When Was the Bible Written?
The Bible is an exceptional book. More than three billion people consider it sacred text. It has been called the best-selling book of all time, with an estimated 6,000,000,000 copies printed (in whole or in part) in over 2,400 languages.
ALTHOUGH the Bible is the most widely read book in history, there are many ideas in circulation regarding when it was written, especially the Hebrew Scriptures, often called the Old Testament. You may have read some such theories in journals and books, or you may have watched scholars explain them in television documentaries. Here are some statements that highlight certain contemporary views.
▪ “Biblical literature was written down largely in the eighth through the sixth century B.C.E., or, between the days of the prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah.”
▪ “For the past two hundred years biblical scholars have usually assumed that the Hebrew Bible was written and edited mostly in the Persian and Hellenistic periods (the fifth through second centuries B.C.E.).”
▪ “All the texts of the Hebrew Bible in its present form date to the Hellenistic era (as late as the 2nd-1st century [B.C.E.]).”
How should a Christian who believes that “all Scripture is inspired of God” view these conflicting ideas? (2 Timothy 3:16) To find the answer, let us consider the two sides of the matter.
The Bible’s Own Timetable
The Hebrew Bible contains numerous chronological references. These indicate that the early books were written in the time of Moses and Joshua, about 3,500 years ago.a Samuel, David, Solomon, and others added writings during the 11th century B.C.E. These were followed by historical, poetic, and prophetic books, which are dated from the ninth down to the fifth century B.C.E.
Copies or fragments of these Bible books, with the exception of the book of Esther, are among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dating done by carbon 14 (radioactive carbon) and paleography (the study of ancient scripts) confirms that the oldest of these scrolls are from about 200 B.C.E. to 100 B.C.E.
What the Critics Say
A major reason for questioning the Bible’s own timetable is the Bible’s claim to divine inspiration. About this, in his book The Old Testament Documents, Professor Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., writes: “The [Bible] text is guilty by virtue of its divine claims, miracles and talk about God.” Scholars with a secular mind-set argue that the Bible should be examined critically like any other book.
For a time, Darwin’s theory of evolution was used to explain that religions evolved from simple to complex, from animism to polytheism, and climaxed with monotheism. Because the early Bible books describe a monotheistic worship of God, some reason that they must have been written much later than claimed.
Criticism of the Bible has taken many forms since then. For example, a recently published dictionary of the Old Testament contains detailed articles on form criticism, historical criticism, literary/narrative criticism, history of Pentateuchal criticism, source criticism, and traditio-historical criticism.
Though scholars differ when it comes to dating the Bible books, many favor the theory proposed by Professor R. E. Friedman. He writes: “Ancient writers produced documents of poetry, prose, and law over many hundreds of years. And then editors used these documents as sources. Those editors fashioned from these sources the Bible.”
The book Faith, Tradition, and History discusses a number of these and other critical views of the Bible. In summary, however, it observes: “Though scholars are united in their lack of confidence in Scripture and supremely confident in their own theories, they are highly critical of each other’s views.”
In Defense of the Bible’s Timetable
The early Bible books were written on perishable material. It is therefore unrealistic to expect that the original writings or early copies from the time of Moses, Joshua, Samuel, or David will ever be found. It is possible, however, to study indirect historical evidence, which suggests that accepting the dates established by the Bible itself is reasonable, as a number of respected scholars and archaeologists do. What does such evidence tell us? Consider a few examples.
▪ Did written literature exist 3,500 years ago in the ancient Middle East when, as the Bible indicates, Moses and Joshua lived? Historical, religious, legal, and literary texts were produced in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt. What about Moses and the Israelites? The Dictionary of the Old Testament: Pentateuch answers: “There is no reason to doubt that written literature did exist in Late Bronze Age [about 1550 to 1200 B.C.E.] Canaan.” It adds: “There is no reason, from the point of view of ancient writing practice, why the texts Moses is said to have written were not, nor much of the rest.”—Exodus 17:14; 24:4; 34:27, 28; Numbers 33:2; Deuteronomy 31:24.
