Early medieval fragment of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas discovered

Researchers in Germany have discovered the earliest surviving copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Dating to the 4th or 5th century AD, the fragment is part of a Gospel which tells episodes of the childhood of Jesus.

The papyrus fragment has been held unnoticed at the Hamburg Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library. Papyrologists Dr Lajos Berkes from the Institute for Christianity and Antiquity at Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin (HU), and Professor Gabriel Nocchi Macedo from the University of Liège have identified the fragment and published their findings in the journal Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik.


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. These writings were not included in the Bible, but their stories were very popular and widespread in Antiquity and the Middle Ages.

“The fragment is of extraordinary interest for research,” says Lajos Berkes. “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,” adds Gabriel Nocchi Macedo.

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. Berkes notes, “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.”

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.


The article, “Das früheste Manuskript des sogenannten Kindheitsevangeliums des Thomas: Editio princeps of P.Hamb.Graec. 1011,” by Lajos Berkes and Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, will be published soon in Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik, issue 229.

Top Image: Papyrus fragment from the 4th to 5th century. Photo: Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg/Public Domain Mark 1.0