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Ariel Sabar’s ‘Veritas’ is a true story that reads like a thriller

The world of biblical scholarship is the setting for a compelling real-life tale of intrigue and human drama.

An eminent Harvard scholar. A fragment of ancient papyrus that could upend Christianity. The artifact’s mysterious owner. A web of secrets and intrigue.

Those details might remind you of Dan Brown’s monster 2003 bestseller The Da Vinci Code. But Ariel Sabar’s new book, while just as wild and propulsive a tale, is nonfiction. And, of course, it has a Florida connection.

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife is the second book by Sabar; his first, My Father’s Paradise, won the National Book Critics Circle award for autobiography in 2009. His journalism has appeared in The Atlantic, Harper’s, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

It was an assignment for Smithsonian magazine that first led Sabar to the subjects of this book. In 2012, Karen King held a prestigious chair in the Harvard Divinity School. She was an internationally recognized scholar of biblical history and a founding member of the influential Jesus Seminar. Her books, including What Is Gnosticism? and The Gospel of Mary of Magdala: Jesus and the First Woman Apostle, had helped to reshape modern understanding of the foundational years of Christianity.

At an academic conference in Rome in 2012, King made a stunning announcement. She was in possession of a ragged-edged scrap of papyrus, about the size of a business card, covered with Coptic script. The lines were incomplete, but they seemed to recount a conversation between Jesus and some of the disciples in which he refers to “Mary” and calls her “my wife.” The Mary, King said, was Mary Magdalene. She dubbed the fragment the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife.

Scholarly uproar and extraordinary media coverage ensued. King’s career had been built on her pursuit and interpretation of non-canonical gospels — the four gospels in the New Testament were just a few among many gospels written in the first centuries of Christian history. As a feminist historian, King’s focus had been on reintroducing the “lost” gospels that she believed gave a more accurate picture of women’s role in the founding of Christianity. To her, the exciting thing about the papyrus was that it not only described Mary Magdalene as the wife of Jesus but as his disciple, an equal to the men who followed him.

But where did that papyrus come from? And was it a fourth century artifact or a modern forgery?

Veritas is in large part Sabar’s quest to find the answers to those questions — and to the question of why King herself seemed strangely uninterested in pursuing them.

Questions about the fragment’s authenticity arose almost immediately after its reveal. Sabar offers plenty of fascinating arcana about scientific and historical methods for testing and analyzing such an object, and he also brings to life many of the people involved.

As for the source of the fragment, he was a stranger to King who contacted her out of the blue to ask whether the papyrus, one of several he had purchased from another collector, was of any interest. King first brushed him off, then a year later suddenly got back in touch. Soon, the papyrus had been donated to Harvard and was in her possession.

King seemed to have few questions about the donor, but Sabar had many. His investigation leads him to North Port, a Florida town south of Sarasota, to interview Walter Fritz.

Fritz is not what you might expect a collector of biblical artifacts to be like. Born and raised in Germany, he did study Egyptology at the Free University in Berlin, but dropped out. He worked briefly as director of the Stasi Museum, located in the former headquarters of East Germany’s notorious secret police. Later Fritz moved to Florida, where his employment history was murky.

During the time he was corresponding with King about the papyrus, Fritz’s main source of income was making pornographic “hotwife” videos of his wife having sex with other men and selling them online.

That is just one of many jaw-dropping twists in this weird tale. Sabar follows a dual path, delving into King’s background as well as Fritz’s to try to determine what happened and why. Fritz’s equivocations about the provenance of the papyrus are mysterious, but so are his motives — if he wasn’t trying to score financially from the deal (and he didn’t), what was the point of what looks like a very complex con?

Just as enigmatic is King’s behavior around the artifact. Sabar makes a case that she probably suspected it was a fake early on but took some rather astounding steps to hide that fact.

Was she, he asks, an easy mark for Fritz’s con because she wanted to believe? (Sabar goes there and compares her to The X-Files’ Fox Mulder.) Perhaps, Sabar writes, “Her ideological commitments were choreographing her practice of history. ... Her rich sense of what Christianity might be — if only people had the right information — too often preceded the facts.”

Or maybe there was another factor. Just before King announced the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, there was a move afoot to dismantle and restructure the Harvard Divinity School, a unique institution. Was the publicity she knew the fragment would bring just (sorry) a Hail Mary pass to save her beloved academic home?

Veritas is packed with details and tells a complex story, but Sabar’s prose is clear and inviting, and the book is structured with a well-tuned sense of suspense. It’s a wonderfully absorbing example of truth being stranger than fiction.

Cover [ Doubleday ]

Veritas: A Harvard Professor, A Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife

By Ariel Sabar

Doubleday, 416 pages, $29.95

Times Festival of Reading

Ariel Sabar will be a featured author at the virtual Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading, Nov. 12-14. If you have a question for Sabar, email it with the subject line “Festival author question” to cbancroft@tampabay.com.

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