The NY Times has an interesting article about a study which purports to show that literacy may have been far more prevalent in pre-Babylonian exile Judah than many had thought. The implication, it’s believed, is that Biblical minimalist scholars who thought that no part of the Bible was composed until after the exile, are wrong.
But most of the stuff I’ve read actually pegs the earliest writings of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible as happening between 900 BC and 586 BC. Why these date ranges?
Well, to start, here’s a quick mapping of relevant Israeli Biblical history.
Abraham and the other patriarchs are usually thought to have lived in the early second millennium BC. The exodus, with Moses, is usually thought to have happened in the 1500-1300 BC time period. This was followed by Joshua’s conquest of Canaan, the period of Judges such as Samson, and then the united monarchy including Saul, David, and Solomon, all in the 1050-930 BC period.
After Solomon, the northern parts of Israel, according to Biblical history, rebelled and seceded from the overall kingdom. What followed was a period of two kingdoms: a larger northern more prosperous kingdom named Israel, and a smaller kingdom named Judah. In 722, the northern kingdom ran afoul of the Assyrian Empire and was destroyed, with large numbers of its citizens fleeing south into Judah as refugees. Judah itself was destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians and its ruling class taken into exile in Babylonia. Several decades later, Babylon was conquered by the Persian Empire, who allowed the exiled Jews to return to their home country, which was now part of the Persian Empire.
Anyone who has read the Bible notices that the earliest books include a lot of duplication, often telling the same story twice. Many scholars think the reason for this is that what came down to us was someone’s attempt at integrating different versions of the stories from the northern and southern kingdoms, an editing probably done in the period 722 BC – 586 BC, that is, after Israel’s fall with many of its refugees in Judah but before the Babylonian exile. (This view is part of what’s known as the Documentary Hypothesis.) This is one reason why the period of the divided kingdom is often focused on for the writing of these earliest tales. It implies that the earliest compositions may have been between 930 and 722 BC.
Another is that the history of this period as relayed in the Bible is the first time period where the described events become somewhat verifiable by other historical sources or archaeology, or at least aren’t outright contradicted by them. For earlier periods, the further back we go, the results of archaeology diverge increasingly from the Biblical narratives.
For instance, archaeological evidence tells us there may have been a kingdom of David, but there is substantial question on its extent. David may have been more of a southern chieftain whose kingdom grew in later legends, a narrative largely driven by the ambitions of later kings of Judah who wanted to “reclaim” the lands of the northern kingdom for a greater Israel. In other words, there may never have been a united Israel before the divided kingdoms. I’ve already written about the problems with the historicity of the exodus, but the evidence of the Joshua conquests also aren’t born out by archaeology. And the patriarchal stories, even if they happened as described, are far beyond the reach of any historical verification.
In addition, Israel Finkelstein (an Israeli archaeologist quoted in the NY Times article) has written that the Biblical tales of the second millennium show a preoccupation with the middle eastern world as it existed in the 8th century BC, bearing little resemblance to the political and social realities of the second millennium revealed by archaeology. (For example, nations that didn’t exist until the 8th century are described in much earlier contexts.)
But as we get into the divided kingdoms period, the events start to match up with other sources, such as Assyrian and Babylonian records, and archaeological evidence.
As the Times article alludes to, some Biblical minimalists take the view that nothing of the Bible was written until after the exile in 586 BC. Some even push it back to Hellenistic times after Alexander the Great. I’m not sure how large a share of the Biblical studies and archaeological community this view has. Most of the consensus I’ve read has the earliest writings happening as described above, while admitting that the final compilation into a form we would recognize today didn’t happen until after the exile. (The other end of the extreme are Biblical maximalists who insist that the Bible is historically reliable going all the way back to Abraham and that the earliest writings go back to Moses.)
It’s also worth remembering something that most who read the Old Testament notice. The earlier stories have a strikingly different tone and outlook than the later ones, with a notably different theology. The earlier stories imply a society more monolatristic (belief in many gods but worship of just one) or even often outright polytheistic (in some of the Psalm verses) rather than monotheistic. But the later stories firmly establish Israel’s monotheistic character.
