Sometimes, the truth is far stranger than fiction. In September of 2012, the world learned that Jesus of Nazareth had a wife named Mary, or so the newspaper headlines read. Harvard Divinity School Professor Karen King announced to a frenzied media that a new ancient text had surfaced in which Jesus speaks of his wife. She argued that the text originated in early Egyptian Christianity, perhaps the second century. While she stopped short of claiming that Jesus actually had a wife, this scholarly reserve was lost on the media and undermined by King’s own hyperbolic title for the fragment: “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife.”

Just three days after the announcement, the New Testament scholar Francis Watson issued a dissenting opinion that undermined the credibility of this newfound discovery. The text was a forgery, derived almost entirely from the Coptic text of the Gospel of Thomas. Watson was my Phd supervisor at the time, and I followed the developments closely. What followed from his initial observation became an avalanche of point and counterpoint on blogs and Facebook posts. The case against the text’s authenticity steadily grew to a nearly undeniable reality, yet supporters appealed to further scientific testing. When these tests did not prove authenticity, proponents countered by claiming the tests did not prove it to be a forgery either. The debate appeared to be at an ideological standstill.

All of that changed when the investigative journalist, Ariel Sabar, discovered the identity of the owner of the Jesus’ Wife fragment — a pornographer with both the means and the motive to make a forgery. What was still a matter for debate quickly became an open-and-shut case of forgery. The thrill of a new gospel text that challenged many of Christianity’s traditional dogmas gave way to disappointment and dismay. Karen King and the fragment’s supporters were hoodwinked by a con artist.

It would be tempting to shelve the whole controversy surrounding the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife as a catastrophic waste of time, to throw up our hands in disgust and move on. There’s nothing to be learned about early Christianity from a forgery concocted by a crook. Such an apathetic response to what had been a heated debate implicitly absolves the participants, casting it all as merely a misbegotten adventure that is now over. Ariel Sabar would not be content with such a narrative, and in the years after his Atlantic article, his investigative scrutiny extended beyond the forger to Karen King herself.

As told in Veritas, Sabar’s recent book on the Jesus’ Wife controversy, King is not an innocent victim of the forger’s deceit, but an accomplice who used her power and prestige to contravene normal ethical standards at every turn for the sake of challenging the Church’s teachings about gender and sexuality. Even the title of the fragment, “The Gospel of Jesus’ Wife,” was chosen for its sensationalism. According to Sabar, King’s treatment of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife was an isolated incident of misguided enthusiasm, particularly in contrast to her scholarship more broadly and her early involvement in the Jesus Seminar. While Sabar sympathetically narrates King’s adolescence and her experiences of the “perniciousness of orthodoxy,” he equally casts her in the role of a zealot who was willing to sacrifice the truth to fit her righteous aims.

Beyond Sabar’s criticisms of King, the broader story of the forgery is one of the failure of the academic community, of its difficulty to regulate its own biases and the denial of unequivocal truth for the sake of ideological crusades. While Sabar frames the Jesus’ Wife debate as a David-and-Goliath struggle between bloggers and the ivory tower of a Harvard professor, the real hero of the drama was Sabar himself. The persuasive arguments of detractors did not lead to the downfall of Jesus’ Wife, but the persistent work of a journalist and his discovery of the fragment’s sordid association with a forger.

The academy, it seems, was ill-equipped to assess the veracity of the forgery on its own terms. From the outset of the debate, the lines between discussions about the fragment’s authenticity and broader cultural debates were instantly blurred. Scholar after scholar had pointed to the telltale signs of its forgery, and yet authenticity was still held out as a possibility by many. Those who asserted the text to be a fake were slandered as misogynists and fundamentalists, claims that have since been repeated in print. King’s own retrospective analysis of the Jesus’ Wife debate trends along similar lines, seeing it as an extension of the Church Fathers’ debates about orthodoxy and heresy, between the “righteous” and the “dupes.” Where the critics see a forgery, King sees the Gospel of Mary or the Gospel of Philip, ancient detractors of the Church’s sexism and patriarchy.

In doing so, King reveals more than she perhaps intended. If her intent was to deflect blame from herself to the sexist critics of the fragment, she simultaneously demonstrates a loose regard for the notion of truth itself. Imputing ill motives to those who disagree with you is par for the course nowadays, and scholars are no exception. The sexism (or lack thereof) of the fragment’s dissenters is irrelevant to the question of whether they were right. Interpreters may be incapable of absolute objectivity (to be sure) but this observation doesn’t entail that all truth is simply whatever we make of it.

Much like The Da Vinci Code, Sabar believes King thought the fragment to be a useful fiction, something to provoke further conversations about Christian social practice. Her evangelistic zeal to present Christianity in a favorable light to modern concerns is not an aberration from but representative of wider cultural trends. Whether it be the Christian “left” or “right,” we want a Christianity that comports with our sensibilities, regardless of whether or not such a thing is intellectually defensible. Depending on who you ask, Jesus was either a socialist or a free-market capitalist, a complementarian or an egalitarian. Within such debates, the ends often justify the means and the utility of an argument matters as much as (if not more than) its feasibility.

Wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. A forgery is still a forgery. There are limits to what Christianity can and cannot be. Defining such limits too narrowly runs the risk of saying Gentiles must be circumcised, drawing boundaries around God’s grace that undermine its unconditional nature. But the opposite is equally dangerous, emptying the cross of Christ of its power by way of cultural conformity. Navigating these waters is far from easy, but the next time a fragment turns up out of nowhere with claims that mirror modern debates, then it’s probably too good to be true.