Illustrative photo of Jesus raising clay birds to life. From the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, a 14th century German translation of apocrypha, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (public domain)
Main image: Illustrative photo of Jesus raising clay birds to life. From the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, a 14th century German translation of apocrypha, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (public domain)
'Early church authorities weren't fond' of the text

1,600-year-old papyrus fragment contains earliest account of Jesus’ childhood

Scrap from extra-biblical Infancy Gospel of Thomas discovered in German archive contains story of young Jesus bringing clay birds to life on the Sabbath

Gavriel Fiske is a reporter at The Times of Israel

Main image: Illustrative photo of Jesus raising clay birds to life. From the Klosterneuburger Evangelienwerk, a 14th century German translation of apocrypha, including the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. (public domain)

A small, 1,600-year-old papyrus fragment discovered in a German archive has been revealed to contain the earliest known copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, an early Christian text describing the childhood of Jesus that once enjoyed enormous popularity but was not canonized into the New Testament.

The fragment, measuring about 11 by 5 centimeters (4.3 by 2 inches), contains “a total of 13 lines in Greek letters, around 10 letters per line, and originates from late antique Egypt,” according to a press release from Humboldt University of Berlin earlier this month.

The papyrus fragment, part of the Hamburg State and University Library archive, was discovered after it was scanned and put online as part of an ongoing digitization project. It contains part of a story, from the beginning section of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, in which a young Jesus fashions birds from clay and then brings them to life.

“We almost overlooked it. This text is not from a book; it’s probably a writing exercise. For this reason, the script is not very nice, and the fragment is very tiny,” explained Dr. Lajos Berkes of the Institute for Christianity and Antiquity at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin.

“We found the word Jesus, in Greek. That could figure in a normal papyrus letter… then we saw some other rare words, and so we thought it was maybe a literary text,” Berkes said, speaking to The Times of Israel via Zoom.

By cross-referencing the text fragment with a database of ancient Greek literature, the researchers were able to show that the papyrus fragment contained part of the Infancy Gospel. Berkes, together with Prof. Gabriel Nocchi Macedo of Belgium’s University of Liège, published the findings on the fragment earlier this month. Both scholars are academic researchers and papyrologists, not theologians, Berkes stressed.

Dr. Lajos Berkes of the Institute for Christianity and Antiquity at Humboldt-Universität in Berlin. (courtesy)

“This text is indeed a non-canonical apocryphal gospel text. These days the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is presumed to have been written in the second century. Our text is from the fourth or early fifth century. The Infancy Gospel was extremely popular. It was a very loved text,” Berkes said.

Although “early church authorities weren’t fond of it,” there is a “difference between what the church wanted and what the people wanted,” he noted.

The papyrus fragment contains part of a story known as the “Vivification of the Sparrows,” in which “Jesus plays at the ford of a rushing stream and molds twelve sparrows from the soft clay he finds in the mud. When his father Joseph rebukes him and asks why he is doing such things on the holy Sabbath, the five-year-old Jesus claps his hands and brings the clay figures to life,” the researchers wrote.

What is the Infancy Gospel?

The Infancy Gospel of Thomas, considered heretical by early Church leaders, contains stories of the child Jesus interacting with his family and neighbors in the town of Bethlehem. The stories take place when Jesus was between five and 12 years old, filling in a gap in Jesus’ biography between the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, and Luke’s story of Jesus in the temple.

The Infancy Gospel enjoyed popularity well into the Middle Ages and versions have been found in Syriac, Greek, Latin, Amharic and even Irish, among other languages. The work is mentioned by Christian writers starting from the second century CE. It is generally thought that it was originally in Greek, although some scholars have claimed it was composed in Syriac, the Aramaic-adjacent language of the early Syriac Christian communities.

Papyrus fragment containing part of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas (courtesy Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg)

The Coptic Christians of Egypt have traditions about the wanderings of the Holy Family in Egypt, complete with pilgrimage sites along the Nile. Despite this, and the fact that the recently discovered papyrus fragment was originally from Egypt, no version of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas has been found in Coptic.

In the Infancy Gospel, Jesus is shown as a precocious child, often getting into trouble and then using his developing powers to avoid the displeasure of Joseph. Jesus is depicted as using his miraculous abilities to not only create life and heal, but also to kill several children who annoy him, and cause others to go blind.

Sometimes attributed to Thomas the Apostle, one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus, the Infancy Gospel is not directly related to the Gospel of Thomas, a different extra-biblical early Christian document.

