Like all good autocrats, Merneptah, pharaoh of Egypt, loved to brag about his achievements. And when he led his armies on a successful war of conquest at the end of the 13th century BC, he wanted the world, and successive generations, to know all about it.
The medium on which the pharaoh chose to trumpet his martial prowess was a three-metre-high lump of carved granite, now known as the Merneptah Stele. The stele, which was discovered at the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes in 1896, contains 28 lines of text, mostly detailing the Egyptians’ victory over the Libyans and their allies. But it is the final three lines of the inscription that has arguably excited most interest among historians.
“Israel has been shorn,” it declares. “Its seed no longer exists.” These few words constitute the first known written reference to the Israelites. It’s an inauspicious start, one that boasts of this people’s near destruction at the hands of one of the ancient world’s superpowers in their homeland of Canaan. But the Israelites would survive.
And the story they would go on to tell about themselves and their relationship with their God would arguably eclipse any of Merneptah’s achievements. It would spawn what is surely the most influential book of all time: the Bible. In 2007, Time magazine asserted that the Bible “has done more to shape literature, history, entertainment and culture than any book ever written”.
It’s a bold claim, but one that’s hard to refute. What other book resides on bedside tables in countless hotel rooms across the globe? What other book has bequeathed the world such instantly recognisable catchphrases as “an eye for an eye”, “thou shalt not kill” and “eat, drink and be merry”?
Factor in the number of copies that have been sold down the centuries – somewhere in the region of five billion to date, swollen by a further 100 million every year given away for free– and there’s no denying that the Bible’s influence on Western civilisation has been monumental.
But if the Bible’s standing as a cultural behemoth is beyond doubt, its history is anything but. For centuries, some of the world’s greatest thinkers have puzzled over the origins and evolution of this remarkable document. Who wrote it? When? And why?
These are the thorniest of questions, made all the more tangled by the Bible’s great age, and the fact that some, or all of it, has become a sacred text for members of two of the world’s great religions – Judaism and Christianity – numbering more than two billion people.
An illumination from a Byzantine manuscript depicting Jesus Christ. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)
Digging in the dust
But despite these obstacles, archaeology and the study of written sources have shed light on the history of both halves of the Bible: the Old Testament, the story of the Jews’ highs and lows in the millennium or so before the birth of Jesus; and the New Testament, which documents the life and teachings of Jesus. These findings may be incomplete and they may be highly contested, but they have helped historians paint a picture of how the Bible came to life.
Perhaps the best place to start the story is in Sun-baked northern Egypt, for it was here that the Bible and archaeology may, just may, first collide.
For centuries, the Old Testament has been widely interpreted as a story of disaster and rescue – of the Israelites falling from grace before picking themselves up, dusting themselves down and finding redemption. Nowhere is this theme more evident than in Exodus, the dramatic second book of the Old Testament, which chronicles the Israelites’ escape from captivity in Egypt to the promised land.
But has archaeology unearthed one of the sites of the Israelites’ captivity?
That’s the question that some historians have been asking themselves since the 1960s, when the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak identified the location of the ancient city of Pi-Ramesses at the site of the modern town of Qantir in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Pi-Ramesses was the great capital built by Ramesses II, one of Egypt’s most formidable pharaohs and the biblical tormentor of the Israelites. It’s been argued that Pi-Ramesses was the biblical city of Ramesses, and that the city was built, as Exodus claims, by Jewish slaves.
It’s an intriguing theory, and one that certainly has its doubters. But if it were true, it would place the enslaved Israelites in the Nile Delta in the decades after 1279 BC, when Ramesses II became king. So what happened next?
The Bible is in little doubt. It tells us that Moses led the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt (whose population had been laid low by ten plagues inflicted on them by God) before Joshua spearheaded a brilliant invasion of Canaan, the promised land. The historical sources, however, are far less forthcoming. As John Barton, former professor of the interpretation of holy scriptures at the University of Oxford, puts it: “There is no evidence of a great invasion by the Israelites under Joshua; the population doesn’t seem to have changed much in that period as far as we can tell by archaeological surveys.”
St Catherine’s Monastery in the shadow of Mount Sinai, where the Codex Sinaiticus came to scholars’ attention. (Image by RF CREATIVE/Getty Images)
In fact, the best corroborating evidence for the Bible’s claim that the Israelites surged into Canaan is Merneptah’s Stele. It may describe more Jewish pain at the hands of their perennial Egyptian persecutors, but it at least suggests that they may have been in Canaan during Merneptah’s reign (1213–1203 BC).
