National Mall here in Washington DC where I live, and $500,000,000 to build and they were prolific collectors of biblical artifacts.  In fact they are now the largest private collectors of biblical artifacts in the world and I’ve written about them a bit for the Atlantic Magazine.  And what’s interesting is that they, too, have fallen prey to con artists, and to liters because even though they’re at these sort of opposite extreme of the ideological spectrum, I mean, if Karen King is a progressive feminist Christian who works over to Harvard, you know, the Greens are, you know, patriarchal evangelical conservatives who have a very, very different story of Christianity they want to tell.  But because they were so invested in this particular story of Christian origins, they’ve made themselves easy marks and I think that’s where you have--where you have the sort of mirror imaging where both of them put the story ahead of the facts.  I mean, the catholic church has done this too, it’s sort of, like, it doesn’t discriminate, but when--and here again is the question of when you have the crossed wires, when you--when you want to believe something so badly, whether it’s your--it’s about your faith, whether it’s about your history, you make yourself vulnerable to people who will come along to try to sell you something that you’ve always wanted to be true.  And that happened in the case of the Hobby Lobby folks who bought fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls, just happened to have the Leviticus verses condemning homosexuality in them, just happened to have that verse, those all turned out to be fakes, and then Hobby Lobby’s recently had to return thousands of antiquities to both Iraq and Egypt because they turned out to be looted.  So you can be a billionaire or you can be, you know, a Harvard Divinity School professor and if you put the story ahead of the facts, you risk--you risk getting caught.

CH: I would argue that this exposes the bankruptcy frankly of both traditions.  We were always taught to be very weary of those pedaling of historical Jesus, that this wasn’t what we call the theological Jesus.  We know for instance in John, the long trial transcript, I don’t--because any scholar who thinks that that is historically accurate and yet it is an important moment in terms of building Christian theology, we have two minutes left, and you do talk about it in the book, and I think you’re correct.  You talk about how places like Harvard Divinity School in particular have become kind of second tier institutions, you talk about many of the bright stars having left, and I think that this--and we--the rest of the book, people are going to have to get and read, it’s fascinating about the forger and everything, but let’s talk about what this says about liberal theological education because I think at that moment, you really nailed something important.

AS: Yeah.  I mean I don’t want to make any sort of sweeping generalizations about liberal theological education because it’s not the focus of my research but I think one of the things that’s absolutely true is that Harvard Divinity School has struggled with this sort of perception even--especially within Harvard, that it’s sort of second tier, the people who get hired at Harvard Divinity School would never get hired on the yard at Harvard, that’s sort of the main--the main part of Harvard.  And I think that that’s--they struggled with that from the very beginning, although, the irony, of course, is that Harvard was founded and initially is a school to train ministers for the--for the new colonies.  And I think, you know, that second tier image, you know, one of the things that makes Harvard an outlier among elite universities and even some none elite universities is that it doesn’t have a free-standing secular department of religious studies, the better part of the religious education at Harvard, the premier university in the world, it--the--is coming out of the Divinity School which is both training ministers to tend to their flock or to do various kinds of ministry and producing PhDs and there are a lot of this sort of the new start recruits who have left, like, you can’t mix those two things because they’re sort of--they’re--there are different approaches to the truth, and they’re both fine but we shouldn’t have them housed in the same building.  And I think that’s one of the knocks that people have against Harvard Divinity School, and also in the view of some people one of its assets that can--as you talked to, is that they’re trying to do both theology and secular sort of historical religious inquiry under the same room.

CH: Well, it’s also this dangerous thirst for, you know, cultural relevance and you talk about how all the television trucks were lined up on Francis Avenue in front of Harvard Divinity School the moment this came out at the time that the president of Harvard was talking about creating a free-standing religion department in the yard, we’re going to have to stop there.  It’s a great book.  That was the author, Ariel Sabar, on his new book, “Veritas: a Harvard professor, A Con Man, and The Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.”

AS: Thank you so much.

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