“It’s difficult to tell why some texts were not included in the New Testament. Sometimes it can simply be that they were written too late to be considered, or that they were valued by a group that the crafters of the New Testament did not like for one reason or another,” said Tony Burke, professor of Early Christianity at York University in Toronto.

Prof. Tony Burke of York University. (courtesy)

“But with Infancy Thomas, we do have a number of remarks about the text by church writers from the fourth to the ninth centuries, and they disapprove of the text only because it contradicts the Gospel of John, which states that Jesus’ first miracle was the transformation of water to wine in Cana,” Burke said, responding via email to questions from The Times of Israel.

“So Jesus did not perform miracles as a child because the Gospel of John (which was highly valued) says he did not,” Burke continued. “Readers today assume the text was not approved because we dislike how Jesus is portrayed as killing people, but that did not seem to bother earlier Christians.”

The “Vivification of the Sparrows” story is “found also in a second-century text called the Epistle of the Apostles, in a summary of Jesus’ life, and in the Questions of Bartholomew from the fourth century,” Burke said. “It’s possible these writers knew the story from oral tradition but they could just as well have taken it from Infancy Thomas. Outside Christianity, the story is found also in the Koran (Surahs 3 and 5) and in one version of the Toledoth Yeshu (a Jewish ‘anti-gospel’ that says disparaging things about Jesus). What interests me about the latter two examples is that it shows non-Christians were sufficiently exposed to this story to consider it ‘genuine.’”

Many of the stories about Jesus in the Infancy Gospel “somehow foreshadow what he does as an adult” in the New Testament, Burke said.

The Wedding Feast at Cana, 1563, by Paolo Veronese, held by the Louvre Museum in Paris (public domain)

“Jesus is well-known as someone who pushes the boundaries of Sabbath practices (he will heal people on the Sabbath) and for performing healings or resuscitations. In this story, he creates life (like God forming Adam out of clay and animating him; so Jesus is equated with God) but does it on the Sabbath just like his adult counterpart. Readers would therefore recognize in the story the Jesus they know from texts about his adulthood,” Burke said.

There are four different versions of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in Greek, the earliest of which, before this latest discovery, is found in a manuscript from the 11th century. Even though the new fragment is from centuries earlier, it only preserves a small portion and therefore “it does not change dramatically what we know of the text… this new manuscript is a great discovery, but it neither confirms nor refutes the consensus views of scholars on the text,” Burke noted.

Media attention from all sides

When the researchers published their results earlier this month, their findings received extensive coverage worldwide, especially in the United States, in what author Berkes called “a big stir.”

“There was a lot of misunderstandings and political stuff around it, and misleading or ambiguous headlines. We didn’t claim anything, but it was presented in the media as a new genuine tradition of Jesus, or that it showed Christianity is a lie. There was a lot of controversy,” Berkes said.

“Some people wanted to [use it to] disprove religion, or others attacked us, saying that we wanted to disprove the Gospels” even though “we communicated very clearly” that the find was just a new scholarly angle on the large corpus of apocryphal early Christian writings, Berkes said.

“People are really interested in Jesus. These stories are very interesting and have their origins, but nobody thinks these are genuine traditions about Jesus’ life,” he added.

“I’m quite surprised at how much attention this particular discovery has received,” York University’s Burke said. Publications about two other recent “spectacular” texts, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife, were also “heavily promoted,” something that is ultimately good for the institutions and scholars who work in the field, he noted.

“The coverage of all three discoveries tends to be sensationalist and certainly leads to extreme reactions, but the scholars who research these texts never claim that their contents are historical (in other words, we don’t say Jesus performed miracles as a child, we just say this text claims that he did),” Burke said.

A sea of papyri

The fragment under discussion here, discovered in the Hamburg archive, is part of a huge volume of papyrus documents that were collected in Egypt and then deposited in various Western archives and libraries in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, papyrologist Berkes noted.

“They arrived in boxes. It’s common that they didn’t have good records… after having been in Germany for decades, this one was only inventoried sometime after 2001,” he said.

Although the “big, spectacular” discoveries have already been made from the “hundreds of thousands” of papyri pieces in the West, modern methodologies and advances in scanning technology have opened the door for “many new finds” by the relatively few scholars in his field, he said.

“Even smaller collections can be interesting, and these scraps are usually ignored,” Berkes said.

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