The earlier stories also seem far more comfortable with barbarism than the later ones. Isaac Asimov speculated in his book on the Bible that the Judeans went into exile as barbarians, but returned as people civilized by exposure to the Babylonian and Persian cultures.
However it happened, the disparities in style imply two different cultures: a pre-exilic one, and a post-exilic one. If that impression is correct, then it makes sense that the earlier stories were produced by the earlier culture.
I don’t know that widespread literacy was necessary in that earlier culture for us to accept this theory. From what I’ve read, most ancient literate cultures remained predominantly oral in nature, with writing only serving as a memory aid for saving stories that were still being orally transmitted. Although evidence of literacy certainly doesn’t hurt.
And if the earliest tales didn’t get written until after the exile, it seems like they would have evolved more over the centuries. From what I’ve read, the events of the divided kingdoms described in the Bible line up with archaeology and other historical sources too well to have survived unaltered by centuries of oral transmission.
Another reason scholars may be skeptical of pre-exilic composition, is that it would predate Herodotus and many other Greek compositions, that its sophistication seems too far out of the historical pattern. But it would not necessarily predate Homer or Hesiod, and it doesn’t seem unfathomable that cultures in the region of Phoenicia, the inventors of the alphabet, would have had writing to some extent.
And we should remember that the lion share of what was written in the ancient world is lost to history. A lot of other cultures in that region besides the Greeks and Hebrews may have had similarly extensive writings during these periods, but they just didn’t get preserved over the ages.
Even if the earliest compositions of the stories come from pre-exilic times, that doesn’t mean later post-exilic scribes didn’t apply their own theological filters when they were editing and compiling them into the form we know today. I’ve often wondered what those earliest stories might look like if we could see them in their original form. Unfortunately, unless someone finds a cache of ancient pre-exile manuscripts or clay tablets, we’ll probably never know. It’s often said that history is written by the victors, but sometimes it’s just written by the survivors.
Much of the information I relayed here came from reading the following books: ‘Who Wrote the Bible‘ by Richard Friedman, ‘The Bible Unearthed‘ by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, ‘Asimov’s Guide to the Bible‘ by Isaac Asimov, numerous Wikipedia and news articles, and of course, the Bible itself.
19 thoughts on “When were the earliest parts of the Bible written?”
The Bible Unearthed is one of those books that I recommend to basically everyone, along with 1491, 1493, Railroaded, and Dawn of Innovation. Finkelstein convinced me, especially after reading some of the responses to his criticism.
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Definitely agreed on ‘The Bible Unearthed.’ It and ‘Who Wrote the Bible?’ were actually pivotal books for me.
Thanks for mentioning the others. I’ll check them out. Several years ago, I was given a book written by a Native American activist, who pointed out something I simply hadn’t thought about before. The pilgrims and other early colonists encountered and received the assistance of Native Americans, on the the east coast. Yet the populations of natives are hardly mentioned in American history until the Indian Wars. What happened to all those populations? The conventional response is that they were wiped out by smallpox, but this author made the case that it wasn’t all smallpox but a steady wave of conquest and eradication. Pretty stark reading.
The histories also don’t point out that Anglo-Americans “went native” at substantially higher rates than native Americans went Anglo, to the extent that whole communities became non viable due to population loss.
Rarely do those historians point out the the Brits landing at Pilgrim Rock moved into a deserted village (wiped out by smallpox brought by a French trapper) and even robbed the graves of natives while they were there. It is clearly in the colony records, but it somehow doesn’t make it into the Disneyfied versions of American History we plop down in front of our children.
If you want to know more of the truth, watch Ken Burns “The West” series. We screwed over every tribe of Native Americans we met. we violated every treaty we signed, often before the ink was even dry. We felt righteous in doing this because those Indians were really human, certainly not Christian humans. In recently re-viewing the series I had to stop several times because of outrage. I couldn’t continue watching because I was so damned mad.
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1491 and 1493 are definitely good in that regard, since they talk about both the native populations that were there, and how contact proceeded once it happened. It was especially interesting to read about what happened up in what is now the Northeast and New England before the pilgrims/separatists showed up.
It wasn’t all smallpox, but a mix of diseases definitely did most of it. The tribes up in what is now Massachusetts, for example, would trade with European ships passing by – but they always made it clear, with force if necessary, that they shouldn’t overstay their welcome. That didn’t change until the diseases hit.
