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Newly-deciphered manuscript is oldest written record of Jesus’ childhood: ‘Extraordinary’

In World
June 12, 2024

A newly-deciphered manuscript dating back more than 1,600 years has been identified as the earliest known account of Jesus Christ’s childhood.

The manuscript, written on papyrus in either the 4th or 5th century, had been stored at a library in Hamburg, Germany, for decades and was long believed to be an insignificant document.

However, two experts have now decoded the text and say it is the earliest surviving copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

“The papyrus fragment is of extraordinary interest for research,” Lajos Berkes, a theology lecturer and one of the two men who deciphered the document, declared in a press release.

“It was thought to be part of an everyday document, such as a private letter or a shopping list, because the handwriting seems so clumsy,” the expert explained. “We first noticed the word Jesus in the text. Then, by comparing it with numerous other digitized papyri, we deciphered it letter by letter and quickly realized that it could not be an everyday document.”

The papyrus manuscript had been stored at a library in Hamburg, Germany. Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg / PD

The papyrus manuscript had been stored at a library in Hamburg, Germany. Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg / PD

The piece of papyrus contains a total of 13 lines in Greek letters and originates from late antique Egypt, which was a Christian society at that time.

The manuscript describes the beginning of the “vivification of the sparrows” — a story from Jesus’ childhood in which he turns 12 clay sparrows into live birds.

According to the text, Jesus was playing beside a rushing stream where he molded the sparrows from soft clay. When rebuked by his father, Joseph, the 5-year-old Jesus clapped his hands and brought the clay figures to life.

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) describes Jesus’ childhood, but it is not included in the Bible. Getty Images/iStockphoto

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) describes Jesus’ childhood, but it is not included in the Bible. Getty Images/iStockphoto

That story, described as Jesus’ second miracle, is a well-known part of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT).

The IGT describes Christ’s childhood, and its stories were both popular and widespread in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

However, the apocryphal text was not officially included in the Bible as some early Christian writers were doubtful of its accuracy.

The IGT is believed to have been first written down during the 2nd century; however, until now, a codex from the 11th century was the oldest known Greek version of the text.

“Our findings on this late antique Greek copy of the work confirm the current assessment that the Infancy Gospel according to Thomas was originally written in Greek,” Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, the other expert who helped decode the papyrus fragment, said. Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg / PD

“Our findings on this late antique Greek copy of the work confirm the current assessment that the Infancy Gospel according to Thomas was originally written in Greek,” Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, the other expert who helped decode the papyrus fragment, said. Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg / PD

The newly-deciphered papyrus fragment predates that document by an astonishing 600 years.

“Our findings on this late antique Greek copy of the work confirm the current assessment that the Infancy Gospel according to Thomas was originally written in Greek,” Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, the other expert who helped decode the papyrus fragment, declared.

Both Macedo and Berkes believe the manuscript was written onto the papyrus fragment as a writing exercise at either a school or a monastery.

“From the comparison with already known manuscripts of this Gospel, we know that our text is the earliest,” Berkes stated.

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