Papyrologists decipher manuscript fragment and date it to the 4th to 5th century.

Papyrus fragment f
© Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg/Public Domain Mark 1.0Papyrus fragment from the 4th to 5th century.
For decades, a papyrus fragment with the inventory number P.Hamb.Graec. 1011 remained unnoticed at the Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library. Now papyrologists Dr Lajos Berkes from the Institute for Christianity and Antiquity at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU), and Prof Gabriel Nocchi Macedo from the University of Liège, Belgium, have identified the fragment as the earliest surviving copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.

This is a significant discovery for the research field, as the manuscript dates back to the early days of Christianity. Until now, a codex from the 11th century was oldest known Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas, which was probably written in the 2nd century AD. The Gospel tells episodes of the childhood of Jesus and is one of the biblical apocrypha. These writings were not included in the Bible, but their stories were very popular and widespread in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

New insights into the transmission of the text

"The fragment is of extraordinary interest for research," says Lajos Berkes, lecturer at the Faculty of Theology at Humboldt-Universität. "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."

"Our findings on this late antique Greek copy of the work confirm the current assessment that the Infancy Gospel according to Thomas was originally written in Greek," says Gabriel Nocchi Macedo from the University of Liège.

Deciphering with the help of digital tools

The fragment, which measures around 11 x 5 centimetres, contains a total of thirteen lines in Greek letters, around 10 letters per line, and originates from late antique Egypt. The papyrus remained unnoticed for a long time because the content was considered insignificant. "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," says Berkes. "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." Using other key terms such as 'crowing' or 'branch', which the papyrologists searched in other early Christian texts, they recognised that it was a copy of the Infancy Gospel according to Thomas. "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."

Content and origin of the papyrus

The two researchers assume that the copy of the Gospel was created as a writing exercise in a school or monastery, as indicated by the clumsy handwriting with irregular lines, among other things. The few words on the fragment show that the text describes the beginning of the 'vivification of the sparrows', an episode from Jesus' childhood that is considered the "second miracle" in the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas: Jesus plays at the ford of a rushing stream and moulds 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.

Further Information

Lajos Berkes - Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, Das früheste Manuskript des sogenannten Kindheitsevangeliums des Thomas: Editio princeps of P.Hamb.Graec. 1011, Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 229 (2024) 68-74.

The article will soon be available online (paywall). We will send you the article as a PDF on request.

Digital image of the papyrus available at Papyrus Portal

Photo of the Papyrus fragment