The Review, a quarterly, had planned to publish her article in its October issue. But in early September an editor informed her that a peer reviewer had sharply questioned the papyrus’ authenticity; grammatical irregularities and the ink’s appearance pointed, the reviewer wrote, to a forgery.
Shocked, King e-mailed the anonymous critique to Bagnall, Luijendijk and another expert, Ariel Shisha-Halevy, an eminent Coptic linguist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Shisha-Halevy replied, “I believe—on the basis of language and grammar—the text is authentic.”
All three felt confident enough for her to announce her finding in Rome, but they pressed her to revise her article and submit the fragment to a noninvasive test—like a multispectral analysis— to make sure the ink’s chemistry was compatible with inks from antiquity.
“I have zero interest in publishing anything that’s a forgery,” she told me over dinner in Cambridge before she left for Rome.
Would she need 100 percent confidence? I asked.
“One hundred percent doesn’t exist,” she said. “But 50-50 doesn’t cut it.”
King grew up in Sheridan, Montana, a cattle ranching town of 700 people an hour’s drive southeast of Butte. Her father was a pharmacist. Her mother took care of the children—King is the second of four—taught home economics at the high school and raised horses. For reasons Karen King still doesn’t quite understand—perhaps it was the birthmark on her face, perhaps her bookishness—she was picked on and bullied “from grade school on.” For many years, she went with her family to Sheridan’s Methodist Church. In high school, though, King switched, on her own, to the Episcopal Church, which she regarded as “more earnest.”
“The Methodists were doing ’70s things—Coca-Cola for the Eucharist,” she told me. “It wasn’t that I was terribly righteous. But...intellectually, the Episcopal Church was where the ideas were.”
I asked her what had first drawn her to the so-called “heretical” gospels. “I’ve always had a sense of not fitting in,” she said. “I thought, if I could figure out these texts, I could figure out what was wrong with me.”