What Is the Oldest Bible? by Brian W. Davidson

What is the oldest Bible? Before we can answer this common question, we need to consider a few others.

First, which Bible? “Bible” is not a monolithic concept across faith communities. Even today, Jewish and Christian faith communities disagree on which books to include in their biblical canons. Which is the oldest Bible depends on which faith community someone identifies with.

Second, how do we define “Bible”? Do we mean a single bound volume containing a complete collection of scriptures with unique authority, something like what you would find under a church pew on Sunday morning? If so, we would need to eliminate any texts written before the Common Era, when scriptures were written on scrolls. Scholars still debate when and how ancient scriptures became codified as uniquely authoritative and started being widely shared, a process known as canon formation. (Interested readers can listen in on the debate by checking out the Old Testament canon forum published by the Ancient Jew Review or the Bible Odyssey article on the New Testament canon listed in Related Articles on the right.

Nevertheless, several different bodies of literature could have a claim to being the oldest Bible. If you are looking for the oldest available edition of a more inclusive Bible, Codex Sinaiticus (circa 350 C.E.) would fit the bill. However, its Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible are not the oldest witnesses we have to the Hebrew/Aramaic scriptures. The Dead Sea Scrolls (circa 250 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) are centuries older than Codex Sinaiticus, but they are extremely fragmentary and rarely make up anything close to complete books. The Old Greek translations of the Hebrew/Aramaic scriptures—popularly called the “Septuagint”—occasionally testify to a Hebrew/Aramaic text even more ancient than the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Pentateuch began to be translated around 250 B.C.E.). In these instances, the Septuagint could, therefore, be called the oldest available Bible text. These Greek texts are, however, translations, and scholars are still sorting out the exact wording of the earliest recoverable texts. 

Because of the Masoretes’ meticulous work, some consider the Leningrad Codex (circa 1000 C.E.) or the Aleppo Codex (circa 925 C.E.) to be the best representatives of the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible. The problem is that the Masoretic manuscripts themselves are from the medieval era. At least materially, the Masoretic manuscripts are much later than the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Greek translations, and Codex Sinaiticus. Each of these bodies of literature could in some sense be called the oldest Bible. 

Modern translators do not seek to represent the oldest Bible. At some point, each biblical book ceased to undergo large-scale editorial changes and reached its “final edition.” Scholars who do textual criticism survey the various ancient witnesses to the biblical books in order to trace each book’s development, from its earliest recoverable stages to its current form in modern editions. Based on this work, scholars publish one of two types of Hebrew or Greek Bibles: (1) a single eclectic text that weaves together various readings from ancient witnesses or (2) an edition consisting of one particularly esteemed ancient manuscript, with variant readings included in the footnotes or margins. Modern translations of the Hebrew Bible are based on a single medieval manuscript (the Masoretic Text), supplemented by readings from older texts like the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls. Editions of the New Testament are based on an eclectic text, a mix of readings from various manuscripts that is usually related to the latest available Nestle-Aland edition available.

Rather than attempting to produce a translation of the “oldest Bible,” modern translations (such as the New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, Revised English Bible, and New International Version) reflect what each editorial committee considers to be the original or earliest recoverable form of each biblical book’s final edition. (For more on how modern translations differ, see Jonathan Potter’s article on Bible translations listed in Related Articles.)

If you would like more information on the various texts mentioned above, you can find them listed under Related Links.

Brian W. Davidson, "What Is the Oldest Bible?", n.p. [cited 13 Nov 2018]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.com/en/tools/ask-a-scholar/what-is-the-oldest-bible

Contributors

davidson-brian

Brian W. Davidson
Doctoral Student, Southern Seminary

Brian W. Davidson is an Old Testament doctoral student at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. His research focuses on the languages and textual history of the Old Testament. Brian also teaches Greek, Latin, logic, and rhetoric at Highlands Latin School in Louisville.

one of the oldest (ca. 930 CE) and most important, but no longer complete, existing examples of the Masoretic Text

Trustworthy; reliable; of texts, the best or most primary edition.

An authoritative collection of texts generally accepted as scripture.

the process by which biblical texts were selected as authoritative and arranged into their current order

A text of pages bound leaf style, like a modern book—as opposed to a scroll, which has no discrete pages.

a manuscript of the Christian Bible written in Greek in the middle of the fourth century, containing the earliest complete copy of the Christian New Testament.

A neutral term for the "A.D." period of years, i.e. the past two thousand years.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

a critical edition drawn from multiple sources where scholars weigh the different readings to determine which reading is most likely original

a 2001 English revision of the Revised Standard Version (RSV) that sought to convey word-for-word the meaning and style of biblical texts

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."

the oldest complete manuscript (ca. 1010 CE) of the Masoretic Text; used as the basis of many modern editions of the Hebrew Bible

Textual documents, usually handwritten.

A group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text and developed the system of vowel markings that eventually were added to the consonantal text.

Relating to the Masoretes, a group of medieval scribes who preserved and transmitted the written Hebrew text of the Bible. Or, the Masoretic Text itself, an authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible.

The authoritative Hebrew text of the Hebrew Bible, containing both the consonants and the vowels (unlike the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have no vowels). The earliest existing copies of the Masoretic Text date to the 10th century C.E.

Of or relating to the Middle Ages, generally from the fifth century to the fifteenth century C.E. and overlapping somewhat with late antiquity.

a 1978 translation of the Bible intended to convey the message of the biblical text in contemporary English; its preface emphasizes its translators’ commitment to biblical authority

a 1989 scholarly translation of the Bible that included new textual data from the Dead Sea Scrolls, modern English idiom, and more gender-neutral terminology

A collection of first-century Jewish and early Christian writings that, along with the Old Testament, makes up the Christian Bible.

Also called the Hebrew Bible, those parts of the canon that are common to both Jews and Christians. The designation "Old Testament" places this part of the canon in relation to the New Testament, the part of the Bible canonical only to Christians. Because the term "Old Testament" assumes a distinctly Christian perspective, many scholars prefer to use the more neutral "Hebrew Bible," which derives from the fact that the texts of this part of the canon are written almost entirely in Hebrew.

a 1989 English revision of the New English Bible (NEB); it sought to retain the literary elegance of the NEB while updating the idiom and including more gender-inclusive language

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