1,600-year-old manuscript is identified as the earliest known account of Jesus Christ’s childhood

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By James Kay

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A manuscript thought to be 1,600 years old has been identified as the earliest known account of Jesus Christ's childhood.

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

Two experts have now decoded the text, revealing it to be 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 decipherers, announced in a press release.

GettyImages-155068476.jpgThe manuscript tells of Jesus Christ's childhood. Credit: PaoloGaetano/Getty

He added: "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. 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 piece of papyrus contains 13 lines in Greek and originates from late antique Egypt, a Christian society at that time.

The manuscript describes the beginning of the "vivification of the sparrows," a story from Jesus' childhood where 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.

Screenshot 2024-06-12 at 13.58.33.jpgThe papyrus is said to be over 1,600 years old. Credit: Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg/Public Domain

When rebuked by his father, Joseph, the five-year-old Jesus clapped his hands and brought the clay figures to life. This story, described as Jesus' second miracle, is a well-known part of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT).

The IGT, which describes Christ's childhood, was popular and widespread in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, it was not included in the Bible as some early Christian writers doubted its accuracy. The IGT is believed to have been first written down during the 2nd century, with the oldest previously known Greek version being a codex from the 11th century.

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, stated.

GettyImages-538141212.jpgThe manuscript was originally thought to be nothing of value. Credit: Fred de Noyelle/Getty

Both Macedo and Berkes believe the manuscript was written on 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 said.

Featured image credit: PaoloGaetano/Getty

1,600-year-old manuscript is identified as the earliest known account of Jesus Christ’s childhood

vt-author-image

By James Kay

Article saved!Article saved!

A manuscript thought to be 1,600 years old has been identified as the earliest known account of Jesus Christ's childhood.

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

Two experts have now decoded the text, revealing it to be 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 decipherers, announced in a press release.

GettyImages-155068476.jpgThe manuscript tells of Jesus Christ's childhood. Credit: PaoloGaetano/Getty

He added: "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. 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 piece of papyrus contains 13 lines in Greek and originates from late antique Egypt, a Christian society at that time.

The manuscript describes the beginning of the "vivification of the sparrows," a story from Jesus' childhood where 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.

Screenshot 2024-06-12 at 13.58.33.jpgThe papyrus is said to be over 1,600 years old. Credit: Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg/Public Domain

When rebuked by his father, Joseph, the five-year-old Jesus clapped his hands and brought the clay figures to life. This story, described as Jesus' second miracle, is a well-known part of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT).

The IGT, which describes Christ's childhood, was popular and widespread in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, it was not included in the Bible as some early Christian writers doubted its accuracy. The IGT is believed to have been first written down during the 2nd century, with the oldest previously known Greek version being a codex from the 11th century.

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, stated.

GettyImages-538141212.jpgThe manuscript was originally thought to be nothing of value. Credit: Fred de Noyelle/Getty

Both Macedo and Berkes believe the manuscript was written on 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 said.

Featured image credit: PaoloGaetano/Getty