We have in our possession a sacred book that is nonetheless a book. Scripture was written over 1,400 years by various authors. The Bible wasn’t put together until centuries after all the writings were collected, but some writings remained together as a corpus (e.g., Torah). How did this process occur? That’s what many wonder. How and who created the Bible is remarkable and something that isn’t required to know but is very enlightening.
Allow me, first, to give you a timeline of pertinent events as it relates to writing altogether and the Bible.
3200 BCE — Writing began in Sumer through pictographic means. You might look up Samuel Kramer’s work, History Begins in Sumer.
3000 BCE — Egyptian hieroglyphs were developed.
2100 BCE — Abraham lived around this time.
1800 BCE — An alphabet is created in Egypt.
1500 BCE — Moses lived around this time.
1200 BCE — Ugaritic, a language from Ugarit—a northwestern area in Syria—is used, and Exodus 15 and Judges 5 have stylistic patterns that resemble it. These similarities lead linguists to conclude that these two chapters are the oldest in the Bible and date to 1100–1200 BCE.
1000 BCE — The monarchical period of Israel’s history begins.
1000–900 BCE — The earliest Hebrew inscription on a potsherd is discovered (Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon).
516→ BCE — We have manuscripts dating to this time period, known as the Second Temple Period, with the oldest dating to the late 4th century BCE.
250→ BCE — Dead Sea Scrolls
This timeline provides us a rough idea and overview of what we know about written communication. This information is the result of linguists, philologists, archaeology, and other related areas of study.1
Materials used in writing were stone (Exod. 34:1, 28; Deut. 27:2–3), clay (Ezek. 4:1), wood (Is. 30:8; Hab. 2:2), and leather (Jer. 36:23). Additionally, papyrus leaves were mostly that upon which the New Testament was written. These plants grew along the Nile River and had been used as far back as 3000 BCE, but became common among the Greeks and Romans for making a book (codex) or books (codices). The average roll was 30 feet long and 9–10 inches high. Scribes would write on one side mostly, and occasionally on both sides (cf. Rev. 5:1).2 Animal skins, referred to as either vellum or parchment, were another common material used in the making of a letter.
Whenever you hear about the discovery of a manuscript or something that scholars date to thus-and-such a period, they base this off the material upon which it was written, the language, dialect and syntax, and even carbon dating. Because we know that certain materials were used by particular people during a specific time period, this allows archaeologists to pinpoint a general time frame which contributes to our overall knowledge of the history of a text.
The Birth of the Bible
It’s difficult to fix a date as to when the Bible was written, or began to be written. Believing that Moses lived around 1500 BCE, the books attributed to his authorship would have been written sometime in the second half of the fifteenth century, with redactions throughout the centuries (cf. Num. 12:3; Deut. 34:5–6). However, the book of Job is believed to have been written in the second millinium BCE, or it at least is about that period if it was written later. To put it in perspective, Job is believed to have been a patriarch akin to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and in their time.
When it comes to what’s extant, the tenth century BCE potsherd known as Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is the eldest. This find dates to the reign of King David and was found was on the north side of the valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:1–3). Differing interpretations as to what it says exists,3 so to suggest it is Scripture may not be altogether true. This discovery also can’t be ruled out as unreflective of Scripture though.4 The Ketef Hinnom amulets, however, are among the oldest find that contain on them language akin to the priestly blessing of Numbers 6:24–26 and date to the seventh century BCE. Since many scholars believe that the Old Testament is primarily a product of Israel’s post-exilic period, these two finds cast that conclusion into doubt given the language they each demonstrate.
Behind these fragmentary pieces, the Dead Sea Scrolls are the oldest full-manuscript evidence of the Old Testament we have. They are a collection of over 900 manuscripts discovered around Qumran from 1947–56. Copies of every Old Testament book except for Nehemiah and Esther were found in 11 caves around the Dead Sea and the oldest dates to the third century BCE. Before this discovery, the Leningrad Codex was the oldest Old Testament manuscript, dating to 1008 CE. Scholars compared the two texts, being greater than a millennium apart, and found that little had changed. This attests to the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible transmission.The notion supported by the likes of Bart Ehrman that we can’t fully trust Scripture because of the lack of original copies is a bit of a farce when one considers the accuracy between these two texts.
1 I recommend a listening to The Bible for Normal People (episode 150).
2 Neil R. Lightfoot, How We Got the Bible, rev. ed. (Abilene: Abilene Christian University Press, 1986), 4.
3 Alan Millard, “The Ostracon from the Days of David Found at Khirbet Qeiyafa,” Tyndale Bulletin 62, no. 1 (Jan. 2011): 1–13.
4 Ralph K. Hawkins and Shane Buchanan, “The Khirbet Qeiyafa Inscription and 11th–10th Century BCE Israel,” Stone-Campbell Journal 14, no. 2 (Fall 2011): 219–34.