The Earliest Record Of Jesus’ Childhood Has Been Deciphered

German researchers have recently deciphered a papyrus fragment that is currently the oldest record of Jesus Christ’s childhood to date—here’s what to know about it. 

For years, a seemingly insignificant papyrus fragment lay unnoticed within the Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library. Most researchers believed that it was nothing more than an everyday document like a shopping list or private letter. Yet as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving; Dr Lajos Berkes from the Institute for Christianity and Antiquity at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU) and Professor Gabriel Nocchi Macedo from the University of Liège, Belgium have recently deciphered its contents. In a groundbreaking press statement, the two have revealed it to be a piece of the earliest record of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas—an apocryphal book that wasn’t in the Bible, but encountered widespread popularity during Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Much of the gospel details early childhood experiences of Jesus Christ, making it particularly significant to researchers. 

The papyrus fragment from the oldest manuscript of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas
The papyrus fragment from the oldest manuscript of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas/Photo from the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin website (Public Domain Mark 1.0)

READ ALSO: Unraveling History: AI Tools Help Decipher An Ancient Roman Scroll That Went Unopened For 2,000 Years

A 1,600-Year-Old Record

Berkes and Macedo have dated the papyrus fragment to the fourth to fifth century, leading them to believe that it’s the oldest surviving copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The fragment likely goes as far back as the early days of Christianity. Before their discovery, a codex from the 11th century held the title of the oldest version of the book. 

"Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel" ["Jesus Among the Doctors"] (1884) by Heinrich Hofmann
“Der zwölfjährige Jesus im Tempel” [“Jesus Among the Doctors”] (1884) by Heinrich Hofmann/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Both the codex and the fragment contain writing in Greek, which has solidified researchers’ theories that the gospel was originally written in the aforementioned language. Initially, researchers didn’t pay much mind to the piece of papyrus due to its “clumsy” handwriting. 

However, after noticing the word “Jesus” in the fragment, Berkes and Macedo compared it to similar digitized papyri, realizing how special the piece actually was. With the new revelation comes the theory that the fragment was part of a writing exercise in a school or monastery, one where the writer had copied the original text dating back to second century AD.

Contents of the Text

As with most ancient fragments, researchers can only discern the few words on the papyrus, since the rest of the puzzle pieces remain missing. Still, the thirteen-line writing (with 10 letters per line) on the 11 x 5-centimeter piece was enough for researchers to deduce that it details the “vivification of the sparrows” story from the gospel—a part of Jesus’ childhood that some experts consider to be his “second miracle.”

"Christ in the House of His Parents" (1849-1850) by Everett Millais
“Christ in the House of His Parents” (1849-1850) by Everett Millais/Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The story features a five-year-old Jesus playing by a stream and molding 12 sparrows from the soft clay of its mud. Joseph chastises him for doing this on a holy Sabbath day, but then his young son claps his hands and brings the clay birds to life. 

Banner photo by Heinrich Hofmann via Wikimedia Commons.

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