If the early history of the Israelites is uncertain, so is the evolution of the book that would tell their story. Until the 17th century, received opinion had it that the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – were the work of one author: Moses. That theory has since been seriously challenged.
Scholars now believe that the stories that would become the Bible were disseminated by word of mouth across the centuries, in the form of oral tales and poetry – perhaps as a means of forging a collective identity among the tribes of Israel. Eventually, these stories were collated and written down. The question is by whom, and when?
A clue may lie in a limestone boulder discovered embedded in a stone wall in the town of Tel Zayit, 35 miles southwest of Jerusalem, in 2005. The boulder, now known as the Zayit Stone, contains what many historians believe to be the earliest full Hebrew alphabet ever discovered, dating to around 1000 BC. “What was found was not a random scratching of two or three letters, it was the full alphabet,” Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University in Maryland has said of the stone. “Everything about it says this is the ancestor of the Hebrew script.”
The Zayit Stone does not in itself tell us when the Bible was written and collated, but it gives us our first glimpse of the language that produced it. And, by tracking the stylistic development of that language down the centuries, and cross-referencing it with biblical text, historians have been able to rule out the single-author hypotheses, concluding instead that it was written by waves of scribes during the first millennium BC.
Versions of the Bible
Different editions of the Bible have appeared over the centuries, aiming to further popularise the stories and teachings within. Here are three of the most notable versions…
King James Bible
On 24 March 1603, King James VI of Scotland was also crowned King James I of England and Ireland. His reign would usher in a new royal dynasty (the Stuarts) and a new era of colonialism (most especially in North America). But arguably every bit as significant was his decision, in 1611, to introduce a new Bible.
The ‘King James Version’ (KJV) wasn’t the first to be printed in English – Henry VIII had authorised the ‘Great Bible’ in 1539 and the Bishops’ Bible had been printed during the reign of Elizabeth I in 1568 – but, in terms of impact, the KJV would dwarf its successors.
Shortly after his coronation, James was told that existing translations of the Bible were “corrupt and not answerable to the truth of the original”. What his scholars produced was a book designed to be read out aloud in church – fast-paced, easy to understand, a masterclass in storytelling.
No other version would challenge its dominance in the English-speaking world until the mid-20th century. According tob historian Adam Nicolson, the King James Bible’s “particular combination of majesty and freedom, of clarity and richness, was for centuries held, particularly by the Victorians, to be the defining terms of our national identity”.
The Gutenberg Bible
In 1454, in the Rhineland town of Mainz, three friends – inventor Johannes Gutenberg, printer Peter Schöffer and financier Johann Furst – pooled resources and brainpower to come up with what the British Library describes as “probably the most famous Bible in the world”.
The Gutenberg Bible, as the three friends’ creation would come to be known, signalled a step-change in printing techniques. Whereas earlier Bibles were produced by printing presses that employed woodblock technology, the press that churned out the Gutenberg Bible used moveable metal type, allowing more flexible, efficient and cheap printing.
Gutenberg’s Bible also had massive cultural and theological ramifications. Faster, cheaper printing meant more books and more readers – and that brought with it greater criticism, interpretation, debate and, ultimately, revolution. In short, the Gutenberg Bible was a significant step on the road to the Protestant Reformation and ultimately the Enlightenment.
In the words of Professor Justin Champion of Royal Holloway, University of London: “The printed Bible in the hands of the public posed a fundamental challenge to papal dominion. Once released from Latin into the vernacular, the word of God became a weapon.”
Dead Sea Scrolls
Sometime between November 1946 and February 1947, a Bedouin shepherd threw a stone into a cave at Wadi Qumran, near the Dead Sea. When he heard something crack he headed inside to investigate. What he found has been described by the Smithsonian Institute as “the most important religious texts in the Western world”.
What the shepherd had chanced upon were the Dead Sea Scrolls, more than 800 documents of animal skin and papyrus, stored in clay jars for safe keeping. Among the texts are fragments of every book of the Old Testament, except the Book of Esher, along with a collection of previously unknown hymns and a copy of the Ten Commandments.
But what really makes the scrolls special is their age. They were written between around 200 BC and the middle decades of the first century AD, which means they predate by at least eight centuries the oldest previously known Hebrew text of the Old Testament.
