An incredible amount of scholarship has been dedicated to reconstructing the historicity of biblical stories and the course of their composition. Yet, for the ancients, the stories themselves were the important part—not so much its author. Their understandable disregard for modern standards of authorship means that the age of the Bible cannot be deduced from the anthology itself; independent verification is necessary. And for that, we have archaeology.
So Just How old is the Bible?
Tradition says the first five books, known as the “Pentateuch,” were written in the last half of the second millenium BCE, but this is unlikely. The dates 1445 - 4004 BCE have often been suggested, yet there remains little evidence that anything was written or compiled before the first millenium BCE. Archaeological finds strongly suggest none of the biblical writings are older than 3,000 years. The earliest ones have been dated at roughly 2,800 to 2,500 years old.
The authors of the Bible described the drama of the Bronze Age according to the legends that were available to them in the subsequent Iron Age. This makes it extremely difficult to separate old testament fact from myth. Moreover, in a text that describes unicorns and evil rooster-serpents in one book and delineates careful genealogies in the next, archaeologists must tread lightly.
The first evidence appears in the Iron Age, when the Hebrews had finally established a sedentary society with centralized leadership, and had the means to start writing what had always been an oral tradition. The earliest writings of the Old Testament probably emerged over the course of the 9th through 6th centuries BCE, during the time of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel.
However, the Kingdom’s casual mid-millenium record-keeping was rudely interrupted in 586 BCE, when Nebuchadnezzar II mucked up their first Temple in Jerusalem and sent the Hebrews packing. Yet, the pause would be brief; a frenzy of compilation took off during the Babylonian exile.
From Temple People to Book People
The Babylonian exile was when the project became really serious. It wasn’t just about telling cliffhangers anymore. In the traumatic aftermath that was the destruction of Solomon’s revered temple, community leaders had a wake-up call. What would become of them if the foundation of their existence, the very temple in which their god lived, could be wiped out without a trace?
Fear must have driven the exiled scribes that wrote following Babylon’s flattening of the Ark of the Convenant. By the time the Romans had moved through and burned Jerusalem along with the Second Temple in 70 CE, it was clear the Hebrews could no longer afford to be a “temple people.”
Record-keeping thus began in earnest: the Word of God would take the place of the Temple. The written text, preserved for posterity, would ensure their survival in a world where mere buildings could be smashed by imperialist bullies at any moment.
Bonus Facts To Arouse Your Curiosity
Did Moses Write the Pentateuch?Like other sections of the Old Testament, the Pentateuch was composed over the course of many centuries. It reflects the perspective of multiple authors with many different agendas—despite the myth that Moses himself wrote it all after God passed it on atop Mt. Sinai.
The Oldest Book in the Bible
The true oldest book in the Bible, and maybe in the world, is the Book of Job, a lyrical poem compiled sometime between the 6th and 4th century BCE. Although the Book of Job we know today seems like it could have been authored by just one person, it too is based on multiple independent sources that were skillfully edited and blended into a unified narrative.
The oldest known physical piece of the Bible is a fragment of Samuel dated to the 3rd century BCE. It was recovered from amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls, widely considered the richest archaeological source corroborating the cultural goings-on of early Judaism. The Dead Sea Scrolls are now publicly available online after being hoarded by academics for over 60 years.
Not the Only Bible
The origins of the Bible are rooted in the Axial Age, during which today’s major world religions first bloomed—including monotheism in Canaan and Persia, Confucianism and Taoism in China, and Buddhism and Hinduism in India. The development of the Hebraic Bible parallels that of the Hindu Upanishads, the Tao te Ching, Egypt’s Book of the Dead, the Confucian canon in the Far East, and many more foundational religious texts still treasured in the modern era.