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.
Among the papers the collector had shown King was a typed July 1982 letter to Laukamp from Peter Munro, a prominent Egyptologist and former director of the Kestner Museum, in Hannover. Laukamp had apparently consulted Munro about a batch of papyri, and Munro wrote back that a colleague at Berlin’s Free University, Gerhard Fecht, an expert on Egyptian languages and texts, had identified one of the Coptic pieces as a second- to fourth-century A.D. fragment of the Gospel of John.
The current owner also left King an unsigned, undated handwritten note— concerning a different papyrus—that appears to belong to the same 1982 correspondence. “Professor Fecht believes that the small fragment, approximately 8 cm in size, is the sole example of a text in which Jesus uses direct speech with reference to having a wife. Fecht is of the opinion that this could be evidence for a possible marriage.”