(BEING CONTINUED FROM 25/08/2017)
From the beginning, King was up front about the puzzles the Jesus’s-wife scrap posed. Its text spans 14 lines on the front and back, forming incomplete phrases presumably snipped from a larger manuscript. “Jesus said to them, My wife” is the most arresting line, but others are also striking: “She is able to be my disciple”; “I dwell with her.”
In our interviews late in the summer of 2012, King said she expected a vigorous debate over the papyrus’s meaning. She stressed that the fragment was all but worthless as biography: It was composed centuries after Jesus’s death. It showed merely that one group of ancient Christians believed Jesus had been married.
Before going public, King asked some of the world’s leading experts in papyrology and the Coptic language for their take on the fragment: Roger Bagnall, a distinguished papyrologist who directs the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University; AnneMarie Luijendijk, an authority on Coptic handwriting at Princeton who obtained her doctorate under King at Harvard; and Ariel Shisha-Halevy, a Coptic linguist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. All three thought the papyrus looked authentic.
“My first response was shock,” she told me over dinner that night. “My second reaction was ‘Well, let’s get this settled.’ ” She said that if her own panel of experts agreed with the skeptical reviewer, she would abandon her plans to announce the find in Rome. She knew how high the stakes were, for both history and her own reputation. Some of the world’s most prestigious institutions—the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre—had been hoodwinked by forgers, and she didn’t want Harvard added to the list. “If it’s a forgery,” she told The Boston Globe, “it’s a career breaker.”
I was interviewing King in her office the next day when an e-mail from Roger Bagnall popped into her inbox. She lifted her glasses and leaned into the computer screen. Bagnall suggested that she revise her article to address a few of the reviewer’s concerns, but he was otherwise unpersuaded.
“Yeah, okay!” King said, clearly buoyed. “Go, Roger!”
It was one of the assurances she needed to move forward.
The case for forgery, at first confined to lively posts on academic blogs, took a more formal turn last summer, when New Testament Studies, a peer-reviewed journal published by the University of Cambridge, devoted an entire issue to the fragment’s detractors. In one of the articles, Christopher Jones, a Harvard classicist, noted that a forger may have identified King as a “mark” because of her feminist scholarship. “Either he intended to find a sympathetic person or institution to whom to sell his wares,” Jones wrote, “or more diabolically intended his fraud as a bomb, primed to blow up and to discredit such scholarship (or perhaps the institution) when it was exposed.”
On a more practical level, she couldn’t see how a con artist cunning enough to produce a scientifically undetectable forgery could at the same time be so clumsy with Coptic handwriting and grammar. “In my judgment,” she wrote, “such a combination of bumbling and sophistication seems extremely unlikely.” The crude writing, she argued, could simply indicate that the ancient scribe was a novice.
Yet “a combination of bumbling and sophistication” could well be the epitaph of many of history’s most infamous forgers, their painstaking precision undone by a few careless oversights.
In the mid-1980s, a master forger from Utah named Mark Hofmann duped experts with manuscripts he claimed to have found that would have upended the official history of the Mormon Church. He used antique paper; made ink from historic recipes; and artificially aged his manuscripts with gelatin, chemical solutions, and a vacuum cleaner. But Hofmann was unmasked after a pipe bomb—which police believe was intended for someone he feared might expose him—blew up in his own car.
When I called Joe Barabe, a renowned microscopist who has helped expose several infamous fakes, he told me that most forgers try to unload their creations on the unwitting; scholars are usually the last people they want eyeballing their handiwork. So what kind of forger, I asked, might seek approval from one of the world’s leading historians of early Christianity?
“A pretty gutsy one,” Barabe told me. “You’d have to have a sense of Can I get away with this?”
After walter fritz rebuffed my request to meet in Florida, I called the North Port Sun and asked whether its staff had ever photographed him. A friendly reporter e‑mailed me an image of Fritz surveying a mulch pile—the paper had covered his long-running crusade against a wood-chipping plant he felt was blighting the neighborhood.
Jansen-Winkeln replied that he did: Fritz had been a master’s student from about 1988 until about the time the article was published. “He left the university without a final examination,” Jansen-Winkeln wrote. “I have never seen him again after 1992 or 1993.”
That night, I e-mailed Jansen-Winkeln the North Port Sun photo. Did this man look anything like the student he’d known two decades earlier?
Jansen-Winkeln’s reply was waiting in my inbox the next morning: “The man looks indeed like Walter Fritz.”
It was the first sign that Fritz might have lied during our phone call. I wondered why a promising student, a young man who’d landed an article in a premier journal early in his studies, would suddenly drop out of his master’s program. I tracked down several people who’d known Fritz at the Free University, but no one had any idea.
“One day he just disappeared,” one woman wrote, in a typical reply. “Is he still alive?”
Judging from public records, Fritz arrived in Florida no later than 1993. In 1995, he incorporated Nefer Art. The company’s Web site advertised a peculiar miscellany of services: wedding photography, “erotic portrait photography,” and “documenting, photographing, publishing, and selling your valuable art collection.”
I e-mailed the images of these manuscripts to a few scholars, who found them almost comical. The Greek one, which bore a drawing of a nude woman, superficially resembled texts from Greco-Roman-era Egypt known as “magical papyri.” But the Greek words made little sense, the scholars said, and the script was more or less modern print. “Perhaps not in Times New Roman,” Sofía Torallas Tovar, a papyrologist at the University of Chicago, observed drily, “but in a modern typography.” The drawing of the female figure, meanwhile, was “in a style unparalleled to my knowledge in an ancient document, but easily found in modern school notebooks.”
