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What’s the Earliest Record of Jesus’s Childhood?

It’s probably not an exaggeration to say the four Gospels of the New Testament—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—are the most studied books in history. Every story, every sentence, every word has been scrutinized for generations by both scholars and laypeople alike.

But this never-ending microscopic analysis of the text, as necessary and important as it is, can prevent us from seeing something equally remarkable: what is not in the text. We’re so focused on what’s there that we never reflect on what isn’t there. What the biblical authors decided not to tell us may be as significant as what they did tell us.

There are many surprising absences in the accounts of Jesus in our four Gospels. For example, what did Jesus do for the 40 days he spent with his disciples after the resurrection? What did he talk about? What teachings did he deliver? The four Gospels don’t tell us.

But we have an apocryphal Gospel (a writing about Jesus not included in our Bibles) that does. In the Dialogue of the Savior, Jesus makes numerous post-resurrection appearances to his disciples, answering their questions and waxing eloquent on various theological topics. Other apocryphal Gospels (e.g., the Gospel of Philip and the Gospel of Mary) offer similar stories.

To give another example, ever wonder what it would’ve been like to see Jesus resurrected? What did it actually look like for him to come out of the tomb? The four Gospels don’t tell us (when the women arrive early that Sunday morning, Jesus is already risen).

But we have an apocryphal Gospel that does. In the Gospel of Peter, we’re given a purported first-hand account of Jesus walking out of the tomb at the moment of his resurrection. He emerges from the tomb flanked by an angel on each side, and his head touches the clouds.

What the biblical authors decided not to tell us may be as significant as what they did tell us.

The most poignant example of a surprising absence in our Gospels pertains to Jesus’s childhood. What was Jesus like as a child? How did this “junior” Son of God behave? Did anyone know he was divine? Aside from the singular story in Luke 2, the four Gospels don’t tell us.

But we have an apocryphal Gospel that does. It’s called the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, and it has been well known to scholars for generations. Moreover, on June 13, 2024, CBS News announced a new manuscript of this Gospel has been discovered that’s purportedly the “oldest written record of Jesus Christ’s childhood.”

Now, that’s an enormous claim. If it’s true, that could substantively change our understanding of the historical Jesus. But before we reconsider everything we think we know about the childhood of Jesus, we might want to pause. Sometimes “new” discoveries, on further investigation, aren’t as new as they first appear.

What Is the Infancy Gospel of Thomas?

Let’s begin with an important clarification. The Infancy Gospel needs to be distinguished from the Gospel of Thomas, the latter of which is a well-known apocryphal Gospel dated to the late second century consisting of 114 sayings of Jesus and has nothing to do with his childhood. (Curiously, there was also a manuscript of the Gospel of Thomas discovered recently, which I wrote about elsewhere.)

The Infancy Gospel, in contrast, is a flamboyant and entertaining account of Jesus as a little child growing up in his hometown. As might be expected, one doesn’t have to wait for Jesus to grow up to see signs that he’s God’s Son. The boy Jesus restores a man’s foot after it was injured by an axe, carries water in his cloak after his jug broke, expands a piece of wood to help his carpenter father, jumps off a rooftop without being hurt (did he fly?), plants a single grain of wheat that produces a hundred bushels, and even raises people from the dead.

Despite these miraculous deeds, however, the wunderkind Jesus isn’t a net benefit to his hometown. For much of the Infancy Gospel, he proves to be a petulant and volatile child, terrorizing the villagers with his fits of rage.

At one point, another child irritates Jesus by splashing a branch in pools of water. Jesus screams at him, “You unrighteous, irreverent idiot! What did the pools of water do to harm you? See you also will be withered like a tree, and you will never bear leaves or fruit” (3.2). Then the child is withered and killed on the spot. In another story, a child accidentally bumps into the boy Jesus as he walks through the village. Aggravated, Jesus immediately kills him too.

By this point, the villagers are upset and terrified. They come to Joseph to complain about the child. But when Jesus hears about their complaints, he strikes them blind. Joseph attempts to discipline him by grabbing him by the ear and giving it a pull, but then Jesus gives an ominous threat to his own father: “You have not acted at all wisely. . . . Do not grieve me” (5.3).

The Infancy Gospel finally ends with a modified version of Jesus as a 12-year-old boy in the temple—a story clearly drawn from Luke 2:41–52.

As for the origins of this bizarre Gospel, most scholars date its production to the end of the second century. Such a late date—nearly a century after most of the apostles had died—means it couldn’t have been penned by Thomas or any other apostle. In fact, the attribution to Thomas is missing in the earliest versions of the Infancy Gospel. Thomas’s name was likely added sometime in the Middle Ages, probably as a late attempt to bolster the book’s credibility.

What’s This New Manuscript?

The fact that Thomas’s name was missing from the earliest versions highlights one of the major challenges with this Gospel: its problematic textual history. While it was likely originally written in Greek, we have few Greek manuscripts, and the ones we do have are dated very late, most coming from the 14th or 15th centuries. These manuscripts differ radically from one another. While we have earlier versions in other languages—Latin, Syriac, Ethiopic—these, too, have significant textual differences.

In short, we aren’t sure which stories the “original” Infancy Gospel contained.

This brings us to the recently announced discovery of a new manuscript. A fragment from this Gospel—labeled “P.Hamb.Graec. 1011”—was discovered by two scholars in the Hamburg University Library in Germany. While the fragment had been in the library’s possession for some time, it wasn’t properly identified as coming from the Infancy Gospel until now.

