BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

When Was the Bible Written?

Literacy in ancient Israel and Judah

Also known as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible was composed over a long span of time. Numerous opinions exist as to when the earliest and latest biblical traditions were first put down in writing.

The Hebrew Bible contains 35 books sorted into three sections: the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), the Nevi’im (the “prophets” consisting of 19 books), and the Ketuvim (the “writings” consisting of 11 books). The Old Testament of most Protestant Bibles has 39 books because the books of Samuel, Kings, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah are split into two books, whereas each of these appears as a single book in the Hebrew Bible. The latest books of the Hebrew Bible, such as Esther and Ezra-Nehemiah, describe events from the fifth century B.C.E. and would have been written afterward—meaning that the very earliest the Hebrew Bible could have been compiled in its entirety is the fifth century B.C.E., with some scholars suggesting much later dates.

What about a start date? When was the Hebrew Bible first written? Many scholars think the earliest biblical traditions could not have been written before the eighth century B.C.E. However, Matthieu Richelle of the Faculté Libre de Théologie Évangélique and the École Pratique des Hautes Études (Paris) questions this assumption. After examining the epigraphic and archaeological evidence of ancient Israel and Judah, he thinks the biblical traditions could have been written down during the ninth or even tenth century B.C.E. In the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Richelle details his reasoning in the article “When Did Literacy Emerge in Judah?”

There are two main reasons why many scholars think reading and writing were not prevalent in ancient Israel and Judah until the eighth century B.C.E.:

(1) There are significantly less alphabetic inscriptions from ancient Israel and Judah dated to the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E. than from later periods.

(2) They think Israel and Judah did not reach the “level of development” necessary to produce literary texts until the eighth century B.C.E.

Richelle acknowledges the first point. There is a near absence of alphabetic inscriptions dated to the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E. from ancient Israel and Judah. However, there are some. Further, even though many such texts haven’t survived, it doesn’t mean they never existed. Richelle notes, “Many epigraphists will argue that there is no simple correlation between the quantity of discovered texts and the number of documents that actually existed. We have hundreds of Hebrew seals and bullae from the ninth to sixth centuries, pointing to the existence of hundreds of papyri, and yet only one such papyrus from this period has ever been found, in a cave in the Wadi Muraba‘at, near the Dead Sea.”

He deconstructs the second point altogether. Many scholars think that in order to produce literary texts, a society must first reach a certain “level of development,” which they often connect with state formation. There is no consensus among scholars as to when Israel and Judah developed as nations. Some think this was not until the eighth century B.C.E. Others think earlier—by the tenth or ninth centuries. Still others think later than the eighth century or earlier than the tenth century. There is a variety of opinions to say the least!

Regardless of when Israel and Judah developed as nations, this doesn’t necessarily affect their ability to produce literature. Richelle clarifies, “The supposed correlation between the ‘level of development’ (assuming it could be assessed) and the existence of literature—has never been proven. In fact, it cannot be proved in the context of ancient Israel since one parameter, the presence of literature, is in large part undetectable by archaeological means. In addition, there are possible counter-examples, like Moab in the ninth century, where the long text on the Mesha Stela was written.”

Richelle then gives two reasons why writing was likely prevalent in Israel and Judah during the early first millennium B.C.E.:

(1) They developed a national script in the ninth century.

(2) Within this script, they developed cursive features already in the ninth century.

Nimshi’s Jar. This storage jar from Tel Rehov in ancient Israel bears a ninth-century inscription that says, “belonging to Nimshi.” The second and third letters of the inscription (the nun and the mem) display lengthened downstrokes, which are cursive features. When was the Hebrew Bible first written? The use of cursive in texts like this is indicative of an existing literary production and shows that writing was prevalent in ancient Israel by the ninth or even tenth century B.C.E. Thus, biblical texts could have been penned in the early first millennium B.C.E. Drawing: Courtesy Amihai Mazar, Tel Rehov Excavations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

The existence of a national script, the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, in the early ninth century B.C.E. suggests that they were writing lengthy texts, not just short notes. Further, some inscriptions from Tel Rehov and Megiddo—dated to the tenth or ninth century B.C.E.—have cursive features. Richelle notes, “Such features in the shape of letters develop when scribes write quickly on mediums like papyrus and leather … Since cursive features are probably the result of decades of fast writing, they may point in any case to fast writing already in the tenth century.”

Detail of the inscription on Nimshi’s Jar. Drawing: Courtesy Amihai Mazar, Tel Rehov Excavations, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

So when was the Hebrew Bible first written?

