Once a week, Karen L. King boarded a train from West Berlin to East Berlin, her dissertation-in-progress tucked in a bag. It was the early 1980s, and written materials — even academic treatises — were regarded as contraband not to be transported across the wall.
When guards stopped her, she would surrender her work and wait in detention, sometimes minutes, sometimes hours. Once, she was strip-searched.
King, young and determined, figured it was a small sacrifice if it meant getting to study with New Testament scholar Hans-Martin Schenke. His East Berlin study group had translated many of the ancient Coptic texts discovered in Nag Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, including writings about Jesus opposed by other Christians, and he set aside a day each week to work with King.
“What a gift. Do you know what I mean?” she said in a recent interview in her office at Harvard Divinity School. “What a gift.”
That same sense of adventure, competitive drive, and intensity about her work helped propel King into the global spotlight in September, when she introduced the world to a small swatch of papyrus that she believes to be a fourth-century fragment portraying Jesus as married. Her understated demeanor and meticulous, footnote-saturated writing belies her boldness — and readiness to follow her work wherever it leads.
“She just has a very subtle, logical, generous way of going about something. But when she is on it, she’s on it, and she won’t back down,” said Dale Wright, a professor of religion and former colleague at Occidental College in Los Angeles who has remained close to King.
But King, 58, who holds the oldest endowed chair in the country as the Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard, has never sat so squarely at the center of worldwide attention as she has the past two months.
Nor has her work ever been so roundly criticized; skeptics from every corner have dismissed the fragment, which she provocatively named “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” as a forgery. The Harvard Theological Review has postponed publication of her article until further scientific testing of the text is completed.
“It’s been pretty overwhelming,” her younger brother, Clifford King, of Gloucester, said in an interview. “I don’t think she anticipated this level of frenzy.”
King’s journey to Cambridge and academic stardom began thousands of miles away, in a town with fewer residents than Harvard has professors.
She grew up in Sheridan, Mont., a ranching community of about 600 people surrounded by breathtaking scenery — snowcapped mountains and vast stretches of national forest. She was the second of four children; her father was the town pharmacist.
“He saw that as his obligation to the community,” she said. “Nobody got turned away who needed drugs. Ever. There is just a way in which those kinds of values are so crucially important to me.”
A standout student and pianist, King was strong-willed, competitive, and adventurous, Cliff King recalls. She jumped at the chance to spend her last year of high school on a student exchange program in Norway, even though it meant missing senior year.
Though eight years apart, she and her younger brother were close. When he lost his right arm in a ranching accident at age 14, she regularly made the three-hour drive home from college to keep him company. “That was very comforting,” he recalls.
Her family went to a Methodist church, and at a Methodist summer camp in middle school, she experienced an evangelical conversion, repenting and promising to accept Jesus into her heart. Even as a teenager, King craved an intellectual component to her religious life. She went to the Episcopal church in town for its adult Bible study class. She was the only youth, and she liked how serious it was.
Perhaps inescapably — Yellowstone, with its crashing waterfalls, spouting geyers, and majestic peaks, is the local park — she also developed a deep reverence for nature. Despite her parents’ objections, just after college she biked alone down the West Coast from Portland, Ore., to the outskirts of San Francisco, camping as she went.
“I enjoy time to myself,” she said. “It’s an opportunity to spend time in the presence of God.”
She graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in religious studies, then worked in New York as a nanny for the family of writer Calvin Trillin before entering graduate school at Brown University. She met her husband, a structural engineering professor, in Rhode Island just as she was graduating.
At Occidental, where she was a religion professor 13 years before coming to Harvard, she was instrumental in establishing a women’s studies program and women’s center and received the campus-wide award for teaching.
“To be in her presence and just to listen to her think was just incredibly stimulating, and it excited students,” Wright said.
Cindy Wolf, who graduated from Occidental in 1989 and now lives in Orcas Island, Wash., recalls King, her thesis adviser, pushing her toward primary sources and insisting that she keep narrowing her scope so she could examine the material more deeply.
“She is very precise, and incisive — she says exactly what she means,” Wolf said. “And if she has chosen to say it, you know that she has really, really thought it through and has taken great pains to make sure she has good reasons for believing what she believes.”
When King, Wright, and another colleague in the religion department at Occidental had to create an introductory religion class, they rented a bus. Los Angeles, they reasoned, was one of the most religiously diverse cities in the world — why not take advantage of it? Together, they visited Pentacostal gatherings, an Eastern Orthodox cathedral, Hindu temples, a Buddhist center, the temporary synagogue of recent Russian Jewish immigrants.
The class was a turning point for King. It was the first time she had studied religion out in the world, as a living, breathing thing. The city’s vibrance and diversity dazzled the self-described “country girl.” Seeing ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wearing kippot, or caps, with Disney figures on them and hearing Buddhist kids singing “Buddha loves me” to the tune of “Jesus Loves Me ” made her think deeply about the ways in which social and cultural environments shape the practice of religion.
