Editor’s note - As articles started coming out  regarding the recent Infancy Gospel of Thomas discovery, I noticed some of the headlines and responses on social media were a bit sensational. Below Dr. Dan Gurtner, professor of New Testament at Gateway Seminary, explains what is—and what is not—significant about this discovery. - Tyler Sanders

§1. The Headline: Manuscript Discovery!

On June 4, 2024, a major research university in Berlin, Germany published a headline on their website, “Earliest manuscript of Gospel about Jesus’ childhood discovered.”[1] The notice summarizes, in true academic form, a soon-to-be published academic article[2] briefly describing to the academic community at large what he (Dr. Lajos Berkes) and his colleague (Dr. Gabriel Nocchi Gacedo) discovered. More on this shortly. When the topic hits the non-academic American media, the headlines read something like, “Newly deciphered manuscript is oldest written record of Jesus Christ’s childhood, experts say.” The transition from the academic European library to the American popular media journalist can be a bumpy road when it comes to facts. And, really, the authors of things you read in the headlines, particularly in American, SoCal popular media are trying to grab your attention from everyone else trying to grab your attention in popular media. They are trained as journalists, and probably do not have much, if any, experience in the subject matter at hand, which makes it very difficult for them to make clear to their readers–you–what this manuscript is, and what it is not. So, let me try to clarify what this whole thing is about, why it is in some sense important, and why it really does not tell us anything at all about Jesus.

The transition from the academic European library to the American popular media journalist can be a bumpy road when it comes to facts.

§2. Researchers Found an Old Greek Manuscript:

Researchers found an old Greek manuscript kept at the State and University Library (Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek) in Hamburg, Germany where the document, known as “P.Hamb.Graec. 1011,” had been for decades.[3] It turned out, upon closer inspection, to be a very early Greek texts, dating to the fourth or fifth century AD, of a collection of fictitious stories about the childhood of Jesus that historians have known about for a very long time. This text is a small portion of the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, which is one of a number of gospel-like texts, known as “Infancy Gospels,” that emerged among Christians from very ancient times. They are called “Infancy Gospels” because they are loosely associated in some manner with the birth and/ or childhood of Jesus, and sometimes aspects of his family. Among such works, the Infancy Gospel of Thomas is one of the earliest and most important.

Why would anyone write an “Infancy Gospel” in the first place? The short answer is–we do not know, because the ancient authors simply do not remark on the purpose of their own work. But we can keep two main things in mind: First, the setting of early Christianity. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas was written in the second century AD. While all four of our gospels–Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John–were written, in circulation, authoritative and, in my view, in a sense functionally canonical among the churches, the establishment of a complete and closed list of the 27 New Testament books that we have today was not established until AD 367, with the publication of the 29th Festal Letter of Athanasius. So, the early Christians did not have anything like a formalized established set of writings, nicely bound like the ones we being with us to church every Sunday. So, some of them may not have thought in terms of the fixed boundaries of four and only four gospels.

The second factor that may have given rise to the writing Infancy Gospels is, well, the four gospels that we do have really do not tell us much about Jesus’ early life or family.[4] Of course, Matthew and Luke are the only of the four earliest[5] gospels that give any information about Jesus prior to his adult, early ministry at all. Furthermore, the account from Matthew records events from shortly after Jesus’ birth and remaining in Egypt until the death of Herod the Great (Matt 2:19), when Jesus, still a child, is brought back to Israel. Readers see Jesus next as an adult not long after that, at His baptism (Matt 3:13–17). Is that all Matthew has to say? What else happened, one may wonder. In his own way, Luke shows use Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8), circumcision and presentation at the temple (Luke 2:21–38), but with that done, the young family goes home to Nazareth in Galilee (Luke 2:39–40). Otherwise readers see Jesus only briefly, at the age of twelve, joining his parents for their annual trip to Jerusalem for the Passover (2:41–52). But other than confounding the teachers and both frightening and bewildering his parents, Luke does not tell us much. Those of you who have tried to put together the script of a Christmas play for your church know exactly what I mean. Mark and John are no help at all, and Matthew and Luke do not give you as much as you had hoped.

It seems at least plausible, then, that early Christians, who read narratives about Jesus saw considerable gaps in his childhood; voids just begging to be filled with what they knew about the adult Jesus infused into a child. (And, really, those of you who have raised small children, have you not daydreamed for a moment what a sinless 2 year old may be like?) So, we will see a child’s activities–going to school, playing with friends, helping his father with some work–but with the supernatural powers of the adult Jesus we know from the Bible. That is what these so-called “Infancy Gospels” are about. They are not necessarily making claims about what Jesus was like as a five-year old, per se, but what Jesus could have been like. The results, as we will see, are somewhat startling.

The text tells us the main figure is a child, but as we read he seems like an adult; a grown-up person doing the activities of a child.

