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Earliest manuscript of gospel about Jesus’ childhood identified

(NewsNation) — A fragment of papyrus has been identified as the oldest manuscript copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which details Jesus’ childhood.

Recorded in the 4th or 5th century in Greek, the manuscript tells the story of the “vivification of the sparrows,” in which the infant Jesus molds 12 sparrows from clay and brings them to life with the clap of his hands.

The “Infancy Gospel of Thomas” is an apocryphal text, meaning it is excluded from almost all versions of the Bible.

This piece of papyrus outdates the earliest manuscripts previously known by around six centuries.

Papyrologists studying the Egyptian manuscript said the discovery allowed them to confirm what they’d already believed: The story was originally recorded in Greek.

“From the comparison with already known manuscripts of this Gospel, we know that our text is the earliest. It follows the original text, which according to current state of research was written in the 2nd century AD,” papyrologist Lajos Berkes said.

For decades, the papyrus scrap sat inside the Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library.

“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,” Berkes said. “We first noticed the word Jesus in the text. Then, by comparing it with numerous other digitised papyri, we deciphered it letter by letter and quickly realised that it could not be an everyday document.” 

The researchers believe the poor penmanship on the papyrus indicates this sample was written as part of a writing exercise at a school or monastery.

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