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Deciphered 1,600-year-old manuscript reveals new clues about a young Jesus

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Researchers say some ancient writing on a scrap of papyrus that went unnoticed for years reveals a new story about the life of a young Jesus Christ.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The document that was just deciphered is at least 1,600 years old. Lajos Berkes at Humboldt University of Berlin is one of the researchers who decoded it.

LAJOS BERKES: It is, in fact, a very famous story. It's so famous it even ended up in the Quran.

FADEL: What's now considered the oldest known part of the Gospel of Thomas tells a story about Jesus as a mischievous kid, sculpting birds out of clay. Joseph comes along and scolds him for working on the Sabbath, and to get out of trouble, Jesus claps, and the birds come to life and fly away.

MARTÍNEZ: Berkes says it's essentially a fable.

BERKES: As many people like to say, it's comparable to modern fan fiction.

MARTÍNEZ: And he speculates it might have been an exercise for a young monk learning to write at a monastery.

BERKES: We can only say that it was a beginner writer - his handwriting is really clumsy, but it's very difficult to really be sure if he was, for example, a child, which would be very interesting.

FADEL: It took two years to decipher, and Berkes says that's pretty standard.

BERKES: There are more than one million fragments worldwide in different collections, and we deal with deciphering these, which is a very difficult, painstaking enterprise, since ancient scripts are very difficult to read.

FADEL: Despite all that hard work, the researchers' conclusions aren't set in stone.

BERKES: Often, we say that you can never edit papyrus or publish papyrus perfectly. We are pretty sure and expect that other colleagues will come and correct us on details.

MARTÍNEZ: So anyone with a good grasp of Ancient Greek can take a crack at that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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