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'Extraordinary' Ancient Manuscript Deciphered, Now Considered Oldest Record of Jesus' Childhood

Newly Deciphered Manuscript is Oldest Record of Jesus’ Childhood
Source: Humboldt University

The newly deciphered papyrus dates back around 1,600 years.

Jun. 27 2024, Published 1:01 p.m. ET

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

This papyrus manuscript, originating from the 4th or 5th century, had been stored in a library in Hamburg, Germany, for decades and was long considered insignificant, the New York Post reported.

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However, two experts have now decoded the text, revealing it as the earliest surviving copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

Lajos Berkes, a theology lecturer and one of the decoders, expressed the document's significance in a press release.

"The papyrus fragment is of extraordinary interest for research," Berkes said. “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 fragment contains 13 lines in Greek and originates from late antique Egypt, a Christian society at the time.

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It 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 manuscript, Jesus, at five years old, was playing by a stream and molded sparrows from soft clay. When his father Joseph rebuked him, Jesus clapped his hands and brought the clay figures to life. This story, regarded as Jesus' second miracle, is a well-known part of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT).

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The IGT, detailing Christ’s childhood, was popular and widespread in Antiquity and the Middle Ages but was not included in the Bible due to doubts about its accuracy among early Christian writers.

Previously, the oldest known Greek version of the text was an 11th-century codex. This newly deciphered papyrus fragment predates it by 600 years.

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Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, the other expert who helped decode the fragment, confirmed that the findings support the current understanding that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was originally written in Greek.

Both Macedo and Berkes believe the manuscript may have been used as a writing exercise in a school or 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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