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HOLY CON! PART 2

THIS ALL STARTED with the claim that Jesus and Mary Magdalene were more than just er… friends. This revelation depended on a Coptic fragment that, maybe, was authentic, as described in James Lasdun’s “Bats on the Ceiling,” a review in London Review of Books, September 24, 2020, of Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man, and the Gospel of Jesus’s Wife, by Ariel Sabar.

Today in Part 2, Lasdun and author Sabar get downright serious about this Coptic fragment.

Text Vetting. The fragment had been vetted by the Harvard Theological Review, albeit with some skepticism. Author Ariel Sabar was there in Rome covering the event for Smithsonian Magazine. And, as reviewer Lasdun notes, “Four years later, after the text’s claims to authenticity had been systematically undermined, Sabar wrote an article in The Atlantic that all but proved it a fake, foisted on a suspiciously accommodating historian by a preternaturally devious forger.”

Image from The Atlantic, July/August 2016.

Sabar’s Subsequent Vetting. Lasdun writes, “Of the two scientists King [the Harvard professor of the matter] chose for the testing, one was wholly unknown in the field of archaeometry and turned out to have been an usher at her wedding. The other, approached by Bagnall [another of the authenticators], ‘hadn’t the foggiest’ (as he subsequently admitted) when it came to ancient ink identification, but was Bagnall’s brother-in-law and did his obliging best. (He later retracted his validation.)”

Pause here to ponder presidential appointments in recent memory.

The manuscript fragment. Image from The Christian Science Monitor.

Bats on the Ceiling. Lasdun cites, “An Egyptologist at Brown University, Leo Depuydt, found a ‘colossal double blunder’ in the Coptic grammar. As a younger man, Depuydt had once warned the Oxford journal Discussions in Egyptology not to publish a grammatically flawed version of a Gnostic text. They went ahead anyway, only to learn that they had been pranked when a reviewer’s daughter pointed out that the name of the man who had ‘discovered’ the text, Batson D. Sealing, sounded awfully like ‘bats on the ceiling.’ The entire issue had to be recalled (it’s now a collector’s item).”

I like the part of the pranked journal being a collector’s item. Here’s more on this paper from scribd.com, originally appearing in the Financial Times, London, May 18, 1991.

Tracking the Con Artist. The owner of the fragment was initially anonymous. Lasdun describes Sabar’s investigations: “… he tracked down a Hans-Ulrich Laukamp who had emigrated from Berlin to Florida and died, childless, in 2002. Though well-off (he had owned a company that supplied handbrake components to BMW), this Laukamp was by all accounts poorly educated and an unlikely candidate for a collector of ancient texts.”

Lasdun continues, “But the man who had taken over the company after his death, Walter Fritz, seemed more promising. Fritz owned another company in Florida, named for the Egyptian word for beauty: Nefer Art. Further research brought up the intriguing information that a Walter Fritz had attended the Egyptology Institute at the Free University of Berlin in the 1980s.”

The Plot Thickens. Lasdun recounts, “Reached by phone at his home, Fritz denied having studied Egyptology anywhere, and vehemently insisted that he was not the owner of the fragment. Unpersuaded, Sabar searched on a site that tracks web domain history, and discovered that, three weeks before the Rome congress, Fritz had registered the domain name gospelofjesuswife.com.” 

In March 2016, Fritz finally admitted that he was the fragment’s owner. He “continued to wriggle,” Lasdun writes, “but it became increasingly obvious that he had faked the provenance, creating a fantasy scenario out of two carefully selected experts and one suitably obscure private citizen, all three conveniently dead.”

But Wait, There’s More. Lasdun notes that Sabar kept digging: “The next thing he found was that from 2003 onwards Fritz had hosted a series of porn sites dedicated to a genre known as ‘hotwife’ and featuring his wife having sex with other men—often more than one at a time. Mrs. Fritz, who went by the name Jenny Seemore and billed herself as ‘America’s #1 Slut Wife’, had her own website that jointly celebrated ‘sluthood’ and, of all things, the teachings of Jesus.”

Don’t you love it? I encourage you to read all of Lasdun’s 4464 words in the London Review of Books, September 24, 2020. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2020

One comment on “HOLY CON! PART 2

  1. Rob Luikart
    October 9, 2020

    Hello, if you are interested in further study on the topic of Mary of Magdalene and her relationship to Jesus, please see Elaine Pagels’ book “The Gnostic Gospels” and Karen L. Kings’ book “The Gospel of Mary of Magdala.”

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