1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

What the earliest manuscript about Jesus' infancy reveals

July 1, 2024

A recently discovered 1,600-year-old papyrus is the earliest known manuscript of the Infancy Gospel. The apocryphal stories about Jesus' childhood fascinate the world, but they aren't new.

A painting showing carpenters at work and a mother embracinga red-haired child.
A scene from Jesus' childhood, as imagined by 19th-century English painter John Everett MillaisImage: gemeinfrei

"A New Discovery Could Offer Some Clues About Jesus' Childhood."

"Secret Bible text changes everything."

"A mislabeled fragment of Egyptian papyrus tucked away in a German library has blown apart thousand-year-old perceptions about the Bible, and Jesus himself."

These were just some of the headlines covering the recent discovery of a 1,600-year-old manuscript featuring a story from Jesus' childhood.

The two papyrologists who made the find, Lajos Berkes and Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, were however a bit overwhelmed by this type of reporting.

"This is not a new story, and it's not an authentic story about Jesus," Berkes told DW about the content of the manuscript they found.

fragment of papyrus, a color guide is shown at the top left side for researchers.
The papyrus fragment remained unnoticed at the Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library for decadesImage: Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg

"So this doesn't change anything about what we know about the gospels and about Jesus," said Berkes, a lecturer at the Institute for Christianity and Antiquity at the Humboldt University of Berlin. "It caused a lot of misunderstanding and polemics, even though we never claimed anything."

What they found is nevertheless spectacular: it's the earliest known manuscript of the so-called Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical or apocryphal gospel — a text rejected by the Catholic Church and never included in the New Testament.

Jesus turns clay figures into real birds

The manuscript features fragments of a text describing 5-year-old Jesus playing near a stream, where he finds clay and moulds it into bird shapes. Joseph scolds him for being active on Sabbath, the day of rest. This prompts Jesus to clap his hands, upon which the sparrows come to life and fly away.

Ancient illustration, men and birds.
An illustration from the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, a 14th-century translation of the Infancy Gospel, shows Jesus animating clay birdsImage: gemeinfrei

Even though it was not included in the canonical gospels, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is nevertheless a well-known work among scholars.

It's estimated that the original transcription of the text dates back to the mid-to-late-2nd century AD, based on another 2nd century document quoting the Greek bishop Irenaeus of Lyon, who describes the work as inauthentic and heretical.

The Infancy Gospel does indeed contain stories that appear surprising for those who know Jesus as a kind and loving figure. Young Jesus is prone to outbursts of anger and revenge. He curses other children who anger him, leaving them disabled or dead. He afflicts neighbors with blindness, and also kills a teacher for reprimanding him.

Scholars have long debated why Jesus would be portrayed as a "hero of ridiculous and shabby pranks," as one author described the stories.

The New Testament itself provides little information about Jesus' childhood. Since the Infancy Gospel seemingly filled some of the gaps left by the canonical gospels, it was highly popular during the High Middle Ages. Ancient versions of the manuscript were found in Greek, Latin, Syriac, Slavonic, Georgian, Ethiopic and Arabic.

An ancient painting showing a woman embracing her child, surrounded by bearded men.
The story of Jesus at the temple, one of the rare New Testament scenes set during childhood, is also told in the Infancy Gospel Image: gemeinfrei

What can be learned from the newly-discovered fragment

"The Greek is assumed to be the original language, and so far the earliest manuscript of this text was from the 11th century," explained Berkes.

The fragment found by Berkes and Macedo, dated between the 4th and 5th century, can demonstrate the ways in which certain words were replaced through centuries of transcription.

The two researchers are now planning to do a complete revision of the existing manuscript, and are working on a new translation.

Although it will not significantly change the actual text, their work can provide a new understanding of the language used, "basically showing that the register and the stylistic value of this original Greek text was much higher than it was previously thought," Berkes pointed out.

A ancient illustration of four men next to a person lying down.
In the Infancy Gospel, Jesus also resurrects people from the dead, as illustrated hereImage: gemeinfrei

A famous forgery case: Jesus' wife papyrus

To this day, attempting to understand Jesus' life beyond what is known from the canonical texts remains a topic of fascination. Finds that potentially reveal more about the central figure of Christianity are widely publicized.

One famous case dates back to 2012, when Harvard professor Karen L. King presented a papyrus fragment featuring a quote by Jesus referring to his "wife."

There is a long history of fringe Christian theology claiming that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, who was one of his close followers according to the canonical gospels. The idea was also popularized by Dan Brown in his bestselling 2003 novel, "The Da Vinci Code."

Dan Brown's book 'The Da Vinci Code' in pebbles.
Dan Brown contributed to popularizing the idea that Jesus was marriedImage: Photoshot/dpa/picture alliance

But there is no actual historical evidence demonstrating this claim.

The infamous papyrus that made headlines in 2012 turned out to be a forgery, as demonstrated by journalist Ariel Sabar in an investigation first published in The Atlantic in 2016 and then as a book titled "Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife" in 2020.

Contributing to turning the fake papyrus case into a surreal story, the man who is believed to have forged the Gospel of Jesus' wife papyrus, Walter Fritz, was a German who had dropped out from his Egyptology studies in Berlin and got involved in various ventures in Florida, including as an auto parts and art dealer and an internet pornographer.

"It was an elaborately done forgery, but many manuscript experts saw from the beginning that it was fishy," said Berkes.

How the Hamburg University papyrus collection was formed

So how did Berkes and Macedo make sure their find was authentic?

Their fragment was found among the trusted and established collection of the Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library Hamburg, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The collection was acquired through the German "Papyrus Cartel," which was commissioned to buy papyri from Egypt for museums and libraries in Germany.

Berkes said researchers at the time first focused on examining the better preserved manuscripts and books, whereas the smaller pieces were often left aside without being properly inventoried.

A more systematic process of cataloging these papyri fragments only started at the beginning of the 21st century.

From the Hamburg university's collection of more than 1,000 pieces, about a third has been cataloged and is available in digital form, which is where the two researchers discovered the fragment.

Combing through the online database, they spotted the word "Jesus" on the fragment and were able to determine this was an excerpt of the Infancy of Jesus thanks to another database that collects all ancient Greek literature.

Many of the articles covering their find also emphasized that the fragment had been hiding in plain sight. It was overlooked due to unusually poor penmanship — but also because systematically exploring collections of papyri is not necessarily something researchers have the leisure to do alongside their other work.

"To be honest, this was just a side project, and it turned out to be something big for both of us," said Berkes, pointing out that there are tens of thousands of fragments in collections worldwide that still need to be examined. "I cannot guarantee it, but I believe there are other similar fragments around."

"If I am lucky, I will find something else," he added hopefully, "but it also has to do with persistence and luck."

Edited by: Brenda Haas

Correction, July 1, 2024: An earlier version of this article misspelled the name of journalist Ariel Sabar. DW apologizes for the error.

Portrait of a young woman with red hair and glasses
Elizabeth Grenier Editor and reporter for DW Culture