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Jun 20, 5:51 PM EDT

'Jesus's wife' papyrus is likely a fake, professor now says


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AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia

BOSTON (AP) -- A Harvard professor who caused a huge splash when she unveiled a small fragment of papyrus that she said referred to Jesus being married now says it's likely a forgery.

Harvard Divinity School professor Karen King presented the piece of papyrus in Rome in 2012. The fragment, written in Coptic, includes the phrase, "Jesus said to them, My wife."

Right from the beginning, it sparked controversy and debate among scholars. Doubts about its authenticity were raised almost immediately.

King said it is more likely than not that the fragment is a modern forgery. She cited an investigative article published last week on the website of The Atlantic magazine that raised questions about the owner of papyrus, Florida businessman Walter Fritz. The Atlantic also was the first to report her concession that the papyrus is likely a fake.

"If you ask me today which direction am I leaning more toward - ancient text or a modern forgery - based on this new evidence, I'm leaning toward modern forgery," King told The Associated Press.

The Atlantic found inconsistencies in Fritz's story about how he came to acquire the papyrus and in a document he gave to King purporting to authenticate it.

"This evidence does make a difference in judging whether it was a forgery or not, and it pushes the evidence toward it being a forgery," King said.

A valid telephone number could not be found for Fritz. In an email sent to the AP on Monday, Fritz included a letter he sent to The Atlantic in which he denied forging, altering or manipulating the papyrus or its inscription.

Mark Goodacre, a professor of religious studies at Duke University, said doubts about the fragment were raised within hours of King showing the text at a conference in Rome.

"When you show something like that to people who spend their entire lives starting at these things, a lot of them could straightaway tell there was something fishy about it," Goodacre said.

He said he credits King with having "a lot of guts" to acknowledge that she was likely duped.

King said she has always maintained that the fragment wasn't evidence about whether Jesus was married.

"It's at most a part of the early Christian story about should Christians marry, and so on and so forth," she said.

She said she is "not happy" about being lied to, but felt "oddly relieved" after reading the Atlantic article.

"I think having the truth is always kind of centering," she said.

David Hempton, dean of Harvard Divinity School, said in a statement that its mission is to "pursue truth through scholarship, investigation and vigorous debate."

The school is "grateful to the many scholars, scientists, technicians and journalists who have devoted their expertise to understanding the background and meaning of the papyrus fragment," Hempton said.

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