One recommendation on Dawn on Innovation: Skip Chapter One, “The Shipbuilders’ War”, and start at Chapter Two instead. Your reading of the rest of the book won’t suffer for it at all, and I personally found it boring – most of the first chapter is about the War of 1812 on the Great Lakes.
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Yeah, I’m open to the possibility that the book I read was overstating the case. Still, I’m skeptical of the idea of diseases wiping out the entire population. But I could believe it weakened them to the point that they were easily overrun.
Thanks for the chapter one warning! A history of the War of 1812 on the Great Lakes actually sounds mildly interesting, but if I do read it and find myself getting mired in it, I’ll take your advice and skip to chapter 2.
The Bible itself refers to “documents” found that had been “hidden” or lost that were so astounding that they were read out loud to the populace. This was possibly the Book of Deuteronomy but according to the OT this was after the Return, so it might have been written then and “discovered” or written in Babylonia and brought back in the Return and then “discovered.” Thus is ancient wisdom found, uh, created?
I think the Bible also clearly shows that the Hebrews were not monotheists from the get go. Moses apparently had a serious problem with his folk straying off of the reservation, erect idols of various kinds to worship. Also, there are allusions to “shrines” in the surrounding hills of Jerusalem and hints at human sacrifice to tart up the whole endeavor. The Bible has very few nice stories in it.
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My understanding was that the “found” document thought to be an early version of Deuteronomy happened in the time of Josiah (649-609 BC according to Wikipedia). Whether or not it was an actual event is open to question, but if so, it would have been before the exile.
Totally agree on your second paragraph. I didn’t actually cover my own view in the post. I think the northern kingdom was predominantly polytheistic, with the cult of Yahweh concentrated in Judah. Judah survived later than the northern kingdom, so the stories common to both cultures that they preserved were filtered through their theology.
As a religious person, I think it’s crucial to understand the social and historical context in which the biblical texts were composed. That’s the only way to really get at the spirit of the law, if you will, rather than the letter of the law. In my opinion, there are far too many letter of the law types out there today.
But there’s one thing in your post that really leaps out at me: Isaac Asimov wrote a book about the Bible!?!?! I need to read that!
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He did, and it’s a massive book I’ve had for decades. I don’t see it mentioned much these days, and I’m not sure how dated it might be at this point, but it was the first book I ever read that analyzed the Bible in the way you suggest. (I later learned that kind of analysis has been going on for centuries, but it wasn’t the sort of thing libraries and bookstores in the deep south typically stocked in the 70s and 80s, at least outside of universities.)
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Asimov always gets down to the root of the matter with whatever subject he’s writing about. Parts often feel dated, but I still come away from his non-fiction books with a much clearing understanding of the subject at large.
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“I made up my mind long ago to follow one cardinal rule in all my writing—to be clear. I have given up all thought of writing poetically or symbolically or experimentally, or in any of the other modes that might (if I were good enough) get me a Pulitzer prize. I would write merely clearly and in this way establish a warm relationship between myself and my readers, and the professional critics—Well, they can do whatever they wish.”
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An interesting read, but one I cannot accept for factually historical reasons. For one, there is very, very good evidence of a united Israel. In 1200 BC, we find an ancient inscription known as the Merneptah Stele, confirming the existence of Israel. It does not invoke any room for Israel being just one nation bordering several others that it was trying to reunite. In fact, another hieroglyph recently found dating insanely to 1400 – 1350 bc references the existence of Israel!
That’s literally a few decades after when Moses was supposed to have brought the Hebrews out of Egypt! To me, the idea of the Old Testament being written after the exile is pure insanity, because its a fact that it wasn’t. Don’t believe me? We have FOUND quotations of the Old Testament (Book of Deuteronomy and Numbers, books of the Pentateuch) in what is called the Silver Scrolls… This has been known for decades, and these date 700 – 650 BC (although the public isn’t really aware of them).
Thanks for commenting. Based on what I’ve read, the Merneptah Stele only indicates that there were a people known as Israel at that time (c 1208 BC). I’m afraid saying it shows anything about a united Israel state is a leap. The earlier inscription sounds interesting, but I’d put more stock in information on it from a site without an apologetics agenda.
