On July 9, 2010, during summer break, an e-mail from a stranger arrived in King’s in-box. Because of her prominence, she gets a steady trickle of what she calls “kooky” e-mails: a woman claiming to be Mary Magdalene, a man with a code unlocking the mysteries of the Bible.
This one looked more serious. The writer identified himself as a manuscript collector. He said he had acquired a Gnostic gospel that appeared to contain an “argument” between Jesus and a disciple about Magdalene. Would she take a look at some photographs?
King asked for more information: What was its date and provenance? The man replied that he purchased it in 1997 from a Berliner who had obtained it in Communist East Germany in the 1960s and later immigrated to the United States. (In a later e-mail, however, the story seemed to change slightly, with the collector saying that the papyri had been in the previous owner’s possession—or his family’s—“prior to WWII.”) The collector sent an electronic file of photographs and an unsigned translation with the bombshell phrase about Jesus’ wife.
“My reaction is, This is highly likely to be a forgery,” King recalled of her first impressions. “That’s kind of what we have these days: Jesus’ tomb, James’ Ossuary.” She was referring to two recent “discoveries,” announced with great fanfare, that were later exposed as hoaxes or, at best, wishful thinking. “OK, Jesus married? I thought, Yeah, yeah, yeah.
“I was highly suspicious that the Harvard imprimatur was being asked to be put on something that then would be worth a lot of money,” she recalled. “I didn’t know who this individual was and I was busy working on other stuff, so I let it slide for quite a while.”
In late June 2011, nearly a year after their first exchange, the collector gave her a nudge. “My problem right now is this,” he wrote in an e-mail that King shared with me, after stripping out identifying details. (King has granted the man’s request for anonymity.) “A European manuscript dealer has offered a considerable amount for this fragment. It’s almost too good to be true.” The collector did not want the fragment to disappear in a private archive. “Before letting this happen, I would like to either donate it to a reputable manuscript collection or wait at least until it is published, before I sell it.”
Four months later, after making a closer study of the photographs, King replied. The text was intriguing, but she could not proceed on photographs alone. She would need more details about its history, and an expert papyrologist would have to examine it.
King brushed aside the collector’s offer to send it through the mail—“You don’t do that! You hardly want to send a letter in the mail!” So last December, he delivered it by hand.
“We signed the paperwork, had coffee and he left,” she said.
The collector knew nothing about the fragment’s origins. The paper trail, such as it was, stopped with the prior owner, one H. U. Laukamp.