Were the scrolls left in the caves by a Jewish community living near the Dead Sea or, perhaps, by Jews fleeing Roman troops in the first century AD? We may never know for sure.
The first wave of scribes may, it’s been suggested, have started work during the reign of King David (c1000 BC). Whether that’s true or not, David is a monumental figure in the biblical story – the slayer of Goliath, the conqueror of Jerusalem. David is also a hugely important figure in the quest to establish links between the Bible and historical fact, for he appears to be the earliest biblical figure to be confirmed by archaeology.
“I killed [the] king of the house of David.” So boasts the Tel Dan Stele, an inscribed stone dating from 870–750 BC and discovered in northern Israel in the 1990s. Like the Merneptah Stele before it, it documents a warlord’s victory over the Israelites (the man doing the gloating was probably the local ruler Hazael of Aram-Damascus). But it at least indicates that David was a historical figure.
The Tel Dan Stele also suggests that,no matter how capable their rulers, the people of Israel continued to be menaced by powerful, belligerent neighbours. And, in 586 BC, one of those neighbours, the Babylonians, would inflict on the Jews one of the most devastating defeats in their history: ransacking the sacred city of Jerusalem, butchering its residents, and dragging many more back to Babylonia.
For the people of Israel, the fall of Jerusalem was a searing experience. It created, in the words of Eric M Meyers, a biblical scholar at Duke University in North Carolina, “one of the most significant theological crises in the history of the Jewish people”. And, according to many scholars, that crisis may have had a transformative impact on the writing of the Bible.
The Old Testament is far more than a formulaic story of a nation’s evolution, it’s also a chronicle of that nation’s relationship with its God. Did the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC convince a new wave of Jewish thinkers that they hadn’t been keeping their side of the bargain? Did it spur them into revisiting all previous editions of the Jewish scriptures in order to sharpen the emphasis on the agreement or ‘covenant’ between the people and their one God?
Whether this theory holds or not, there’s little doubt that by the time they returned from their Babylonian exile, the Bible occupied a unique place in the consciousness of the Jewish people. However, it would be centuries before the book would be revered as a secret text for non-Jews. And the reason for that transformation from national to international significance was, of course, the figure of Jesus Christ. It’s the so-called New Testament, the account of Jesus’s life and teachings, that turned the Hebrew Bible into a civilisationshaping, global icon.
Most scholars agree that Jesus, a first-century religious leader and preacher, existed historically. He was born in c4 BC and died – reportedly crucified on the orders of the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate – in cAD 30–33. Then, for around 40 years, news of his teachings was spread by word of mouth until, from around AD 70, four written accounts of his life emerged that changed everything.
The gospels, or ‘good news’, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are critically important to the Christian faith. It is their descriptions of the life of Jesus Christ that have made him arguably the most influential figure in human history.
“We can’t be sure when the gospels were written,” says Barton, “and we know little about the authors. But the guess is that Mark came first, in the 70s, followed by Matthew and Luke in the 80s and 90s, and John in the 90s or early in the second century.
“In general, Matthew, Mark and Luke tell the same story with variations, and hence are called the ‘synoptic’ gospels, whereas John has a very different style, as well as telling a markedly different version of the story of Jesus. Matthew and Luke seem to be attempts to improve on Mark, by adding more stories and sayings from sources now lost. John is a different conceptualisation of the story of Jesus, portraying a more obviously divine figure.”
Though the variations in the four gospels may have proved a source of frustration to those trying to paint a definitive picture of Jesus’s life and teachings, they offer a fascinating insight into the challenges facing the early Christian church as it spread around the Mediterranean world in the first and second centuries AD.
Mark, it’s been argued, wrote for a community deeply affected by the failure of a Jewish revolt against the Roman empire in the AD 60s, while Luke wrote for a predominately Gentile (non-Jewish) audience eager to demonstrate that Christian beliefs could flourish within the Roman empire. Both John and Matthew hint at the growing tensions between Jewish Christians and the Jewish religious authorities.
As a Jew, Jesus would have been well-versed in the Hebrew Bible and, according to the gospels, saw himself as the realisation of ancient Jewish prophecies. “Don’t think that I came to destroy the law, or the prophets,” Matthew reports him saying. “I didn’t come to destroy, but to fulfil.” But for all that, by the time the gospels were written, schisms between Judaism and nascent Christianity were clearly emerging.
