Thursday, 16 June 2016

Papyri, and "Hot Wife Porn": The Temptations of a Harvard Scholar


Somebody else's, not Jesus' wife
The story which Ariel Sabar has skilfully put together about the provenance of Pap Dodge - aka "the Gospel of Jesus' Wife - is doubly bizarre ('The Unbelievable Tale of Jesus’s Wife  The Atlantic July/August 2016). First of all the backstory to this artefact (which I have said all along was a fake) is in itself a highly bizarre tale. What also is so puzzling is the fact that no part of this story seems to have been known to the person who should have been most concerned about the reliability of the source material she was using. That is the Harvard historian of early Christianity, Karen L. King, who failed to make elementary enquiries before she presented it in September 2012 at a conference in Rome. But Dr King was not really all that interested in the provenance of the object:
King wasn’t interested in talking. “I haven’t engaged the provenance questions at all,” she said. What she did know, she’d already reported in her 2014 Harvard Theological Review article. “It’s all out there,” she said. “I don’t see the point of a conversation.” I told her I’d spent months reporting in Germany and the United States. Didn’t she want to know what I’d found? “Not particularly,” she said. She would read my piece once it was published.
and of course she should have been, to guard against handling illicit material, and to guard against being palmed off with a modern forgery. Or end up as the Hollis Professor of Divinity in Harvard Divinity School who publishes dodgy papyri owned by bareback-gangbang-filming pornstars. Certainly we now know that the scholar had not put "all" that could easily have been found out in her publication of this piece. There were suspicious discrepancies in the  owner's story and material supporting it which she should have spotted and resolved. For example, the owner sent an email stating he'd bought it from the previous owner Hans-Ulrich Laukamp in 1997, but the invoice of that sale was dated 1999. The object was said to have been exported through the Iron Curtain in 1963 at the height of the Cold War. An authenticating letter from 1982 bore typewritten text of two different alignments, suggesting it was a pastiche. Professor King failed to spot any of the discrepancies.

Ariel Sabar went to extraordinary pains to piece together this story, eventually tracing the owner of the piece - Walter Fritz who was a former colleague of Hans-Ulrich Laukamp. Most crucially Fritz  had previously studied egyptology in Berlin and even authored at least one academic paper on the Armarna Letters. As Sabar notes, once he'd "dropped Fritz’s name and email address into Google"... "What happened next felt almost too easy". But the Harvard scholar (who had both name and email address) apparently neglected to even do that.

One of the facts determined so easily by Sabar is that Fritz and his wife ran an art dealership in Florida (Nefer Art, here too), incorporated in 1995. As Sabar reports: "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”...".  We now know that the proprietors of Nefer Art and had by 2010 apparently acquired at least two fake papyri with which he approached Dr King representing himself as a hapless layman,
addressing King as “Mrs.” rather than “Dr.” or “Professor” and claiming that he didn’t read Coptic and was “completely clueless.”
It is reported that on the Nefer Art website were some other dubious-looking documents (these photos seem to have gone, I have not seen them myself [UPDATE: They still exist, courtesy of Dorothy King: https://web.archive.org/web/20130925080353/http:/nefer-art.com/photosart1.html. The Amarna relief looks dodgy too]). As Sabar reports, one was in Arabic and the other in Greek:
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.” Two experts in ancient Arabic manuscripts told me that the script on the other fragment was backwards, as if someone had photographed it in a mirror.
So where did Nefer Art get these Coptic papyri from? One of the key documents in the object's alleged collecting history is a contract concerning “6 Coptic papyrus fragments, one believed to be a Gospel” dated November 12, 1999; signed by Hans-Ulrich Laukamp and the Walter Fritz. It has on it a handwritten annotation: “Papyri acquired in 1963 by the seller in Potsdam (East Germany)”.  Sabar quickly confirmed what was already suspected that  Hans-Ulrich Laukamp was unlikely to have been the owner of six Coptic papyri allegedly bought in Potsdam in 1963 and put together a convincing case that the invoice bears an implausible date (Laukamp was apparently not in the country when it was allegedly signed in a kitchen in Florida).

There is also a typed letter to H. U. Laukamp (dated July 15, 1982; signed by Peter Munro) mentioning Gerhard Fecht. Sabar has ascertained that the notepaper heading seen in this letter (which is only known as a photocopy) was not used before 1990.

Note that there is nothing explicitly linking these documents bearing signatures to the "Jesus Wife" fragment. This allows the possibility that they were concocted to give a provenance to another object in the Fritz Collection, for example the Gospel of John fragment in the same hand which we know he had. The "Jesus Wife" text itself was apparently copied from a publication which came online in 2002 (after the death of both Laukamp and Munro) and was first mentioned in Fritz's initial contact with King in 2010.

Sabar is circumspect about naming the forger, Fritz denies he had anything to do with the manufacture of the object, but while pretending to be nonchalant about whether it is authentic or not
“No owner has ever claimed this is real,” he said of the papyrus. He was right: In the e-mails to King, the owner never said he had an authentic piece of antiquity. He wanted King’s opinion about that very question, and in the end she and the experts she consulted could find no signs of fabrication.
Yet he is extremely aggressive in his defence of the papyrus:
He had even more scorn for critics of the Jesus’s-wife papyrus, deriding them as “county level” scholars from the “University of Eastern Pee-Pee Land”
He perhaps means that place in Ohio next to the township of Biegański.

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