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.Continued...