As I discussed in the post, I don’t buy the early OT not being written until after the exile either. That said, you have to be careful with early ancient inscriptions that appear to be quotations from the Bible. They may be quotations from sources common to both the inscription and the early Bible books. Psalms in particular appear to have very ancient sources that likely predate the book(s) we call Psalms by several centuries.
Thanks for the response. The Merneptah Stele incites the defeat of Israel or something — if there were multiple kingdoms all rousing with one another, why is only Israel mentioned? Why aren’t there ANY EXISTING MENTIONS whatsoever of these other kingdoms until the Bible tells us Israel actually split apart?
Regarding the “apologetics agenda”, surely you must know that the word ‘apologetics’ simply and quite literally just means ‘giving reasoned arguments’. By the way, I’ve seen a number of Scholars reference this finding and it’s a clear finding in confirmation of Israel at 1400 – 1350 BC. Even historian critiques of this I’ve read on could do nothing more than reinterpret the “Ishrael” inscription to mean something else — and they were rebutted.
As for these quotations, it individually quotes the Book of Deuteronomy and the Book of Numbers, meaning two different Biblical books, and this was found inside a Jewish tomb. The idea of this being a different sources is simply insanity that must not be considered — even with the theory on Psalms being references to older writings that I’ve seen, there are no exact quotations. Not only that, but the Silver Scrolls are the earliest documented reference to the name ‘Yahweh’ in our history.
My understanding is that, in the judgment of most egyptologists, the specific inscription on the Merneptah stele referring to Israel does it in a way that indicates a people rather than a state. Of course, others want it to be more than that, but I go with the expert consensus on these things.
On apologetics, you should know that I find it unconvincing. The other historical sources I’ve read (including some published in the last couple of years) identify the Merneptah stele as the earliest known reference to Israel. But if you do have a non-religious source, I’d definitely be interested in checking it out.
“The idea of this being a different sources is simply insanity that must not be considered”
This seems like a position you’re coming to from faith. That’s certainly your right, but I’m not religious, and have no problem with the idea that the Bible drew from earlier traditions.
Most Egyptologists are already operating under the notion of the inaccuracy of the Bible for reasons that are getting torn apart by recent excavations, and this radical interpretation is utterly un-supported by any of the text. Especially considering the fact, that JUST before the Merneptah Stele references Israel, it talks about other nations.
I also wonder what you mean by “non religious website” for the earlier reference I gave for the 1400 – 1350 BC Israel reference, considering the author of the piece I gave has a PhD in regards to this field… The reason most of the things you’ve read say the Merneptah Stele is the earliest reference is because this discovery I’m talking about, as far as I’m concerned, was only made in 2012 or 2011. VERY recent. Wasn’t there earlier. Anyways, I don’t know what better to give you a link to this discovery than the actual peer-reviewed published paper detailing this discovery. https://journals.uair.arizona.edu/index.php/jaei/article/viewFile/83/87
Again, the Silver Scrolls quote TWO INDIVIDUAL books from the Pentateuch, the quotation from Numbers being 3 verses long, letter by letter the same, and is in a Jewish tomb… This is obviously an Old Testament quotation by any religious or non-religious standard. The evidence clearly favors such.
Thanks for the link. Interesting reading.
Based on what I can suss out from all the jargon, I can see why this hasn’t made much of a stir. The logic seems tenuous. If the reconstruction of the name is accurate and if it was indeed copied from a centuries older list, then we might have an indication of an Israel of some kind well prior to the Bronze Age collapse. But I think we’d need corroborating evidence before feeling scientifically confident about it.
Saying this has “not caused a stir” is inaccurate, and calling most of it “jargon” is ludicrous. The only part of the entire research that is contested here is the reading of the name as Israel, and that’s why the paper spends good time arguing against other interpretations and giving support for their own reading which is accepted by many other Scholars. You don’t need “corroborating evidence” if it reads Israel to accept it, just as no one needed “corroborating evidence” when the Merneptah was found as the earliest reference. This IS the evidence. Surely you must know that Egyptian records are very scarce during these times.