▪ Did Bible writers use ancient sources as references? Yes, some refer to ‘books,’ which may have been documents of state, genealogical records, historical works, and tribal and family documents.—Numbers 21:14; Joshua 10:13; 2 Samuel 1:18; 1 Kings 11:41; 2 Chronicles 32:32.
▪ Why have no ancient Bible documents older than the Dead Sea Scrolls been found? The journal Biblical Archaeology Review explains: “Papyrus and leather documents have not survived from most of Palestine, only from very arid regions such as the area around the Dead Sea. These materials rot in damp soil. The fact that they have not been discovered does not mean, therefore, that they did not exist.” In fact, hundreds of clay seals that were used to seal documents have been found. The papyrus and leather documents have perished as a result of fire or damp soil, but the clay seals have survived. These seals date approximately from the ninth to the fifth century B.C.E.
▪ How were the Bible manuscripts preserved? The book The Bible as It Was argues: “The stories, psalms, laws, and prophecies that have reached us today as part of the Bible must therefore have been copied many, many times even within the biblical period itself. . . . If these texts were repeatedly copied within the biblical period itself, it was because they were used; they played some part in daily life. . . . No one would go to the trouble of copying texts for no purpose.”—Deuteronomy 17:18; Proverbs 25:1.
For the early Bible books, this meant a copying process covering almost 1,500 years until the first century C.E. This process of accurate copying included “modernizing outdated grammatical forms and spellings, a process universal in the ancient Near East,” says the book On the Reliability of the Old Testament.b This brings into question the creditability of criticism based on forms and styles of the written text.
When Was the Bible Written?
Is it logical to insist that the absence of manuscripts that date back to the time of Moses, Joshua, Samuel, and others proves that the Bible books were not written as early as claimed? Many scholars agree that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Realistically, how much perishable written material could have been preserved? Egyptologist K. A. Kitchen estimated, for example, that nearly all Egyptian papyri written before Greco-Roman times have perished.
Those who respect the Bible may also ask themselves, ‘How did Jesus view the Hebrew Bible?’ The matter of dating was never a controversy then. Jesus, like the Jews in general, evidently accepted the chronological information in the Scriptures. Did he accept the authorship of the early Bible books?
Jesus referred to the writings of Moses. For example, he mentioned “the book of Moses.” (Mark 12:26; John 5:46) He referred to accounts in Genesis (Matthew 19:4, 5; 24:37-39); Exodus (Luke 20:37); Leviticus (Matthew 8:4); Numbers (Matthew 12:5); and Deuteronomy (Matthew 18:16). He stated: “All the things written in the law of Moses and in the Prophets and Psalms about me must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44) If he acknowledged the authorship of Moses and others, he undoubtedly accepted the accuracy of the Hebrew Bible’s chronological information.
When, then, was the Bible written? Is the Bible’s own timetable reliable? We have noted many scholars’ critical views as well as the Bible’s own information, indirect historical evidence, and Jesus’ view. Based on these, will your answer show that you are in agreement with Jesus when he said in prayer to his Father, Jehovah God: “Your word is truth”?—John 17:17.
a For a detailed study of the Bible’s chronology, see the book Insight on the Scriptures, Volume 1, pages 447-467, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
b See the article “Ancient Scribes and the Word of God” in the March 15, 2007, issue of The Watchtower, pages 18-20.
[Chart/Pictures on pages 20-23]
(For fully formatted text, see publication)
(Time line shows approximate years when Bible books were completed)
Egyptian scribes produced written material before the time of Moses
© DeA Picture Library/Art Resource, NY
Moses completed Genesis by 1513 B.C.E., writing on perishable material
Genesis 1513 B.C.E.
Hundreds of clay seals have survived
Dated from 900 to 500 B.C.E.
A folded papyrus document, bound with a string and clay seal
Dated from 449 B.C.E.
Brooklyn Museum, Bequest of Theodora Wilbour from the collection of her father, Charles Edwin Wilbour
The Dead Sea Scrolls were wrapped in linen and preserved in jars. They are the oldest surviving Bible writings yet found
Dated from 200 to 100 B.C.E.
Shrine of the Book, Photo © The Israel Museum, Jerusalem