When Was the Hebrew Bible Written?

Earlier than previously thought, say Tel Aviv University researchers

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published in 2016.—Ed.


When was the Hebrew Bible written? Ostraca with Hebrew inscriptions excavated from the Iron Age fortress at Arad in Israel may provide clues, say researchers from Tel Aviv University. Photo: Michael Cordonsky, courtesy Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Was the Hebrew Bible written earlier than previously thought? That’s what a recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. The study was led by Tel Aviv University (TAU) doctoral students Shira Faigenbaum-Golovina, Arie Shausa and Barak Sober.

The TAU researchers analyzed multi-spectral images of 16 Hebrew inscriptions, which were written in ink on ostraca (broken pottery pieces), using a computer software program they developed. The ostraca, which date to 600 B.C.E., according to the researchers, were excavated from the Judahite fortress at Arad in southern Israel.

The researchers say they were able to identify at least six different handwriting styles on the inscriptions, which contained instructions for the movement of troops and lists of food expenses. A TAU press release notes that “the tone and nature of the commands precluded the role of professional scribes.”

“The results indicate that in this remote fort, literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank,” state Faigenbaum-Golovina, Shausa and Sober in their paper.

“Now our job is to extrapolate from Arad to a broader area,” explained TAU Professor of Archaeology Israel Finkelstein, who heads the research project, in the TAU press release. “Adding what we know about Arad to other forts and administrative localities across ancient Judah, we can estimate that many people could read and write during the last phase of the First Temple period. We assume that in a kingdom of some 100,000 people, at least several hundred were literate.”

Israel Museum curators have called “Gabriel’s Revelation” the most important document found in the area since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Read the original English publication of “Gabriel’s Revelation” along with Israel Knohl’s BAR article that made scholars around the world reconsider links between ancient Jewish and Christian messianism in the free eBook Gabriel’s Revelation.

So when was the Hebrew Bible written? What does literacy in the Iron Age have to do with it?

Scholars have debated whether the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written before 586 B.C.E.—when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, razed the First Temple and exiled the Jews—or later on, in the Persian or Hellenistic period. If literacy in Iron Age Judah was more widespread than previously thought, does this suggest that Hebrew Bible texts could have been written before the Babylonian conquest?

The Tel Aviv University researchers think so, based on their study of the ostraca from Arad.

Not quite, says epigrapher Christopher Rollston, Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures at the George Washington University. In a lengthy blog post analyzing the TAU study, Rollston contends that there is not enough information from these ostraca to make estimates about the literacy of Iron Age Judah. Rollston points out that, according to a publication by Yohanan Aharoni, the original excavator at Arad, the 16 ostraca came from different strata dated across the seventh and early sixth centuries—and therefore do not all date to 600 B.C.E. Moreover, we cannot tell how many of these inscriptions were written at the Arad fortress and how many came from elsewhere.

“Rather than arguing on the basis of 16 ostraca (that ended up at Arad) that we have a ‘proliferation of literacy,’” Rollston says, “I would simply conclude that we have some readers and writers of inscriptions at Arad. That’s all we can say.”

Rollston notes that he and others have argued, however, that there is enough epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel to conclude that “already by 800 B.C.E. there was sufficient intellectual infrastructure, that is, well-trained scribes, able to produce sophisticated historical and literary texts.”

“Additional detailed, sophisticated and substantive scholarly arguments for the early dating of the Torah have been made by William Schniedewind, author of How the Bible Became a Book, and Seth Sanders, in The Invention of Hebrew,” observes Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, in The Daily Beast.

This Bible History Daily feature was originally published on April 15, 2016.


Learn more about ancient inscriptions in Bible History Daily:

Ancient Military Correspondence: Send Wine

Computer Program Learning to Read Paleo-Hebrew Letters

Three Takes on the Oldest Hebrew Inscription

Precursor to Paleo-Hebrew Script Discovered in Jerusalem

Ancient Aramaic Business Records


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  1. Sue says

    I have, for a very long time, believed that little is known of what went before….but, the Old Testament (the “Bible) was orally passed on for thousands of years and finally began to get written in the centuries before Christ…The humans then as now, were violent, destructive and uneducated…the Jews began the concept of one god to help those around them learn to be good,decent people…hasn’t worked except for a minority of the humans today and the Jews have paid a heavy price in death for millenia by those who despised the one god concept which would have destroyed the despots power. The irony for the Jews is that their own despots had a human being tortured like ISIS does and then murdered him…is didn’t stop the hatred of the Jews since many of them continue to behave like the Sanhedrin of old….and, the despots continue to be born…..

  2. Ric says

    it continually amazes me how supposed bible scholars ignore what is in the bible.The Israelite tradition was all could read and write from Adam onward(Gen.5:1). It was later part of the LAW given to Moses. During the Dark Ages,JEWS were the scribes of choice because they were educated.. I am NO expert but have studied the bible for 50+ yrs, and have come across many things not usually known.-Genesis 5:1 is an example Adam COULD read and write. He was not a grunt and groan cave man

  3. David says

    The conclusion of the authors is faulty. Are you going to assume that the people of Ugarit were literate in cuneiform just because someone left a large corpus of religious writings? Same can be asked of the Babylonians and the Sumerians.

