“The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” and the Value of Provenance

A new investigation into a controversial artifact highlights the importance of historical provenance research.

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Last week, The Atlantic‘s Ariel Sabar published an exposé of “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” a business-card-sized papyrus that purports to demonstrate Jesus’ marital status.  The Gospel has been among the most controversial of recent discoveries since Harvard historian Karen King declared it to be authentic in a widely-publicized 2012 press conference near the Vatican.  King’s team carbon-dated the Gospel’s papyrus fibers, analyzed the composition of the ink, and analyzed its Coptic composition, finding each to be authentic.  What King did not do, surprisingly for a historian, was to examine the historical provenance of the document: its chain of custody dating back millennia.  Sabar’s article does this, and it demonstrates convincingly — and King now concedes — that the Gospel is almost certainly a forgery.

The Gospel was not forged by a Byzantine scribe or a medieval monk, but by the person who presented King with the document, a smooth-talking fraudster named Walter Fritz.  The chain of custody, in the end, contained only one link.

Historical provenance research is often curiously absent from evaluations of historic artifacts.  Appraisers of ancient texts, medieval art, and Baroque musical instruments often consider historical research too vague and probabilistic to rely on when making a determination of authenticity.  Yet it is history’s very reliance on likelihoods rather than certainties that makes it a valuable tool.  History can shed light or cast doubt on an artifact’s origins, providing more narrative detail than other tools such as carbon dating or textual analysis.  Similarly, scholars and appraisers often consider historical provenance research pointless unless chain of custody can be determined all the way back to the creation of the artifact itself — a virtually impossible task when dealing with medieval or ancient artifacts.  Yet one of the striking features of Sabar’s provenance research is that he consulted no sources created prior to 1960 in unmasking the fraud.  The Gospel was not forged by a Byzantine scribe or a medieval monk, but by the person who presented King with the document, a smooth-talking fraudster named Walter Fritz.  The chain of custody, in the end, contained only one link.

I have some personal experience with this type of provenance research and the skepticism that surrounds it.  In 2012, a family friend approached me with a violin which had no provenance, but which he believed to be an authentic Guarneri ‘del Gesu,’ one of the most sought-after historical instruments ever created.  Although I was dubious about the instrument’s authenticity, I spent eighteen months conducting archival and database research on the violin.  I discovered evidence that it had been purchased by a wealthy patron for a famous American virtuoso and teacher, who played it in several concerts in the 1920s; it then passed through several additional owners until purchased by its current owner.  I was surprised when, upon learning of this evidence, an English archivist immediately identified the instrument as being identical to one that had been appraised as genuine by a well-known English violin dealer in the 1910s; the archivist produced the original appraisal certificate, and the matter was closed.  Just as with the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, the Guarneri ‘del Gesu’ did not require research in Cremonese archives from the 1700s; it had been known as authentic for centuries, its provenance lost scarcely fifty years ago.

Historical provenance research is a valuable tool for authenticating historic artifacts, and should become a standard feature of both professional and scholarly appraisals.  In the wake of the Gospel exposure, perhaps the most surprising revelation was that King, who previously served as the Winn Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Harvard, had not even considered examining the document’s provenance.  “Your article,” she explained to Sabar, “has helped me see that provenance can be investigated.”  Hopefully this unfortunate forgery, and its unmasking by an enterprising journalist, will encourage more interest in provenance research among scholars and appraisers going forward.

Author: Jeremy C. Young

Jeremy C. Young is an assistant professor of history at Dixie State University and the author of The Age of Charisma: Leaders, Followers, and Emotions in American Society, 1870-1940.