Walter Fritz had been an East German museum director, a real estate agent, an auto-parts business executive, an Egyptology student, and an amateur pornographer.
But his most recent achievement might well be his most lasting and ignominious – his involvement in an audacious antiquity transaction, wherein a piece of papyrus made its way into the hands of Harvard scholar Karen King, who then declared before the Vatican that it showed Jesus may have been married.
News of the discovery rocketed through scholarly circles of history and religion. It garnered headlines and prompted newscasts around the world. It seemed to add new evidence to a theory held by many who believe Jesus had a wife, and that she was perhaps Mary Magdalene.
Eventually, however, freelance journalist and author Ariel Sabar, who wrote one of the original accounts of the discovery in a 2012 issue of the Smithsonian, became skeptical of the document’s origins and authenticity. He listened to his gut, combed through public records, traveled from retirement communities in Florida to working-class neighborhoods in Berlin, and ultimately tied the document to the eccentric Walter Fritz.
Today, Sabar joins the ProPublica podcast to tell us about his journey to the intersection of early Christianity and high-end fraud.
Here are some highlights from the conversation:
Joaquin: What did people tell you about the kind of man Walter Fritz was?
Walter Fritz was a guy who was extremely intelligent who showed a lot of promise in the field of Egyptology while he was at the Free University. Early on, he got this paper published, while he was still a Master’s student. People also told me that he was hard to pin down. One business associate described him as an eel, somebody you could never get your fingers around, that he was a very good salesman. He also had a tendency to appear and reappear, almost Zelig-like, in different jobs.
Joaquin: It sounds like there were a couple of times where it became very difficult to assemble a collection of facts about who Walter Fritz was.
Yeah, there were a lot of dead-ends. Not only because at first he had lied to me about who he was, but also because he was very … He’s not someone who, I don’t think, has a wide social network. When I heard from one professor in Berlin, that they heard that he had wound up at some museum in Berlin but they weren’t sure which one but they remember, for instance, there had been a brief write-up about it in the magazine, Stern, which is a famous German magazine, back in the early 1990s. They couldn’t tell me what section, what year, what month, and so that was another shot in the dark, but fortunately for me, my neighbourhood library is the Library of Congress and I just went there one day and said, “Can you pull every single issue of Stern you have from 1991 to 1994.”
Then, sure enough, after about an hour of turning pages … I was lucky, it could have taken a lot longer than that … There is this blurb in the ‘people section’ which mostly deals with celebrities; there was a Glen Close write-up and a La Toya Jackson write-up, and there, in the middle of that, is a picture of Walter Fritz, pictured in front of a painting of Erich Mielke, who was the former head of the Stasi and that, I think, is the appointment to this new job.
Joaquin: There’s kind of a final twist at the end of the story. He suggests to you that you write a fictional thriller that strongly resembles some of your very non-fictional reportage. What is his proposition to you?
He leans across the table and says, “I have an idea for you. That idea involves my producing pages and pages of research for you for a thriller that you can write.” As he describes this thriller, it’s looking almost like a perfect match for the Da Vinci Code, but essentially in which he would do all the research into the Gnostic Gospels and early Christian history and provide for me all the background I need to write the book.
He says his talent is in doing research and coming up with facts and my talent is as a writer. He’s flattering me. I’m thinking, “I’m not a writer without facts, I’m a journalist.” His argument was that I should do the writing, he should do the researching. It would take me years and years to do the kind of research he could probably do very quickly because he’s already so deeply read in these matters. I actually do think he’s deeply read in these matters, but that’s beside the point.
I think at one point, he said to me, “The facts don’t always even matter. What matters is entertainment.” Part of me goes, “What facts don’t matter and is all of this entertainment?” It just raised a lot of questions for me and, as a journalist who has dealt with various people who have told various shades of the truth over the years, a lot of people who don’t want to be … Who want reporters to go away, either just don’t talk to them or continue to try to provide the reporter with a different impression that the one they have gotten from other sources.
August 9, 2016: Following our initial airing of this podcast, we edited a small portion of the audio interview for accuracy.