  4. Brent says

    The Hebrew Bible was compiled over many centuries. The first book of Genesis was written by a scribe who lived in the time of Moses and the Exodus. How else would they know the details of what happened. Only Joshua and Caleb were allowed to enter the Promised Land. My bet is that Joshua had a scribe write down his experiences and what He could remember before He passed away. The book of Joshua was obviously written by the same scribe. The Psalms were written by David or his scribe c.1000 BC. Proverbs and Ecclesiastes were written by a scribe who was instructed by Solomon c. 960 BC. Judges was written by a scribe who lived in the time of the Judges. And so on and so on until you get to Daniel and the minor prophets who recounted their experiences and wrote them down themselves or they had a scribe write down what they could remember before they passed away. The whole Hebrew Bible wasn’t written down in one whole document during or after the captivity as many of you assume it was written by various scribes over many centuries and then compiled into one book. Just like the New Testament wasn’t written by one person it was written over a couple of decades and then compiled into one book by the early church.

  5. Chayyim says

    Sue’s comments show that the anti-Jewish lies of the so called New Testament affect perceptions of Jews held by even those who are not Bible believers.

  6. Jerry says

    The origin of text that became a part of the Hebrew Scripture, later became the Torah, Prophets, and Writings, has many ancient sources which we now consider to be different in inspiration. Much of the Bible represents history, and the history of a people that grew to recognize messages in the Scripture which had the force of this inspiration which was known by many names, but became one power called God, a power that pointed the followers to goodness and away from evil. Certainly, passages on ostraca cannot be considered “Holy Writ” but at best as mnemonic amulets. However, this would mean that they were taken from a greater textual source of which there is no contemporaneous evidence, so as writings upon ostraca, they were probably adages if they had any purpose other than the mundane.

  7. Nasir says

    First of all, where is the original Torah, Psalms and the Gospel? If lost then say so and then come the writing of it all. There are so many variations in the Bibles even today! The Bible is word of God, mixed with word of men and so entirely reliable. And what if I told that the Last Testament Qur’an is the only ‘unaltered Book of God’ for 1400 years -the same as given to Muhammad! This Book is completed and there is no further need of the old books. It contains all that you seek. Still you do not believe in it and so gone far stray. And Islam is fastest growing religion even today! Why don’t you read the Qur’an to find out and why is the lock on your heart if you seek truth as you so much say!

  8. Nasir says

    Correction above: The Bible is word of God mixed with word of men so not entirely reliable!

  9. Kevin says

    Nasir, where is your evidence? The Ketef Hinnom silver scrolls dates to what 700-600BC. Do you have a Qur’an this old?

  10. Julio says

    I would like to read the TORÁ, but as I do not speak Hebrew I would love to red in Spanish Julio Azancot Franco

  11. John says

    Nasir, the book of Mormon is more recent than the Quran and Joseph Smith claims it was written by God alone, so it must be just as reliable as the Quran.

  12. Dan says

    If you have readers and writers of inscriptions at Arad, isn’t that literacy? If the ostraca that the inhabitants of Judah are reading and writing have been dated to circa 600 BCE, isn’t that evidence of literacy at that time?

  13. John Marga says

    Nasir and what if I told you the Koran was not written down until the third caliphate which puts it about 50 years plus/minus after Mohammed’s death

  14. Joe says

    If people are recording Hebrew writings on pottery than somebody was familiar with the ability to read and write–so why couldn’t those some ‘professional’ scribes be capable of writing most of the Old Testament books close to the time that the events happened. Makes more sense than waiting til the time of the Babylonian exile to take things transmitted orally and finally write them down.

  15. B. Hal says

    First-a comment to Chayyim (which is NOT a defense of the errors made by Sue).
    The N.T. was entirely written by Jews (including Luke-Acts). The apparent
    anti-Semitic verses are terrible mis-translations. Only a couple of examples:
    a) all the refs to “the Jews did this or that” should read only as the Sanhedrin
    authorities ordered this or that – NOT ALL JEWS!! b) HERE is a very bad example!
    In Rev 2:9 & 3:9 – “synagogue of satan” to one who is anti-Semitic, they read
    “synagogue”, must mean Jews// WRONG- the word is from Greek, synogogi – the same word in James 2:2 trans as “assembly” – the Correct trans NOT synagogue.
    One comment on this article. I was disappointed that there were no references to
    pictographic Hebrew verses Block letters. Block alphabet was leaned during the
    Babylonian exile – a very important issue when dating a Hebraic script, right?
    Thank you all – Chayyim – i’m just stating the facts – your faith is between you and
    HaShem, Hal

  16. susan says

    Sue says
    Ric how refreshing to read yours: Yes they were able to read and write from the beginning of time as God tells us in His written word. His word is truth so if you want the truth of a matter READ it. The apostles also , as it is written, wrote their letters and John edited at the end. God made sure His word was recorded for all time.

  17. atheist says

    Mohamed’s wife’s cousin wrote down the words of god in the quran that mohamed received from god therefore the words in the quran may not necessarily come directly from god and so may not also be reliable PS: it was Isaac who was to be sacrificed by abram and couldn’t have been Ishmael that would calling god a liar no?

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