It may be surprising to hear that a manuscript is “discovered” in a library rather than, say, in the sands of Egypt. However, a significant number of our New Testament manuscripts have been found in libraries, most famously Codex Sinaiticus (at the St. Catherine’s Monastery library), and Codex Vaticanus (at the Vatican library). Often, manuscripts are stored in libraries but not properly cataloged or identified, only to be found later (usually by an appetent PhD student).

This new manuscript is fragmentary, which is why it wasn’t properly identified originally. The remaining words appear to come from the first story in the Infancy Gospel where the boy Jesus is playing by a stream on the Sabbath day and makes birds out of the mud. When his father discovered what Jesus was doing, he rebuked him for profaning the Sabbath. In response, Jesus simply claps his hands and the mud birds fly away.

The most notable feature of this “new” manuscript is its date. Up to this point, the earliest Greek manuscript of this Gospel was from the 11th century, but this new manuscript is dated to the fourth or fifth century. Thus, it’s now the earliest copy (in any language) of the Infancy Gospel.

According to the scholars who discovered the manuscript—Lajos Berkes and Gabriel Macedo—the Greek text, fragmentary though it is, matches what most scholars already considered to be the most reliable Greek text of the Infancy Gospel (known as “recension S”).

Put in layman’s terms, this new manuscript supports one particular version of the Infancy Gospel—a version scholars already believed was probably the earliest.

Does It Affect Our Understanding of Jesus’s Childhood?

With each discovery like this one, it’s natural to wonder if it changes our understanding of the historical Jesus. Should we now include the Infancy Gospel of Thomas as our fifth Gospel? Not at all. Here are several considerations.

First, this discovery doesn’t change the fact that the Infancy Gospel has little historical credibility. It was written in the late second century, not by an apostle or eyewitness, and contains the kinds of embellished and fanciful stories typical of other infancy accounts in the Greco-Roman world. Even among ancient secular biographers, it was common to construct childhood stories of their heroes that were designed to show that as children, the heroes already possessed the qualities that would be manifested later in their lives.

This reality highlights the remarkable restraint and matter-of-fact reporting of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. While we might have expected them to succumb to the obvious temptations to create fantastical childhood stories of Jesus, we instead get a grand total of one story about Jesus’s childhood (Luke 2:41–52).

This discovery doesn’t change that the Infancy Gospel has little historical credibility.

Second, this discovery doesn’t change any fundamental fact about the Infancy Gospel’s textual history. Despite media claims that this new manuscript would be groundbreaking in some fashion, it seems it maintained the status quo. Scholars already believed this Gospel was probably written originally in Greek. This new manuscript confirms that likelihood. Scholars already believed that recension S was likely the best Greek text available for this Gospel (despite its messy textual history). This new manuscript seems to confirm that likelihood.

In short, there aren’t a lot of new things that can be derived from this new manuscript.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, this discovery doesn’t constitute the “oldest written record of Jesus Christ’s childhood” (in the words of CBS News). No, this manuscript is merely the oldest written record of the Infancy Gospel. And even that record isn’t very old, since the manuscript is dated to the fourth or fifth century.

So, what then is the oldest written record of Jesus Christ’s childhood? The Gospel of Luke. And there are several notable differences between Luke’s Gospel and the Infancy Gospel:

Authorship. Luke was written by someone who lived in the first century and had access to the eyewitness testimony of the apostles (1:2). The Infancy Gospel was written by someone who lived in the second century with no access to eyewitness testimony.
Date. Luke was likely written sometime between AD 60 and 80, not long after Jesus’s life. The Infancy Gospel was written more than a century later.
Textual history. Luke has a stable textual history, with its earliest manuscripts dated possibly to the second century (e.g., P4, 0171). The Infancy Gospel has an unstable textual history, with its earliest manuscript dated to the fourth or fifth century.
Historical value. Luke is regarded by many scholars as an impressive historian in his own right (particularly when the books of Acts is also considered). The bizarre images of Jesus in the Infancy Gospel differ radically from Luke and from the other canonical Gospels, raising significant doubts about their historical value.

The contrasts above are noteworthy. And none of them is changed by this latest manuscript discovery. If one wants to know about Jesus’s childhood, Luke’s Gospel has always been our earliest and best source.

Avoid Speculation

We all wish we knew more about Jesus’s childhood. That’s not in dispute. If God became a human being, it’s hard not to wonder how that human being would have grown and developed in his younger years. But we have to resist the temptation to turn that wonder into speculation and then turn that speculation into stories that can satisfy our curiosity.

If one wants to know about Jesus’s childhood, Luke’s Gospel has always been our earliest and best source.

Instead, we have to content ourselves with what the Gospels do tell us, not what they don’t tell us. Luke’s singular account of Jesus in the temple may not be as wild and entertaining as what we find in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas or other later infancy narratives. But I think that works in its favor. It’s a historically rooted, straightforward, and remarkably restrained story.

In Luke, there are no flying mud birds, no floating off rooftops, and (most importantly) no fits of rage where people are struck blind or dead. Instead, you simply have a 12-year-old boy who finds his way to the temple to hear the teaching of God’s Word.

There’s a fundamental lesson to be learned here. For those of us looking for the real child Jesus, perhaps we should look in the most obvious place. Or, in the words of the boy Jesus himself, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).

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