The Bible is an ancient text. Like every other ancient text, the originals have not survived the ravages of time. What we have are copies of the original which date to hundreds of years after their composition. This is normal for ancient texts. For example, Julius Caesar chronicled his conquest of Gaul in his work On The Gallic War in the first century B.C. The earliest manuscript in existence dates to the 8th century AD, some 900 years later.1 So what are the oldest biblical texts discovered to date?
The Nash Papyrus
The Nash Papyrus is a manuscript that was purchased in Egypt in 1902 from an antiquities dealer by Walter Llewellyn Nash. Written in Hebrew and dating to the second century B.C. it was the oldest known biblical text prior to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.2 It contains the 10 commandments from the book of Exodus, and the Shema Yisrael prayer (“Hear, O Israel: the LORD God, the LORD is one”) from Deuteronomy. Ancient Jewish sources state that it was common practice to read the Ten Commandments before saying the Shema prayer.3 Some scholars believe the Nash Papyrus was used by an Egyptian Jew in his daily worship.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of over 900 manuscripts discovered in the caves around Qumran near the Dead Sea. Between in 1947 and 1956 numerous excavations discovered a variety of scrolls and fragments in 11 caves, including copies of every book of the Old Testament except for Nehemiah and Esther.4 The manuscripts date from the third century B.C. to the first century A.D., with some of the earliest, such as 4Q17 (4QExod-Levf), dating to the early Hellenistic era, approximately 250 B.C.5 Before their discovery, the earliest complete Old Testament manuscript was the Leningrad Codex, dating to A.D. 1008. The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls allowed scholars to see how much the biblical text had changed in over 1000 years of transmission. They discovered that very little had changed and that the Hebrew Bible had been transmitted with incredible accuracy over a millennium.
The Silver Ketef Hinnom Scrolls
The oldest biblical text is on the Hinnom Scrolls – two silver amulets that date to the seventh century B.C. These rolled-up pieces of silver were discovered in 1979-80, during excavations led by Gabriel Barklay in a series of burial caves at Ketef Hinnom. When the silver scrolls were unrolled and translated, they revealed the priestly Benediction from Num 6:24-26 reading, “May Yahweh bless you and keep you; May Yahweh cause his face to Shine upon you and grant you Peace.”6 The Ketef Hinnom scrolls contain the oldest portion of Scripture ever found outside of the Bible and significantly predate even the earliest Dead Sea Scrolls. They also contain the oldest extra-biblical reference to YHWH. Given their early date, they provide evidence that the books of Moses were not written in the exilic or postexilic period as some critics have suggested.
There are other ancient texts which allude to the Bible. The 10th-century B.C. Khirbet Qeiyafa ostracon is similar to such Scriptures as Exodus 23:2, Psalm 72:4 and Isaiah 1:17.7 The Elephantine “Passover” Papyrus, dating to 419 B.C. almost certainly references the instructions for keeping the Feast of Unleavened Bread found in Ex. 12:15.8 However, I’ve chosen to narrow the focus of my list to include only the oldest ones that contain clear sections of Scripture from the Hebrew Old Testament.
With the number of archaeological excavations under way throughout the Middle East, it is only a matter of time until we see more ancient biblical texts uncovered. Given the recent search for more Dead Sea Scroll caves,9 this may be sooner rather than later.
1 McDowell, Josh, and Sean McDowell. Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World. Authentic, 2017. Pg. 59.
2 https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-OR-00233/1 (Accessed January 24, 2019)
3 https://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-OR-00233/1 (Accessed January 24, 2019)
4 http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/significance (Accessed January 24, 2019)
5 https://www.deadseascrolls.org.il/explore-the-archive/manuscript/4Q17-1 (Accessed January 24, 2019)
6 http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/06/The-Blessing-of-the-Silver-Scrolls.aspx (Accessed January 24, 2019)
7 http://www.biblearchaeology.org/post/2010/01/10/Ancient-Hebrew-Inscription-Dated-to-time-of-David.aspx (Accessed January 24, 2019)
8 http://cojs.org/the_passover_papyrus_from_elephantine-_419_bce/ (Accessed January 24, 2019)
9 https://www.timesofisrael.com/newly-discovered-caves-may-hold-more-dead-sea-scrolls/ (Accessed January 24, 2019)