“You realize being Hindu in LA is not the same as being Hindu in Calcutta,” she said.
King began to consider how this insight might apply to the Nag Hammadi literature and other ancient Coptic texts discovered since the late 1800s, which included prayers, revelations, and teachings of Jesus that ultimately did not make it into the New Testament canon in later centuries. The “Gospel of Mary of Magdala,” for example, presents Mary Magdalene as Jesus’ favorite disciple and has her relating a strange vision she alone received from him.
All these texts had been lumped together as “heretical” or “Gnostic.” King began to argue that those labels were misnomers. When the texts were written, there was no such thing as orthodox Christianity — or Gnosticism, she argued. There were only tiny communities of a minority faith, scattered across the ancient Mediterranean, each caught up in their own political and cultural realities, and struggling to make sense of Jesus’ teachings and death.
“I started seeing that the lines that were being drawn between orthodox or correct Christianity and heretical Christianity couldn’t be drawn that way,” she said. “I had to step back and start sort of fresh and say, ‘What are the similarities and differences among [ancient] Christians, and how might we account for them, in terms of them belonging to this place?’ ”
King argued that these texts should be seen as part of the story of Christianity, not as distortions of a complete belief system articulated by the Gospels and handed down by the fathers of the early church. She contends that the early history of Christianity needs to be rewritten to include these previously marginalized voices, taking into account how “a limited set of perspectives has shaped what people believe.”
“She’s made her mark on the field by doing that,” said Mark Goodacre, a New Testament scholar at Duke University. “It’s a massive contribution to scholarship.”
Reconsidering these ancient texts is important to King not only as a scholar but as a Christian (she is an observant Episcopalian). “Responsible believers” who refuse to blindly accept dogma, she says, need the most accurate history of their faith possible.
In addition to presenting her work at elite scholarly conferences, she frequently gives talks to Bible study groups at churches, where the questions of people who sit in the pews help direct her research.
“If religion is as important in one’s life as it is for me, it’s important to have that capacity to think . . . both constructively and critically,” she said.
Scholars of early Christianity never know when a lost or previously unknown text — a small, badly damaged fragment or, as in the case of the Gospel of Judas , an entire book — might appear out of nowhere. They then have to figure out whether it is authentic, what it means, and how it relates to other texts.
“They are a huge detective story for all of us,” said Elaine Pagels, a renowned historian of religion at Princeton University who coauthored a book on the Gospel of Judas with King in 2007. “It’s a lot of fun, and a challenge.”
And so it is not surprising that King was the recipient of a stranger’s e-mail, asking her to have a look at the papyrus fragment that mentioned Jesus’ wife.
She dismissed it as a likely forgery at first, but consultations with one of the world’s top papyrologists and a crack Coptic linguist persuaded her otherwise.
Some of King’s colleagues point out that her assertions about what it says are quite modest. She acknowledged lingering authenticity issues from the outset and stressed that, if genuine, it merely suggested that some ancient Christians thought Jesus was married, not that he was.
“She has gone about this in a sober and careful way,” said William A. Graham, former dean of Harvard Divinity School. “I don’t think she’s been hasty about this at all.”
The Vatican newspaper and others have criticized her for giving an extended interview to three publications — including The Boston Globe — in advance of her presentation at the Coptic Congress in Rome, as if to maximize publicity. But King said that was a strategy she came up with in collaboration with the Harvard public relations team in hopes of providing context for a complicated story that she knew would be of great interest to the public. She called it “the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” because it appeared to relate a dialogue between Jesus and his disciples, and the most distinctive thing about it was its mention of Jesus’ wife. She added that its closest parallel seemed to her to be other noncanonical gospels.
She brought it forward, say those who know King well, out of a conviction that the discovery may be important not only to scholars but to people outside the academy.
“What she wanted was discussion among scholars in public view,” said Hal Taussig, a Methodist minister and visiting professor at Union Theological Seminary who has been a close colleague for three decades. “She is responsible, I think, in ways that many of us in the guild of biblical studies have not been, because she is willing to think about what her work means for the larger human enterprise.”
She may have gotten more than she bargained for. Scholars all over the world raced to prove the papyrus was a forgery in the weeks following her presentation, hashing out their arguments in a handful of scholarly blogs. Some papyrologists have pointed to its mysterious origins as reason alone to doubt its authenticity.
King said she does not regret keeping the name of the fragment’s owner a secret. She has legal permission from him to disclose it, but he asked her not to because he did not want to be pestered by people wishing to buy it from him.
“I said I wouldn’t, and I keep my word,” she said. “It’s really small-town ethics.”
King is now awaiting the results of ink composition tests, which cannot establish for sure that it is authentic — but they could reveal that it is a forgery.
“I’m on the edge of my seat as much as anybody,” she said. “And we’ll see.”
Lisa Wangsness can be reached at email@example.com.