Such tensions are evident in what is surely our best source for the initial spread of Christianity: the Epistles, or letters, written by Paul the Apostle to churches dotted across the Mediterranean world. “The epistles [which make up 13 books of the New Testament] are our earliest evidence for Christianity,” says Barton. “The first date from the AD 50s, just two decades after the death of Jesus. They confirm that Christianity started in Jerusalem, but spread rapidly to Syria and then to the rest of the Mediterranean world, and was mostly accepted by non-Jews.”
As Paul’s letters to churches such as the one in the Greek city of Thessalonica reveal, the first Christian communities were often persecuted for their beliefs.
And it’s such persecution, particularly at the hands of the Romans, that may have inspired the last book of the New Testament, Revelations. With its dark descriptions of a seven-headed beast and allusions to an imminent apocalypse, Revelations is now widely believed to be a foretelling of the grisly fate that the author believed awaited the Roman oppressors of Christianity.
Despite that oppression, by the fourth century Christianity had become the dominant religion in the Mediterranean world, with the New Testament widely revered as a sacred text inspired by God. “It was around this time,” says Barton, “that the 27 books of the New Testament were copied into single books as though they formed a single work.” One example is the Codex Sinaiticus, now in the British Library. “The first person to list exactly the books we now have as the New Testament is the fourth-century bishop Athanasius of Alexandria, but it’s clear that he was only reporting what was already widely accepted.”
By the end of the early fifth century, a series of councils across the Christian world had effectively rubber-stamped the New Testament that we know today: the Bible’s journey to being the most influential book in human history was well and truly under way.
Ask the expert: John Barton
John Barton is a former professor of holy scriptures at the University of Oxford and the author of A History of the Bible: The Books and Its Faiths.
Q: Just how reliable is the Old Testament as an historical document?
A: Some parts, such as the early chapters of Genesis, are myth or legend, rather than history. But parts of Samuel, Kings, Ezra and Nehemiah describe events broadly known also from Assyrian or Persian sources. For example, Jehu, king of Israel in the ninth century BC, appears on an Assyrian monument, the Black Obelisk, doing obeisance to the Assyrian king. From about the eighth century BC onwards, the Old Testament contains some real historiography, even though it may not all be accurate.
Q: Does it matter if it’s not historically accurate? Are we guilty of placing too much emphasis on this question?
A: I think we are. Much of the Old Testament is about seeing God at work in human history rather than in accurately recording the detail, and sometimes we exaggerate the importance of historical accuracy. The Old Testament is not a work of fiction, but nor is it a modern piece of history-writing.
Q: How much does archaeology support the historicity of the Old Testament?
A To a limited extent. It gives us a context within which the Old Testament makes sense, but it doesn’t confirm a lot of the details. It mustn’t be forgotten that archaeology has also yielded vast numbers of documents from the ancient near-east, such as Assyrian and Babylonian annals, which illuminate the Old Testament world.
Q: How much do we know about the scribes who wrote the Old Testament?
A: The scribes are never described in detail in the Old Testament itself, but analogies with Egypt and Mesopotamia make it clear that there must have been a scribal class, probably attached as civil servants to the temple in Jerusalem or the royal court. After the exile of the Jewish people in Bablylon in the sixth century BC, scribes gradually turned into religious teachers, as we find them in the New Testament.
Q: When was the Old Testament assembled into the book it is today?
A: Probably during the first century BC, though parts of it were certainly regarded as holy scripture much earlier than that. But the collection is a work of early Judaism. It should be remembered that for a long time it was a collection of individual scrolls, not a single book between two covers.
Q: Did the Old Testament anticipate the figure of Jesus Christ?
A: There are prophecies of a coming Messiah – which means ‘anointed one’ – occasionally in the Old Testament, and Christians claimed them as foretelling Jesus. But messianic hopes were not widespread or massively important in first-century Judaism and are even less central to the Old Testament itself. Christians discovered texts they saw as messianic prophecies – for example, in Isaiah 7 – though other Jews did not read them that way.
Q: Why did the New Testament gain so much traction in the first centuries AD?
A: The New Testament was accepted because it was part of the package of the Christian message, which was massively successful in the early centuries. The message, which was that all humankind was accepted through Jesus by the God worshipped by the Jews, proved a winner.
Spencer Day is a freelance journalist specialising in history
This article first appeared in the June 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed