Hidden in Plain Sight

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Everyone mistakenly judges a book by its cover, and even archeologists are prone to quick assessments.

That seems to have been the case with an ancient papyrus fragment that turned out to be the oldest surviving copy of a gospel detailing Jesus’ childhood.

Researchers Lajos Berkes and Gabriel Nocchi Macedo recently came across the nearly 1,500-year-old papyrus fragment that had been sitting unnoticed at the Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library in Hamburg, Germany.

They were astounded at what they found on it.

Berkes and Nocchi Macedo noticed the word “Jesus” in the text, prompting them to compare it with other early Christian texts, using keywords like “crowing” and “branch.”

They realized the piece, which dates to the fourth or fifth century CE describes the beginning of the ‘vivification of the sparrows,’ an episode in which the child Jesus molds 12 sparrows from clay and brings them to life by clapping his hands.

It’s a copy of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas that detailed the early life of Jesus Christ. The gospel is an apocryphal work which means that it was not considered part of the Biblical canon – even though the stories were popular and widely read during antiquity and the Middle Ages.

Theological historians believe the text was originally written around the second century CE. Before the recent find, a codex from the 11th century was the oldest known Greek version of the Gospel of Thomas.

So how did it get ignored for such a long time?

“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 in a statement.

The discovery provides important context for the New Testament, highlighting the richness of early Christian literature and offering insights into the beliefs and practices of early Christian communities.

“Here we have one more witness to the diversity of Christian scripture before the development of a fixed canon,” Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, a papyrologist at Australia’s Macquarie University who was not involved in the finding, told the Washington Post.

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