Among the many controversies barnacling King’s discovery is whether she went public too soon. In view of its explosive content, might it have been more responsible to wait for definitive word of its authenticity, legal status and provenance? The case of the last major Gnostic discovery offers no straightforward answer. In the early 2000s, the National Geographic Society assembled a team of experts to piece together nearly 1,000 scraps of papyrus into the first known copy of the “The Gospel of Judas,” a Gnostic text lost for some 17 centuries. Before making an announcement, the experts, who were sworn to secrecy, seemed to take every precaution: radiocarbon dating, ink tests, handwriting and content analyses.
When the society announced the find at an April 2006 news conference, it created a tidal wave of publicity: Its translation depicted Judas not as the traitor of lore, but as a hero who turns Jesus in at the Savior’s own bidding and who then ascends, as a reward, to heaven. But within a year, scholars identified significant problems with the translation that cast doubt on the society’s headline-grabbing portrayal. The innocuous-sounding word “spirit”—used to describe Judas—should instead have been translated as “demon,” and Judas was not set apart “for” the holy generation but “from” it—a world of difference. National Geographic disputed the criticism, then quietly published a revised translation. Some academics criticized the secrecy surrounding the project, saying that allowing outside scholars earlier access would have produced a more accurate—if perhaps less sensational—interpretation.
“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” may serve as a test case for that more open approach. As we descended the steps after her talk in Rome, I asked King about the alternative intepretations proposed by her colleagues during a short question and answer session. “This is exactly what we do,” she said, alluding to the argument and counterargument by which scholars grope toward truth. During her talk King had invited scholars to Harvard to examine the fragment firsthand. “This is the first word,” she said of her paper, “not the last word.”
But if scientific tests show that the text is a fake, the last word could come fast—and with scant forgiveness. “If it’s a forgery,” King told one newspaper, “it’s a career breaker.”
After flying back from Italy, I e-mailed Kevin J. Madigan, co-editor of the Harvard Theological Review and an associate dean at the divinity school. “Everything is now on hold until we are able, with Professor King’s help and by scientific dating, to establish the authenticity of the text,” he replied, saying the journal also was interested in “further verification from Coptological papyrologists and grammarians.”
As of late October, the results of a radiocarbon dating test and ink analysis were still pending.
I wanted to hear from Elaine Pagels, a Princeton professor who is one of the world’s foremost authorities on the Gnostic gospels. Pagels and King had worked together on a 2007 book about the gospel of Judas, and remain friends and colleagues. Pagels told me over the phone that she had little doubt about the authenticity of the papyrus King had studied, but Pagels wondered about the decision to call it a “gospel,” which to Pagels implies a text professing to chronicle real events in Jesus’ life. It could just as easily be a “dialogue text,” in which followers relate often symbolic visions from Jesus, or even what some commentators have called “fan fiction.”
“At least 99 percent of this text is missing,” Pagels told me. “Calling it a gospel, I’m sorry, I don’t understand that except to make it sound more, well—what’s the word?—important. It’s much more sensational than what we can infer.”
King makes no secret of her contrarian approach to Christian history. “You’re talking to someone who’s trying to integrate a whole set of ‘heretical’ literature into the standard history,” she said in our first phone conversation, noting later that “heretical” was a term she does not accept.