What I mean by “startling” is that for those of us familiar with the Bible we find something somewhat unsettling, and we have difficulty putting our finger on just what it is.[6] The text tells us the main figure is a child, but as we read he seems like an adult; a grown-up person doing the activities of a child. He bears the name of our Jesus while, in some respects, resembling him by the kinds of words he uses and the kinds of things he is able to do. But otherwise is so utterly unlike the Jesus we know in character that as readers we are made somewhat uncomfortable by his words, actions, demeanor, and even worse by the fact that we begin to realize that we simply do not like him. This is a model very odd to us, but familiar in ancient biography, a sort of child as a “miniature adult” (puer senex). You will see what I mean in the following summary.

§3. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas

So, what is The Infancy Gospel of Thomas about? In short, they are a collection of seventeen stories, allegedly narrated by the disciples Thomas, though after he introduces the stories he has nothing to do with it. The stories are mostly miracles alleged to have been done by Jesus at various ages (five, seven, eight, and twelve). They lead up to Jesus at the age of twelve and most assuredly serve as a “prequel” to the biblical account of Jesus at the age of twelve in the Bible (Luke 2:41–52).

In one instance, Jesus, at the age of 5, makes birds out of some soft clay, but when he is rebuked for doing so on the sabbath, he claps his hands and they fly away. Later, when the son of the high priest Annas sees Jesus constructing a pool to withhold water, the boy breaks the pool and empties the water. Jesus curses the boy and strikes him with paralysis. In yet another episode a boy merely bumps into Jesus’ shoulder at which Jesus curses the boy and the boy dies.

Joseph becomes so exasperated by the hardships Jesus is bringing upon his family that he rebukes Jesus: “‘Why do you say these terrible things?’ Joseph demanded of Jesus. ‘These people are suffering, and they hate us!’ ‘If you knew where wise speech came from,’ the boy replied to Joseph, ‘you wouldn’t be ignorant in what you say. […] Their words will not amount to anything, and these people will receive their just deserts.’ Immediately those who had hurled accusa­tions against him were blinded. Joseph grabbed Jesus by the ear, and pulled tufts of his hair out.”

Later when Joseph is considering putting Jesus under a teacher for his education, Jesus said to Joseph, “When you were born, I already existed. I was standing by you so that as a father you could be taught by me with the learning that no-one else knows and no-one else can teach. Then you would bear the saving name!” Jesus does eventually go to a teacher, who sends Jesus back to his father, saying, “So, brother Joseph, take him back home safe and sound. The child is some sort of great prodigy – a god or an angel or, well, I have no idea what.”

On one occasion, Jesus was playing with some other boys on a high roof, when one boy, named Zeno fell off and died. All the other boys did what boys always do when there is trouble afoot: they ran. So Jesus is left there, alone with the dead Zeno when his distraught parents naturally accuse Jesus: “You pushed our son off the roof!” they charge him. And though he denies the charge, “I did no such thing,” he has no witnesses to corroborate his testimony until he climbs down from the roof, stands by the corpse, and cries out, “‘Zeno, Zeno… stand up and tell everyone whether I pushed you off,’ Zeno got up, ‘No, you didn’t, Lord.’ When they saw this, they were astounded…. The child’s parent’s glorified God and worshipped the boy Jesus.”

There are more stories, and a great deal of research that goes into this puzzling assortment of bizarre accounts. But you get the idea. The Infancy Gospel of Thomas is not a long work; less than 3,000 words or so in English translation. This brings us to what this announcement about the discovery in the German library. Now we can return to that:

§4. This Announcement

The webpage article is a summary of what is published in the previously mentioned journal article one of the authors, Dr. Lajos Berkes, kindly made available to me. In it the authors Dr. Lajos Berkes and Dr. Gabriel Nocchi Macedo explain that the papyrus had been in Germany since before World War 2. They cite a number of sources in their article which, presumably, verify and document this claim, and is probably important for the authors to show that their papyrus was not stolen by leaders of the Third Reich. They note that it is written on papyrus–woven and pressed plant fibers typically from the Egyptian Nile delta, 11.1 cm high and 5cm wide, with 14 lines of written text. The handwriting of the person who wrote this text was not that of a professional scribe; far from it. A student with a semester of basic Greek will recognize the letters, but also see that they are, as Berkes and Macedo describe them, “clumsy and crudely aligned.”[7] Scholars who study ancient handwriting in Greek would classify this as “evolving,” meaning that in some sense the person is not entirely a novice; they have some experience but they are not yet an expert. It is likely, then, that this text is part of a learning exercise, not necessarily in a school per se, but some writing exercise of a student in which the student is writing out an extended text, in this case the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. The manner in which certain particular Greek letters are formed are the most notable ways to indicate the date for this manuscript. Thus, when compared with other Greek texts, the date for which is already known, comparing letters in this text with those texts allows Berkes and Macedo to date their manuscript, P.Hamb.Graec. 1011, with reasonable certainty, to the fourth or early fifth centuries AD. And that is what is so significant about this manuscript. Its date. Why?

