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 firstname.lastname@example.org.