Early Copy of Infancy Gospel of Thomas Identified

Papyrus preserves early stories of Jesus’s childhood

Infancy Gospel of Thomas

4th century papyrus containing the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Courtesy Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg, Public Domain Mark 1.0.

While working through collections of unstudied papyri at the Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library in Germany, two scholars made a shocking discovery: the earliest known copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Although the small papyrus contains only 13 lines of fragmentary Greek text, it provides an incredible window into the history of this early Christian apocryphal gospel.

An Early Apocryphal Gospel

Publishing in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, the scholars date the papyrus to the fourth or early fifth century based on its paleography. This would make it the oldest known copy of the text by a century and the earliest Greek version by half a millennium.

Containing stories of the early childhood of Jesus, the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas is thought to have been written in the second century, likely in Greek. It quickly gained popularity and was translated into multiple languages, including Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic, Armenian, Georgian, Arabic, Gaelic, and Slavonic. The linguistic plurality of the gospel has made it difficult for scholars to reconstruct the original text. Even the language of the original is debated.

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“Our papyrus is a unique artifact of an early Christian text,” Lajos Berkes, papyrologist and co-author of the paper, told Bible History Daily. “It contains the earliest copy of the text in any language; thus, this fragment is the closest we can get to the original. It strengthens the view that the text was originally written in Greek and not in Syriac as some scholars had assumed. Furthermore, it gives very important insights into the textual history of the gospel, which allows a reconsideration of the language and style of its earliest version.” Although the papyrus contains only 13 lines and has only about ten letters on each line, it is closer in form and style to a later, ninth-century Greek version than it is to earlier versions of the text.

Reconstructing several lines of the papyrus, the scholars suggest it contained a section from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas known as the “vivification of the sparrows.” The story recounts an episode from Jesus’s childhood in which Joseph finds the young Jesus molding doves out of clay near a stream on the Sabbath. When asked why he is doing such a thing on the Sabbath, Jesus responds by clapping his hands and bringing the doves to life.

The early dating of the papyrus is not its only interesting feature, however. Measuring about 4 by 2 inches, the papyrus does not appear to have been part of a codex but rather was a single sheet with writing on one side, varying letter sizes, sloping lines, and multiple erasures. Analyzing the handwriting and style of the papyrus, the scholars concluded that, in all likelihood, “the text was copied on a loose sheet as a writing exercise, perhaps in a school or monastic context… Hands of this type are usually attempts by already experienced, but not expert, students at writing in a formal (book hand) style, which is done with some degree of fluency, but still shows unevenness.” As such, the papyrus was likely an extract from a more complete copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The use of such extracts, especially from biblical books and gospels, was a common practice.

One of many early apocryphal gospels, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is generally considered to be Gnostic in origin and is different than the similarly named Gospel of Thomas, which was found near Nag Hammadi in the 20th century. Despite its widespread popularity, it was generally considered heretical by the early Church, with Pope Gelasius I even placing it on a list of heretical books in the fifth century.

Related reading in Bible History Daily:

The Gospel of Thomas’s 114 Sayings of Jesus

The Nag Hammadi Codices and Gnostic Christianity

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