Store Banner Desktop

Store Banner Mobile

Earliest Manuscript of Gospel about Jesus

Earliest Manuscript of Gospel about Jesus's Childhood Discovered

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

For decades, a papyrus fragment with the inventory number P.Hamb.Graec. 1011 lay unnoticed in the archives of the Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library. This fragment has recently been identified by papyrologists Dr. Lajos Berkes from Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and Prof. Gabriel Nocchi Macedo from the University of Liège, Belgium, as the earliest surviving copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. 

This significant discovery dates the manuscript back to the 4th to 5th century AD, offering new insights into early Christian writings and their transmission. 

Unveiling a Piece of Early Christian History 

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, likely written in the 2nd century AD, is part of the biblical apocrypha, a collection of texts not included in the canonical Bible. These writings, however, were popular in antiquity and the Middle Ages. Until now, the oldest known Greek version of this Gospel was a codex from the 11th century. The newly identified fragment, therefore, pushes back the timeline of this text's transmission by many centuries. 

"The fragment is of extraordinary interest for research," says Dr. Berkes, a lecturer at the Faculty of Theology at Humboldt-Universität. The ability to date the fragment to the 4th to 5th century and its alignment with the original text written in Greek provide crucial evidence about the Gospel's early existence and dissemination. This discovery supports the current scholarly assessment that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was originally penned in Greek. 

 The document was initially believed to be insignificant.

The document was initially believed to be insignificant. (Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg / PD) 

The Deciphering Process: From Insignificance to Importance 

Measuring approximately 11 x 5 centimeters (4.3 x 2 inches), the fragment contains thirteen lines of Greek text with around ten letters per line. It originated in late antique Egypt and was initially overlooked because its content seemed insignificant, potentially part of an everyday document. 

"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," explains Dr. Berkes. 

The breakthrough came when the word "Jesus" was identified in the text. Further comparisons with numerous other digitized papyri allowed the researchers to decipher it letter by letter, revealing its true nature. Using key terms like "crowing" and "branch," they cross-referenced other early Christian texts and confirmed it as a copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. This fragment now stands as the earliest known manuscript of this Gospel, closely following the original 2nd-century text. 

Content and Origin: A Glimpse into Early Christian Education 

The fragment’s content points to an episode from Jesus' childhood described in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Specifically, it narrates the beginning of the "vivification of the sparrows," considered the second miracle in this apocryphal Gospel. In this episode, a young Jesus plays by a stream, molding twelve sparrows from clay. When his father Joseph reprimands him for doing this on the Sabbath, Jesus claps his hands and brings the clay figures to life. 

The researchers believe that this copy of the Gospel was likely created as a writing exercise in a school or monastery, given the clumsy handwriting and irregular lines. Such practices were common in antiquity for educational purposes, indicating that the fragment not only holds religious significance but also provides a glimpse into the pedagogical methods of the time. 

The discovery of this papyrus fragment is a milestone for biblical scholars and historians, shedding light on the early transmission and educational practices surrounding Christian texts. It underscores the dynamic nature of early Christian literature and its dissemination across different regions and periods. 

Top image: Papyrus fragment from the 4th to 5th century. Source: Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg/Public Domain 

This article is an edited press release from the Humboldt-Universität, Berlin, originally titled, ‘Earliest manuscript of Gospel about Jesus’s childhood discovered’. 


Berkes, Dr. Lajos. June 2024. Earliest manuscript of Gospel about Jesus’s childhood discovered. University of Berlin. Available at: 

ancient-origins's picture


This is the Ancient Origins team, and here is our mission: “To inspire open-minded learning about our past for the betterment of our future through the sharing of research, education, and knowledge”.

At Ancient Origins we believe that one of... Read More

Next article