A Harvard professor, a con man and the gospel of Jesus's wife
430pp. Scribe. 18.99 [pounds sterling].
IN SEPTEMBER 2012, just across from the Vatican, a Harvard professor made an explosive announcement: she had discovered an ancient papyrus fragment showing that, in the minds of some early Christians, Jesus had a wife. The fragment grabbed headlines worldwide. But some scholars immediately suggested that there were problems with the fragment: no one knew where it originated, it had basic grammar errors, and its handwriting was unparalleled. By 2016, after four years of debate, the story had fallen apart: experts concluded that the fragment was a modern forgery.
This is the background of Ariel Sabar's remarkable Veritas. ("Veritas" is both Harvard's motto and the theme of truth that underlies the tale.) The book belongs to a genre, popular in recent years, of reallife narratives of trafficking and forgery of biblical antiquities, alongside Nina Burleigh's Unholy Business, Chanan Tigay's The Lost Book of Moses, and Matti Friedman's The Aleppo Codex. Though Sabar insists he is simply reporting facts, his story is (in his own words) narrative nonfiction. Like other examples of the genre, it is crafted with definite fictional elements: an exaggerated contrast of heroes and villains, and a gripping, non-linear narrative organized to build suspense. At its centre are an unlikely pair: Walter Fritz, the...