Readers of the amusing little book ‘Without Precedent’* (‘This is a book about the tales people tell when precedent is needed in order to justify an action for which there is no precedent’) will already be familiar with some of the wilder flights of liberal theological fantasy. They may not, however, be familiar with the most recent and audacious example of the genre.

In 2012 the prestigious Harvard Theological Review published a piece by Professor Karen l. King (of that University) claiming possession of a fragment of papyrus which bore the words: ’Jesus said to them, “My wife….”’ King was adamant that the fragment was authentic – and naturally claimed that it was significant, not only for the celibacy of the clergy but also for the role of women in the Church.

Curiously King gave no detailed information about the provenance of the fragment. When was it discovered? How was it discovered? Where was it discovered? The opinions of others, however, seemed conclusive. Roger Bagnall and colleagues at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University were unanimously of the opinion that the papyrus was authentic; and Professor AnneMarie Luijendijk of Princeton thought that it would be ‘impossible to forge’.

The liberal press – led, as always, by The New York Times –  was not slow to draw the obvious conclusions. ‘The discovery could reignite the debate over whether Jesus was married, whether Mary Magdalen was his wife and whether he had a female disciple…global Christianity is roiling over the place of women in ministry and the boundaries of marriage,’ wrote its religion correspondent, Laurie Goodstein. Likewise Ben Guarino of The Washington Post: it ‘…could shatter one of the long-held tenets of Christianity.‘

It was this article which excited the interest of a tenacious journalist* who, after laborious investigation, revealed what King had kept secret: the identity of the owner of the fragment and its colourful and doubtful provenance. Max Fritz, it turns out, was a drop-out from a German University who had ended up as a Florida pornographer. Conveniently all those who could verify the provenance of the papyrus were dead and the principal documents existed only as photocopies.

King has since conceded that her confidence in the authenticity of the fragment was misplaced and the claims made for it ludicrously exaggerated. Fritz’s motives in the deception remain unclear. King’s are all too obvious. The Harvard Theological Review has yet to publish a retraction of the claims.

*Without Precedent, Scripture, Tradition and the Ordination of Women, Wipf and Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2016, ISBN: 978-1-4982-3081-0.

*see http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/07/the-unbelievable-tale-of-jesus-wife/485573/

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