This is the part that excites the historian and researcher, but may strike most of us as stupefyingly dull. I mentioned before that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas was known for a very long time. It is thought to date, in fact, to some time in the second century AD. It survives today in a variety of languages–Latin, Syriac, Slavonic, Arabic, Georgian, Ethiopic, and Greek. It is thought to be originally written in Greek, but all the Greek manuscripts that survived were much too late to show that the Infancy Gospel of Thomas in any of these other languages could derived from Greek. In other words, scholars knew from reading this work in, for example, Syriac, that it had been translated from an earlier Greek text, they just did not have any manuscript evidence that was early enough to prove it. Well, now they do. P.Hamb.Graec. 1011 is that missing link. It provides historians the earliest manuscript evidence to what had been a theory that this document in these other languages derived from Greek.

§5. The New Headline and the Old Headline

Is there anything newsworthy about this? Indeed, there is, for any discovery, however seemingly obscure or irrelevant to many of us, is another piece of that very large puzzle of history. For historians of this very ancient text, this is just the piece they were looking for. A perfect fit! (Thus, all the media hubub). But this was not discovered in the desert sands of Egypt nor in the remote caves of wilderness of Judea. No, this fragment of an ancient book was found, of all places, in a library in Hamburg, Germany, where it sat for decades.

But there is another news item intricately tied to this topic, missing from the headlines because it is not the job of the journalist to make the announcement public. It’s yours. The authors of these stories—whoever they were—were writing kinda bizarre fictitious stories about what they might have thought their hero Jesus, could have been like when he was a child. The name of Jesus is already in the headlines. All you have to do tell people about the Hero Himself.


Aasgaard, Reidar. “Infancy Gospel of Thomas.” Pages 78–94 in Early New Testament Apocrypha. Ancient Literature for New Testament Studies 9. Ed. J. Christopher Edwards. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022. An excellent introduction to the Infancy Gospel of Thomas with a complete bibliography of the most important secondary works for further study. This is very much a work for research purposes.
Berkes, Lajos, and Gabriel Nocchi Gacedo, “The Earliest Manuscript of the So-Called Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Editio Princeps of P.Hamb.Graec. 1011,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 229 (2024): 68–74. The technical, scholarly publication of the Greek manuscript discovery at the center of the announcement.
Bockmuehl, Markus. Ancient Apocryphal Gospels. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2017. This is an excellent resource for the topic of apocryphal gospels as a whole, written for church contexts. It orients the reader to the concept of non-canonical gospels and how to understand them historically in relationship to the Bible. Bockmuehl is a very precise and historically-minded author and may not draw theological conclusions some readers would like to see. Nonetheless this is fine work for the subject in general and its particular parts, including a chapter on the Infancy Gospel of Thomas.
Evans, Craig A. Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels. Downers Grove: IVP, 2006. A slightly dated but still very useful and accessible introduction to how works like the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and even something like this manuscript discovery, can sometimes be spun in misleading ways. Evans exposes a lot of nonsense and fact spinning that commonly makes its way into the headlines of popular media.
Gathercole, Simon. “The Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” in The Apocryphal Gospels, Penguin Classics (London: Penguin Books, 2021), 29–39. The best and most recent English translation, along with a brief (2 page) introduction.

[1] https://www.hu-berlin.de/en/press-portal/nachrichten-en/june-2024/nr-2464

[2] The author kindly sent me a pre-publication offprint of the article to consult for this work, which is to be published as follows: Lajos Berkes and Gabriel Nocchi Gacedo, “The Earliest Manuscript of the So-Called Infancy Gospel of Thomas: Editio Princeps of P.Hamb.Graec. 1011,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 229 (2024): 68–74.

[3] Berkes and Gacedo, “Editio Princeps of P.Hamb.Graec. 1011,” 68.

[4] A concise yet helpful orientation to this very question is found in the opening pages to the chapter on “Infancy Gospels” (ch. 2) by Markus Bockmuehl, Ancient Apocryphal Gospels (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2017), 55–58.

[5] Notice I use the word “earliest” rather than “canonical”. Of course, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are both the earliest and the canonical gospels. And, in my opinion, for a number of reasons, functioned on the authoritative level that we now call “canonical,” the establishment of the New Testament canon is typically dated to AD 367. This is the year of the 29th Festal Letter of Athanasius, in which he lists the 27 books of NT as we would recognize them today.

[6] The phenomena I am dealing with here is, broadly, the interpretations of the Jesus-figure in this gospel and how his human side is depicted. There are two schools of thought espoused among scholars on this subject, clearly and succinctly explained by Reidar Aasgaard, “Infancy Gospel of Thomas,” Early New Testament Apocrypha, ALNTS 9, ed. J. C. Edwards (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2022), 87–89.

[7] Berkes and Gacedo, “Editio Princeps of P.Hamb.Graec. 1011,” 69.

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