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Newly deciphered manuscript is oldest written record of Jesus Christ's childhood, experts say

"The Chosen" offers new twists on the story of Jesus and his disciples
"The Chosen" offers new twists on the story of Jesus and his disciples 08:17

A newly deciphered manuscript dating back 1,600 years has been determined to be the oldest record of Jesus Christ's childhood, experts said in a news release.

The piece of papyrus has been stored in a university library in Hamburg, Germany, for decades, historians at Humboldt University announced. The document "remained unnoticed" until Dr. Lajos Berkes, from Germany's Institute for Christianity and Antiquity at Humboldt University in Berlin, and professor Gabriel Nocchi Macedo, from Belgium's University of Liège, studied it and identified it as the earliest surviving copy of the "Infancy Gospel of Thomas," a document detailing Jesus Christ's childhood. 

The translation marks a "significant discovery for the research field," Humboldt University said. Until now, it was believed that the earliest version of this gospel was a codex from the 11th century. 

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The papyrus fragment. Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg/Public Domain Mark 1.0

The document translated by Berkes and Macedo was dated between the 4th and 5th century. The stories in the document are not in the Bible, the news release said, but the papyrus contains anecdotes that would have been widely shared in the Antiquity and the Middle Ages. The few words on the fragment describe a "miracle" that Jesus performed as a child, according to the Gospel of Thomas, which says he brought clay figures of birds to life. 

The document was written in Greek, Macedo said, confirming for researchers that the gospel was originally written in that language. The fragment contains 13 lines in Greek letters and originates from late antique Egypt, according to the news release. 

The papyrus went ignored for so long because past researchers considered it "insignificant," the news release said. New technology helped Berkes and Macedo decipher the language on the fragment and compare it to other early Christian texts. 

"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 the news release. "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."

Macedo and Berkes said in the news release that they believe the gospel was created as a writing exercise in a school or monastery. That would explain the clumsy handwriting and irregular lines, they said. 

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