Richelle cautions that we should not take the above reasoning as proof that biblical texts were written during the tenth and ninth centuries B.C.E., but it certainly shows that they—or other literary works—could have been. Learn more about literacy in ancient Israel and Judah in Matthieu Richelle’s piece “When Did Literacy Emerge in Judah?”—published in the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review—and in his book The Bible and Archaeology (Hendrickson, 2018).

Subscribers: Read the full piece “When Did Literacy Emerge in Judah?” by Matthieu Richelle in the Spring 2020 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

This article was first published in Bible History Daily on April 1, 2020.</em


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

The Phoenician Alphabet in Archaeology


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7 Responses

  1. wes day says:

    You refer to Moshe, not Moses. I do not read of Moshe. Is this not a varient of Moses. I understand ancient Hebrew to have had no specific assigned vowels at this time. Where do you read of JHWH giving Moshe the basics of language? This is an interesting idea. I have read of Moses being on the mountain with Jehovah and being given the commandments on stone. The event is said to have been in a 30 day stay and God gave him the tablets to take with him to the people. It may well be that this is the beginning of written communication from I Am to Israelite’s. Many instances of Goud, God giving information of future events in dreams are related, but no specified as the only way God communicated. We are told of no other prophets, men given information of future events by the one who exists outside time, before Moses. .

  2. RWL says:

    n his book ‘The Writing of God: Secret of the Real Mount Sinai’ (2019), Dr. Miles R. Jones thoroughly explains how Moshe (not Moses) was given/taught the alphabet by Yahweh. So, you are correct. It’s a bold face lie when people/researchers/historians try to state that most of Ancient Israel (or pre-historic Israel) were illiterate, especially when the Jewish Scriptures (I don’t like using the inaccurate Greco-Roman-to-English substituted term ‘Bible’; Jews did not title their Scriptures the ‘Bible’. The term ‘Bible’ is an inaccurate acronym that stands for ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Human beings are not leaving Earth to go float some where in space. Instead, our body will be resurrected, like the one Yehoshua our Messiah has, to live on the New Earth inside the New City of Yerusalem. Furthermore, we don’t have a spirit floating around inside our bodies. This is an example of Greeks using stolen ancient Egyptian beliefs to re-interpret the Ancient Jewish Scriptures. Spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, invisible beings floating through walls or ‘coming up out of the ground or from the skies’ were never part of the Ancient Jewish Scriptures, including their language, culture, and writings. This was all added on by the Greeks, Latins, & English speaking peoples. We were made in the image of Yahweh, and throughout the Jewish Scriptures, Yahweh was-and still is-defined as having a physical form, not some ghost-like form. ) specifically states in Sh’mot (I don’t like using the incorrect Greek-to-English substituted term of ‘Exodus’) for the people to write & teach His Torah so that the next generation can do the same.

  3. Dale DePriest says:

    I believe that Moses invented the alphabet and was the very first at writing. All other alphabets were modeled after his but added vowels. I believe Genesis was first penned by Joseph in Egyptian which of course Moses knew and he translated it. The Bible is clear where it tells Moses to write something down. I believe Moses developed Hebrew writing from his knowledge of Egyptian used for names and knew the writing could not be translated using hieroglyphics and developed Hebrew alphabet while tending sheep for 40 years. There is archeological evidence of writing in the area he lived in for those 40 years.

    1. D.J. says:

      You use bce = before common era, instead of bc = Before Christ, actually latin for anno domini, which means ‘in the year of your Lord’. By using bce you are guiding Christians away from God. Satan uses bce to teach the term ‘before common era’, instead of teaching people that there was a time before Jesus and now we are living in the time after Jesus lived. Let’s keep Christ in our conversation. People watch us and listen to us, this is one way to spread the gospel.

      1. Kamran Pasha says:

        Since Jesus was born 4-7 years before the beginning of AD, Christ was born in 4-7 BC — Before Christ. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to use this system, does it?