What happened next felt almost too easy. I dropped Fritz’s name and e‑mail address into Google, and up came a link to a site that tracks the history of domain-name registrations. On August 26, 2012—more than three weeks before King announced her discovery to the world, when only her inner circle knew of the papyrus and her name for it—Walter Fritz registered the domain name http://www.gospelofjesuswife.com.
The taxi ride from Tegel Airport into the heart of Berlin was a blind slog through labyrinths of graffiti-clad apartment blocks, in fog and light snow.
On a cold Sunday afternoon, my interpreter and I showed up unannounced at the apartment of René Ernest, Hans-Ulrich Laukamp’s stepson and closest living relative. Ernest and his wife, Gabriele, led us into their small living room and said they were mystified by what they’d heard about Laukamp’s supposed ownership of the papyrus.
Laukamp had lived in Potsdam, in Soviet-occupied East Germany, as a child. As a young man, he fled to West Berlin by swimming across the Griebnitzsee, a lake on the border. The Ernests didn’t know the exact date of the swim, but Laukamp’s immigration papers suggest that it was in October 1961, two months after the Berlin Wall went up, when he was 18 years old. A friend of Laukamp’s said he arrived in West Berlin with nothing more than his swimsuit.
The story of Laukamp acquiring six Coptic papyri in Potsdam in 1963 thus seemed to hinge on a dubious scenario: that not long after his illegal escape, he slipped back into East Germany, got the papyri, and then risked his freedom—and possibly his life—in a second illicit crossing to the West.
Another problem was that until Laukamp went into the auto-parts business with Axel Herzsprung in the mid-1990s, he’d been a humble toolmaker who didn’t collect anything—not even beer mugs, the Ernests said, though they acknowledged his fondness for drinking. “If he had ever owned or bought this thing, after his third beer at the pub he would have told everybody about his great coup,” Gabriele Ernest told me. “And if I knew my father-in-law, he would have immediately tried to make money from it.”
The Ernests gave each other a look, then burst out laughing. Laukamp had the minimum schooling required by German law, they said—the equivalent of eighth grade. His milieu was the bar on his street that served as his “second living room,” not the college campus across town.
(When I reached Peter Munro’s ex-wife by phone a couple of days later, she found the story just as preposterous. In 1982, Irmtraut Munro had been learning Coptic and studying papyri while working toward a doctorate in Egyptology. If her then-husband had come across an interesting Coptic papyrus, she said, “he would have told me about it.”)
I asked the Ernests how Laukamp’s signature might have wound up on the sales contract for the papyri. “He was a person who very easily believed things he was told,” Gabriele told me. He was good-hearted, she said, recalling how he brought breakfast to a homeless man in a park where he walked his dog. But he was “simple” and “weak,” a man who was easily misled.
When I mentioned the name Walter Fritz, she stiffened. “I can easily imagine Walter Fritz saying, ‘I need your signature for the company,’ ” she said. Laukamp “would have signed that without reading everything.”
When Fritz turned up at the Free University around 1988, it was in the guise of a man who already had it made. On a campus where student fashions ran to grungy jeans and T‑shirts, he often wore elegant dress shirts and blazers. He owned two cars, both Mercedeses.
Fritz’s zeal for Egyptology was just as conspicuous. He got a job as a tour guide at Berlin’s Egyptian Museum. He backpacked around Egypt; took a class with Munro, the resident expert on Egyptian art; and joked, one classmate recalled, that the randomly assigned letters on his license plate—which mirrored the academic shorthand for a group of Egyptian funerary spells—foretold an illustrious future in the field.
His superiors, however, told me his enthusiasm wasn’t always matched by hard work. “Fritz was quite eager and interested in Egyptology, but he was the type who was reluctant to take much effort,” Karl Jansen-Winkeln, the professor who identified Fritz in the North Port Sun photograph, said when we met for coffee near campus. Jansen-Winkeln, who taught a class that Fritz attended, recalled his Coptic as “not very good.”
“He paid a lot of attention—how would I say this?—to what other people thought of him,” Christian E. Loeben, an Egyptologist who had worked for Munro and considered Fritz a friend, recalled when I visited his office at the August Kestner Museum, in Hannover. “He would wait to see what his counterpart expected,” and then turn himself into that person’s “little darling.”
The arrival of a new department chair in 1989 may have sealed Fritz’s fate. Jürgen Osing was a respected scholar of Egyptian languages but a harsh and exacting teacher. In the whole of Osing’s career, I’d heard, just three students managed to complete a doctorate under him.
Fritz’s 1991 article might have been his ticket to a promising future in Egyptology. He had gotten one of the Amarna letters—clay tablets of correspondence to Egyptian pharaohs from rulers in the Near East—shuttled from a museum of Near Eastern history in the former East Berlin to the Egyptian Museum, which had the facilities for a more sophisticated photographic study of its partly legible text.
“There was a little problem,” Jansen-Winkeln told me: The article angered Osing. “Fritz went to the museum to copy the Amarna letter and make a photograph, but many of the conclusions he reached in the paper were what he had heard in Osing’s Egyptian-history class.” Fritz did thank Osing in the article’s first footnote, and cited him twice more. But Jansen-Winkeln says the article’s key findings “were not [Fritz’s] ideas.”
(TO BE CONTINUED)