In a discovery that bridges the ancient world with modern scholarship, a newly deciphered manuscript dating back over 1,600 years has been identified as the earliest known account of Jesus Christ’s childhood. This remarkable find, written on papyrus and dating to either the 4th or 5th century, had been tucked away in a library in Hamburg, Germany, and was long dismissed as an insignificant document.

However, two diligent scholars have now decoded the text and revealed it to be the earliest surviving copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a text detailing episodes from Jesus’ early years.

“The papyrus fragment is of extraordinary interest for research,” declared Lajos Berkes, a theology lecturer and one of the scholars who deciphered the document. Initially thought to be a mundane piece, such as a private letter or shopping list, due to its clumsy handwriting, its true nature was uncovered through meticulous analysis. “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,” Berkes explained.

The fragment, consisting of 13 lines in Greek, originates from late antique Egypt, a period when the region was a thriving Christian society. It recounts a fascinating episode from Jesus’ childhood, known as the “vivification of the sparrows.” According to the manuscript, a young Jesus molded 12 sparrows from clay while playing beside a stream. When rebuked by his father, Joseph, the 5-year-old Jesus clapped his hands, bringing the clay birds to life. This story, considered Jesus’ second miracle, is a well-known part of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT).

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which depicts various stories from Christ’s early years, was popular in Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, its apocryphal nature led to its exclusion from the canonical Bible, as early Christian writers doubted its authenticity. The IGT is believed to have been originally penned in the 2nd century. Until this discovery, the oldest known Greek version was an 11th-century codex. This newly deciphered fragment predates that by a staggering 600 years, offering unprecedented insight into early Christian writings.

“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,” stated Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, the other expert who decoded the papyrus fragment. Both Macedo and Berkes believe the manuscript was used as a writing exercise, likely at a school or monastery.

This discovery not only provides a precious glimpse into the early accounts of Jesus’ life but also highlights the vibrant intellectual and religious life of late antique Egypt. It underscores the enduring fascination with the life of Jesus and the efforts of early Christians to preserve and teach these stories.

The identification of this manuscript as the earliest known copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is a testament to the dedication and skill of modern scholars in uncovering the truths of our past. It serves as a reminder of the rich tapestry of history that continues to shape our understanding of faith, culture, and the human experience.