To say that Karen King divides opinion is an overstatement. The Hollis Professor of Divinity at Harvard is a prestigious post. It is also, as one colleague said, “The oldest professorship at the University as we know because the cow can’t let us forget it”. The office comes with a right to graze a cow on the college fields. Such privilege still breeds discontent amongst her peers.
King has been an important and influential figure in Gnostic studies for the last 40 years. Provocatively arguing that women were sublimated in the early church by male leaders. Provocatively but correctly.
She is not a woman to take adversity or nonsense lightly. She grew up in small town USA, but showed pluck from an early age. As a teenager, she would take long hikes through grizzly country. In High School she arranged a student exchange trip to Norway for herself. Then as a PhD Student at Brown University, she essentially took a student exchange in East Berlin working with Hans-Martin Schenke, a major scholar of Coptic, without anyone realising, not even the Stasi.
Although she made her name exploring the Gospels of Philip and Mary, her first love was Thunder, Perfect Mind. An allusive poem in which a female persona makes paradoxical statements about her identity in terms which subvert modern gender ideas:
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the
The Coptic gospels, especially those found at Nag Hammadi, are interesting. They claim to be written by figures such as St Peter, St Philip and Mary Magdalene but were probably written centuries after the period their writers were born. They reveal almost nothing about the human Jesus and his first followers, but a lot about the early church in the first centuries. This is an important distinction. It also important to note that there is still a vested interest in the narrative and norms which some contemporary church leaders claim come from the bible. Gnostic studies is still grizzly country.
“A Complete Stranger”
On 18 September 2012, at a Coptic Conference in the Vatican, Karen King sensationally announced the discovery of a new fragment which she called the Gospel of Jesus’ wife, after a line which says “Jesus said to them, “My wife…””.
That night the news was wired around the world. Next day, it was front page news of the New York Times and the Boston Globe.
The other Coptic experts in the room took the news calmly and asked penetrating questions about language and provenance. They were surprised that King wasn’t able to share a higher resolution image.
Also in the room, cooly taking in the scene was Ariel Sabar, wearing his bowler hat and thick overcoat against the cold Roman night. He drew meditatively on his pipe at the back of the room. Something didn’t sit right.
He has been asked by the Smithsonian Magazine to cover the story in 2011 and followed it to this point. In the next few years, he would explore the story in more detail before publishing his findings in The Atlantic.
When King announced the papyrus to the world, the owner remained secret. He had contacted her by email and claimed that the papyrus had previously belonged to a German-American businessman he knew.
The first rule of detecting is to follow the money and Sabar did this by following up the provenance. What he discovered is eye opening. His book is less a study of Gnosticism and more an account of the human nature of the people working in the field with their passions, weaknesses and anxieties.
I will not reveal more. There’s no spoilers here. I urge you all all to read this book and discover how Sabar found and then pieced together slender threads of evidence into an open-and-shut case.
Although an exciting field, very few books on papyrology or Coptic gnostic texts are quite as exciting as this.
There are a few points worth making in response to the book. Beneath its exploration of human fallibility within academia, there are unexplored questions on the very nature of papyrology itself.
Whilst the field failed in its own high standard of objective endeavour in this case, the wider question of provenance is itself skirted over. Modern papyrology developed within a colonial framework and continues to operate in this way. There are no Egyptian figures in this book. This is not a condemnation of the book, but the field itself.
Many large papyri collections in Western institutions have not yet been fully catalogued. Discoveries are still made. The other source is from excavations. Although, of course no one is claiming anything untoward, papyrology and the antiquities market both exist within a whiskers length from less scrupulous methods of discovery. At a very early stage of her work on the papyrus, King was warned by another eminent Coptic expert.
“The situation as it now stands (owner not wishing to be named, acquisition details a bit unclear) is sailing a little but close to the wind in terms of the American Society of Papyrologists’ Resolution Concerning the Illicit Trade in Papyri”
Nevertheless, this is a world of wink and nod. When the mysterious owner, first tried to sell his papyrus collection to a prominent London dealer, he was told:
“Look, this is all great, but the stuff that’s really exciting is the religious material […] Get me some of that, get me the earliest bit of Saint Matthew or something”.
Forgery is not the only crime in papyrology.
“History, in the traditional view”
An important theme in the book is about what is history. At one point Sabar argues that:
“History, in the traditional view, answers a single question: what happened? It is a dispassionate record of the people, places and events, set in the context of a particular time”.
Can history be so identified. Certainly I was told in my GCSE class that History was why or how something happened. Even this is simplistic. Although it is important to note that Sabar examines the motives behind an individual’s actions in the story.
Ancient History is built on fragments. The nature of the evidence itself is important. What are its biases, what isn’t being said, what are we missing? These types of question become more important when we begin to examine the histories of people not normally subjects of histories, like women or “heretics”. The subjects of King’s studies.
What is Gnosticism?
In her book What is Gnosticism? Karen King argues against the identity of a Gnostic group. ‘Gnosticism’ is a negative term, often used to define something that isn’t orthodox.
The identity of Gnosticism is a much disputed area of scholarly work. Some have seen Gnosticism as a pre-Christian Jewish system and others as a Hellenisation of Christianity. There are certain trends – a transcendence through knowledge (gnosis) – but does this imply a group?
There is a general consensus that non-orthodox Christianities predominated in the early years. The German scholar Walter Bauer argued that heresy preceded orthodoxy. What this means is that the early church experienced a wide variety of opinion and belief. Some of this dispute can be seen in the New Testament: “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth”.
Before the discovery of Coptic Gnostic texts, the only substantial information we had about the Gnostics were Ireneus, Hippolytus and Epiphanius three early Christian writers. Each for different reasons, investigated the heretical sects of the day giving them names. Beginning with Ireneus, they identified Simon Magus as the father of heresy. Nevertheless the number of heretical groups suggests there was never one school of gnosticism. It has also been argued that each group so called by Ireneus would identify themselves as Gnostic.
The word heresy implies that these sects were minimal or to the side of central Christianity. This is not true. One heretic identified by Ireneus, Valentinus was nearly chosen as Bishop of Rome.
For King, Gnosticism is the dark double against which early Christians could define themselves. We must understand King’s arguments in these contexts in which “history” itself is biased and partial. Although the gnostic texts seem to have been used by communities who held ascetic practice as a virtue. King argues that the renunciation of the world is a renunciation of wealth and power and not sexual celibacy. The texts do not reveal the historical Jesus but rather the followers. By looking at the early followers we can start to unravel when particular viewpoints and positions became dominant.
Veritas is both a damning examination of the field of papyrology and a gripping detective story.
The overall story of the Gospel of Jesus Wife is relatively well known now thanks to Sabar’s work. This book brings fresh insight and added detail to this story. This is sure to be a TV series on Netflix, perhaps 2021’s Tiger King. It has the same momentum and OMG moments, mixed with fascinating insight into technical coptology. What’s not to like.
If a dramatic movie is made from the story, who do you think should play the leading rolls? Let us know in the comments below.