    2. RWL says:

      In his book ‘The Writing of God: Secret of the Real Mount Sinai’ (2019), Dr. Miles R. Jones thoroughly explains how Moshe (not Moses) was given/taught the alphabet by Yahweh. So, you are correct. It’s a bold face lie when people/researchers/historians try to state that most of Ancient Israel (or pre-historic Israel) were illiterate, especially when the Jewish Scriptures (I don’t like using the inaccurate Greco-Roman-to-English substituted term ‘Bible’; Jews did not title their Scriptures the ‘Bible’. The term ‘Bible’ is an inaccurate acronym that stands for ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Human beings are not leaving Earth to go float some where in space. Instead, our body will be resurrected, like the one Yehoshua our Messiah has, to live on the New Earth inside the New City of Yerusalem. Furthermore, we don’t have a spirit floating around inside our bodies. This is an example of Greeks using stolen ancient Egyptian beliefs to re-interpret the Ancient Jewish Scriptures. Spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, invisible beings floating through walls or ‘coming up out of the ground or from the skies’ were never part of the Ancient Jewish Scriptures, including their language, culture, and writings. This was all added on by the Greeks, Latins, & English speaking peoples. We were made in the image of Yahweh, and throughout the Jewish Scriptures, Yahweh was-and still is-defined as having a physical form, not some ghost-like form. ) specifically states in Sh’mot (I don’t like using the incorrect Greek-to-English substituted term of ‘Exodus’) for the people to write & teach His Torah so that the next generation can do the same.

    3. RWL says:

      In his book ‘The Writing of God: Secret of the Real Mount Sinai’ (2019), Dr. Miles R. Jones thoroughly explains how Moshe (not Moses) was given/taught the alphabet by Yahweh. So, you are correct. It’s a bold face lie when people/researchers/historians try to state that most of Ancient Israel (or pre-historic Israel) were illiterate, especially when the Jewish Scriptures (I don’t like using the inaccurate Greco-Roman-to-English substituted term ‘Bible’; Jews did not title their Scriptures the ‘Bible’. The term ‘Bible’ is an inaccurate acronym that stands for ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Human beings are not leaving Earth to go float some where in space. Instead, our body will be resurrected, like the one Yehoshua our Messiah has, to live on the New Earth inside the New City of Yerusalem. Furthermore, we don’t have a spirit floating around inside our bodies. This is an example of Greeks using stolen ancient Egyptian beliefs to re-interpret the Ancient Jewish Scriptures. Spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, invisible beings floating through walls or ‘coming up out of the ground or from the skies’ were never part of the Ancient Jewish Scriptures, including their language, culture, and writings. This was all added on by the Greeks, Latins, & English speaking peoples. We were made in the image of Yahweh, and throughout the Jewish Scriptures, Yahweh was-and still is-defined as having a physical form, not some ghost-like form. ) specifically states in Sh’mot (I don’t like using the incorrect Greek-to-English substituted term of ‘Exodus’) for the people to write & teach His Torah so that the next generation can do the same.

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7 Responses

  1. wes day says:

    You refer to Moshe, not Moses. I do not read of Moshe. Is this not a varient of Moses. I understand ancient Hebrew to have had no specific assigned vowels at this time. Where do you read of JHWH giving Moshe the basics of language? This is an interesting idea. I have read of Moses being on the mountain with Jehovah and being given the commandments on stone. The event is said to have been in a 30 day stay and God gave him the tablets to take with him to the people. It may well be that this is the beginning of written communication from I Am to Israelite’s. Many instances of Goud, God giving information of future events in dreams are related, but no specified as the only way God communicated. We are told of no other prophets, men given information of future events by the one who exists outside time, before Moses. .

  2. RWL says:

    n his book ‘The Writing of God: Secret of the Real Mount Sinai’ (2019), Dr. Miles R. Jones thoroughly explains how Moshe (not Moses) was given/taught the alphabet by Yahweh. So, you are correct. It’s a bold face lie when people/researchers/historians try to state that most of Ancient Israel (or pre-historic Israel) were illiterate, especially when the Jewish Scriptures (I don’t like using the inaccurate Greco-Roman-to-English substituted term ‘Bible’; Jews did not title their Scriptures the ‘Bible’. The term ‘Bible’ is an inaccurate acronym that stands for ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Human beings are not leaving Earth to go float some where in space. Instead, our body will be resurrected, like the one Yehoshua our Messiah has, to live on the New Earth inside the New City of Yerusalem. Furthermore, we don’t have a spirit floating around inside our bodies. This is an example of Greeks using stolen ancient Egyptian beliefs to re-interpret the Ancient Jewish Scriptures. Spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, invisible beings floating through walls or ‘coming up out of the ground or from the skies’ were never part of the Ancient Jewish Scriptures, including their language, culture, and writings. This was all added on by the Greeks, Latins, & English speaking peoples. We were made in the image of Yahweh, and throughout the Jewish Scriptures, Yahweh was-and still is-defined as having a physical form, not some ghost-like form. ) specifically states in Sh’mot (I don’t like using the incorrect Greek-to-English substituted term of ‘Exodus’) for the people to write & teach His Torah so that the next generation can do the same.

