The oldest Hebrew manuscripts discovered to date are the Dead Sea Scrolls. Some of the scrolls date back to the 2nd and 3rd centuries B.C.E., well into the Second Temple period. A few earlier Hebraic inscriptions, mainly on stone and pottery shards, have been found, but no extensive manuscripts have survived.
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Yet many scholars are convinced that at least parts of the Bible had been written down hundreds of years earlier, by the 8th or 7th century B.C.E. — or even earlier. We just don't have any evidence because of the medium the ancient scribes used.
The material upon which books were copied at the time, mainly papyrus and leather parchment, is perishable, and particularly sensitive to the humid climate in the Jerusalem area. That any fragments of biblical manuscripts from antiquity survived at all is remarkable, especially when you think of what happened to the writings of other civilizations.
Lost papyri of the ancient world
In the second millennium B.C.E., the Phoenicians occupied a thin strip of land along the Mediterranean coast, stretching north and south of modern-day Lebanon. As these sea traders traveled west and established settlements along the coast of Africa, Sicily, Sardinia, and southern Spain, they spread their alphabet across the Mediterranean, planting the seeds of literacy in the whole region.
Although the Phoenicians are believed to have had a rich literary tradition, they mostly used highly perishable papyrus for their texts, which have not survived.
Most of our knowledge of the Egyptians comes from the hieroglyphs they carved on temples and tombs rather than from ancient documents. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen has estimated that 99 percent of the papyri dating from 3000 B.C.E. through the 4th century B.C.E. have been lost.
In the Greco-Roman world, Roman soldiers were paid three times a year and were given pay slips written on papyrus. Out of the 225 million receipts that were handed out between the reigns of Augustus and Diocletian (27 B.C.E. to 305 C.E.), only two are known to have survived.
A more solid record
Ancient civilizations preserved knowledge in many other ways, writing on ostraca (pottery shards), stones, clay or wooden tablets. The Assyrians, and later the Babylonians, wrote their history on clay tablets, thousands of which have been found throughout Mesopotamia.
Smooth clay was made into a tablet and then imprinted with a stylus while still wet to form wedge-shaped (cuneiform) characters.
During the first millennium B.C.E., cuneiform existed side by side with alphabetic writing, but the Assyrians and Babylonians eventually abandoned it in favor of alphabetic script.
The iPad of antiquity
Another material widely used in antiquity was the wax tablet, a wooden panel with a recess filled with beeswax on which notes could be taken with a stylus. During excavations of a fourteenth-century-B.C.E. shipwreck at Uluburun, off the southern coast of Turkey, marine archaeologists found a small, hinged wax writing board — possibly the oldest notebook ever found.
There were distinct advantages to choosing waxed writing boards over clay tablets: They were lighter, less fragile, easily updated and reusable. These boards were indeed the notebooks of ancient times.
In the Greco-Roman world, wax tablets were common. Decorations on Greek pottery dating to the fifth century B.C.E. and paintings from Pompeii illustrate how wooden tablets were used in the educational system and everyday life.
All these methods would have been available to the early Israelite scribes of the Bible.
“The majority of writing would have been done on papyrus, leather and wax-coated wooden tablets. The recovery of numerous clay bullae, which once sealed the papyri, attests to their existence,” says Allan Millard, professor of Hebrew and ancient Semitic languages at Liverpool University.
Millard is convinced that writing was widespread across the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the eighth and seventh centuries B.C.E. He argues that the number of sites, the quantity of ephemeral texts and the multitude of seals and impressions bearing owners’ names should dispel any notion that writing was rare. If scribes were employed for legal and administrative duties such as making lists, setting out legal deals and writing letters, he believes it is reasonable to expect some to have spent time writing other texts, as in Mesopotamia and Egypt.
Compositions among Hebrew ostraca and graffiti prove they could do so. One ostracon found in the desert outpost of Arad bears part of a literary text and another from the fort at Hovrat Uza is of prophetic nature. There are lines of a prophetic verse painted on wall plaster at Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai from the early eighth century B.C.E.
Millard contends that some parts of the Bible could date as far back as the 13th century B.C.E.
While many scholars take a much more conservative approach, most believe that by the time of the Neo-Assyrian and Babylonian period (the eighth to sixth centuries B.C.E.), large parts of the Hebrew Bible had already been written down.
The prophet Isaiah mentions that he was a contemporary of the eighth-century Assyrian king Sargon II (Isaiah 20:1-2), and recent studies of letters from the Kingdom of Judah show that literacy was widespread across that kingdom’s social classes by the seventh century B.C.E.
The Bible on tablet
Some scholars believe that the prophets and scribes used wooden tablets as instant notebooks, and only later copied the text onto papyrus scrolls.
This was standard practice for Babylonian and Assyrian officials, who wrote down oracles that they heard for their masters.
Isaiah 30:8 indicates that a similar practice was employed by the scribes and prophets in Judah (“Now come, write it upon a tablet with them, and inscribe it even in a book...”) as well as Habakkuk: “Write down the vision and set it out plainly on tablets.” These texts seem to describe the way scribes worked in ancient Judah. First they wrote down information from dictation onto wooden tablets, and then carefully copied the text onto a scroll.
The Biblical texts were then copied through the centuries by groups of scribes, from the Sopherim, who were active in the time of Ezra (fifth century B.C.E.), to the Masoretes, the scholars who established the authoritative standard text of the Hebrew Bible in the early Middle Ages.
It is thanks to the work of these scribes that the Biblical text has reached us, along with some 6,000 handwritten copies of the manuscript from various eras.