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Earliest Account of Jesus' Childhood Uncovered in 2,000-Year-Old Egyptian Manuscript

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Discovery of 2,000-Year-Old Text Sheds Light on a Miracle Performed by Jesus from Age Five to Twelve

A fascinating discovery has shed new light on an ancient story about Jesus' early years. This tale, found in a 2,000-year-old papyrus, recounts a miracle performed by Jesus at the age of five. The story is part of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, a text from the 2nd century that details Jesus' childhood but was ultimately excluded from the Bible.

Highlights

By Catholic Online
6/12/2024 (1 month ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Jesus' childhood, Jesus Christ, Gospel of Thomas, Jesus Young

The papyrus, which had lain unnoticed in the Hamburg State and University Library in Germany, depicts Jesus turning clay pigeons into live birds. Dr. Lajos Berkes, a lecturer at Humboldt-Universitat, described the initial finding: "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."

This story, previously known only from an 11th-century manuscript, provides a rare glimpse into the lesser-known aspects of Jesus' early life. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas (IGT) was written to fill in the gaps of Jesus' childhood, covering his life from ages five to twelve. However, it was excluded from the Bible, which focuses on Jesus' ministry, miracles, and crucifixion.

In the IGT, a young Jesus is seen playing by a stream and molding twelve sparrows from clay. When his father, Joseph, reprimands him for working on the Sabbath, Jesus commands the clay birds to take flight, and they come to life. Professor Dr. Gabriel Nocchi Macedo from the University of Liège explained, "In response, '[Jesus] orders the clay figures to 'take flight as living birds,' which they do."

The newly discovered papyrus fragment, measuring four by two inches, contains thirteen lines of this story. Researchers believe it may have been part of a writing exercise in a school or monastery due to its clumsy handwriting and irregular lines. Dr. Macedo noted that although the exact provenance of the papyrus is unknown, it was likely acquired for the library's collection sometime after 2001.

This fragment predates the previously known 11th-century manuscript by several centuries, dating back to the 4th or 5th century. Dr. Macedo remarked, "The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is an apocryphal gospel recounting episodes from Jesus' childhood. These episodes are not told in the Bible or other well-known liturgical or theological works."

While the canonical gospels provide limited information about Jesus' childhood--focusing on his birth, the family's flight to Egypt, their return to Nazareth, and his visit to the Temple in Jerusalem--apocryphal gospels like the IGT offer additional, though non-canonical, insights. Dr. Macedo likened the IGT to "fanfiction," consisting of loosely connected scenes where the young Jesus performs miracles.

The omission of Jesus' early years from the Bible remains a topic of speculation. Charles Dyer, a professor-at-large of Bible at Moody Bible Institute, suggested that the Bible focuses on what is necessary for understanding Jesus' mission. "In fact, we have, even in his adulthood, very little of the life of Jesus, but the part we have is what God thought was sufficient for us to truly understand who he is and why he came to earth," Dyer said.

Dr. Berkes and Dr. Macedo plan to produce a critical edition and commentary on the newly found manuscript, reassessing the style and language of the IGT text. Their findings will be published in the Journal of Papyrology and Epigraphy. Dr. Berkes emphasized the significance of the fragment, stating, "The fragment is of extraordinary interest for research. On the one hand, because we were able to date it to the 4th to 5th century, making it the earliest known copy. On the other hand, because we were able to gain new insights into the transmission of the text."

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