  3. Dale DePriest says:

    I believe that Moses invented the alphabet and was the very first at writing. All other alphabets were modeled after his but added vowels. I believe Genesis was first penned by Joseph in Egyptian which of course Moses knew and he translated it. The Bible is clear where it tells Moses to write something down. I believe Moses developed Hebrew writing from his knowledge of Egyptian used for names and knew the writing could not be translated using hieroglyphics and developed Hebrew alphabet while tending sheep for 40 years. There is archeological evidence of writing in the area he lived in for those 40 years.

    1. D.J. says:

      You use bce = before common era, instead of bc = Before Christ, actually latin for anno domini, which means ‘in the year of your Lord’. By using bce you are guiding Christians away from God. Satan uses bce to teach the term ‘before common era’, instead of teaching people that there was a time before Jesus and now we are living in the time after Jesus lived. Let’s keep Christ in our conversation. People watch us and listen to us, this is one way to spread the gospel.

      1. Kamran Pasha says:

        Since Jesus was born 4-7 years before the beginning of AD, Christ was born in 4-7 BC — Before Christ. Doesn’t make a lot of sense to use this system, does it?

    2. RWL says:

      In his book ‘The Writing of God: Secret of the Real Mount Sinai’ (2019), Dr. Miles R. Jones thoroughly explains how Moshe (not Moses) was given/taught the alphabet by Yahweh. So, you are correct. It’s a bold face lie when people/researchers/historians try to state that most of Ancient Israel (or pre-historic Israel) were illiterate, especially when the Jewish Scriptures (I don’t like using the inaccurate Greco-Roman-to-English substituted term ‘Bible’; Jews did not title their Scriptures the ‘Bible’. The term ‘Bible’ is an inaccurate acronym that stands for ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Human beings are not leaving Earth to go float some where in space. Instead, our body will be resurrected, like the one Yehoshua our Messiah has, to live on the New Earth inside the New City of Yerusalem. Furthermore, we don’t have a spirit floating around inside our bodies. This is an example of Greeks using stolen ancient Egyptian beliefs to re-interpret the Ancient Jewish Scriptures. Spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, invisible beings floating through walls or ‘coming up out of the ground or from the skies’ were never part of the Ancient Jewish Scriptures, including their language, culture, and writings. This was all added on by the Greeks, Latins, & English speaking peoples. We were made in the image of Yahweh, and throughout the Jewish Scriptures, Yahweh was-and still is-defined as having a physical form, not some ghost-like form. ) specifically states in Sh’mot (I don’t like using the incorrect Greek-to-English substituted term of ‘Exodus’) for the people to write & teach His Torah so that the next generation can do the same.

    3. RWL says:

      In his book ‘The Writing of God: Secret of the Real Mount Sinai’ (2019), Dr. Miles R. Jones thoroughly explains how Moshe (not Moses) was given/taught the alphabet by Yahweh. So, you are correct. It’s a bold face lie when people/researchers/historians try to state that most of Ancient Israel (or pre-historic Israel) were illiterate, especially when the Jewish Scriptures (I don’t like using the inaccurate Greco-Roman-to-English substituted term ‘Bible’; Jews did not title their Scriptures the ‘Bible’. The term ‘Bible’ is an inaccurate acronym that stands for ‘Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. Human beings are not leaving Earth to go float some where in space. Instead, our body will be resurrected, like the one Yehoshua our Messiah has, to live on the New Earth inside the New City of Yerusalem. Furthermore, we don’t have a spirit floating around inside our bodies. This is an example of Greeks using stolen ancient Egyptian beliefs to re-interpret the Ancient Jewish Scriptures. Spirits, ghosts, angels, demons, invisible beings floating through walls or ‘coming up out of the ground or from the skies’ were never part of the Ancient Jewish Scriptures, including their language, culture, and writings. This was all added on by the Greeks, Latins, & English speaking peoples. We were made in the image of Yahweh, and throughout the Jewish Scriptures, Yahweh was-and still is-defined as having a physical form, not some ghost-like form. ) specifically states in Sh’mot (I don’t like using the incorrect Greek-to-English substituted term of ‘Exodus’) for the people to write & teach His Torah so that the next generation can do the same.

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