When was the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament (OT) written? The answer is complicated because the OT is not a single book—it’s a library. In addition, even within that library, the books themselves are not ‘books’ in the modern sense, but composite texts which themselves weave together both oral and written traditions—sometimes gathered together over centuries.
This is not some big secret the Vatican is hiding from you. The Bible itself talks about drawing on earlier documents.
This is not some big secret the Vatican is hiding from you, by the way. The Bible itself talks about drawing on earlier documents. For example, Joshua 10 and 2 Samuel 1 both draw on the ‘Book of Jashar’ (which is lost to history but preserved in these citations). It is normal for biblical books to weave together different genres, a bit like the way a modern documentary film brings together interviews, archive footage and B-roll to tell its story.
So looking through the library of the OT, what time periods are we talking about? There are three main sections in the OT library, so let’s look at each of them in turn.
Parts of ‘the Law’ or ‘Pentateuch’ (the first five books, from Genesis to Deuteronomy) are very ancient. Jewish tradition in the Talmud is that Moses himself was the original author, and Ezra published it in the fifth century BC (Ezra 7:6, Neh 8). Personally, I don’t think Moses wrote these five books, at least not cover to cover—the bits about him being ‘the most humble man on earth’ (Numbers 12:3) and about him dying (Deuteronomy 34) would be a bit weird if he did. But I see no reason to dismiss the text’s own claim that parts of the tradition it is preserving go back directly to Moses (Exodus 34:27; Deuteronomy 31:19 c.f. John 5:46).
Assuming a late date for the Exodus, that would make these parts thirteenth-century BC material. Some songs, stories, corporate memories and family traditions in Genesis seem to go back even earlier, preserving real memories of the ancestral period and their time as displaced people in Egypt.
The prophets refers to both the big-name prophets who got book deals (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel) but also the Twelve ‘minor’ prophets (Amos, Joel, Habakkuk, Haggai, etc) and books we might think of as historical (Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings).
Prophets were active in Israel throughout its history, often delivering their messages orally in real time. But the preserving of their messages for future generations in a prophetic book was usually a team sport involving scribes and editors. Sometimes this process happened during the prophet’s own ministry, but sometimes it continued into later generations too. Again, this is not a secret: we hear about the process behind Jeremiah’s prophecy in … the book of Jeremiah:
So Jeremiah took another scroll and gave it to the scribe Baruch son of Neriah, and as Jeremiah dictated, Baruch wrote on it all the words of the scroll that Jehoiakim king of Judah had burned in the fire. And many similar words were added to them. (Jeremiah 36:32)
Most of the books associated with the prophets were probably collected in their final form between the fifth and second centuries BC—after the exile and before the Old Greek (Septuagint) and other translations start showing up. For example, the earliest of the prophetic books is probably Amos, who was an eighth-century prophet. His work, however, was bound up together into the Book of the Twelve, a collection which includes post-exilic works like Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi. That collection seems to have been edited together in the third or fourth century BC.
Some of the youngest books are found in the final collection called ‘The Writings’. The Writings include Psalms, wisdom texts like Proverbs and Job plus the five scrolls traditionally read at festivals including Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, Ruth, Esther, Lamentations. It also includes Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles as these give a post-exilic view on the history of Israel. Surprisingly, Daniel also shows up here too (rather than with the Prophets as in English Bibles).
Depending on your preferred dating for books like Daniel and Ecclesiastes, this collection brings us up to the early second century BC (so yes, the ‘intertestamental period’ is more like an intertestamental power nap). Bits of all the books in the Writings were found in the caves at Qumran (except Esther, for some reason) so that helps confirm that people thought of these books as Scripture in (roughly) Jesus’ day.
The Library itself
These are the rough dates for the different parts of the OT. But when did these books come to be accepted as Scripture? This is known as the question of ‘canon’—what belongs in the library of OT Scripture, and what belongs in the fan-fiction category of ‘nice-to-read-but-not-God’s-word.’
Writing a canonical list is not about making books authoritative Scripture, it’s about listing the books that we recognise as already authoritative.
I’ve written elsewhere about the different canons or lists of authoritative books in Judaism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy and Protestantism. To recap: writing a canonical list is not about making books authoritative Scripture, it’s about listing the books that we recognise as already authoritative. While different traditions have different ways of arranging the books, historically the consensus has been pretty clear on what should, and should not, go in there (especially around the core).
The OT canon as a whole seems to have been relatively stable by at least the time of ben Sira (180 BC) because he refers to the prophets by name including Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and ‘the Twelve’ (in that order), and even quotes from the book of Malachi. His grandson, when translating this work into Greek a little later, refers to ‘the Law, the Prophets and the other books,’ which is the earliest mention of the three part canon. By Jesus’ day people know what you meant by ‘The Bible’—it’s the Law, the Prophets and the Writings.
As for the ages of the manuscripts that have survived, these vary. The earliest textual evidence for the Pentateuch we have is the priestly blessing from Numbers 6:24–26, dating to the sixth or seventh century BC. Many of the other early sources we have are actually translations: Codex Vaticanus and Codex Sinaiticus are Greek translations from the fourth century AD and contain all or nearly all the OT. Then there are other versions including the Old Latin, Samaritan Pentateuch and the Targums (Aramaic).
Until the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the main Hebrew manuscripts we had to go on were medieval: the complete OT in the Leningrad Codex (AD 1009), plus the large chunks of OT in the Aleppo Codex (AD 925) and Cairo Prophets Codex (AD 896). That’s why the Dead Sea Scrolls were such a huge discovery—they contain manuscripts that date between 275 BC and AD 68.
The similarities and differences between all these manuscripts and translations are interesting (if you are that sort of person), and so scholars will compare between them to work out the likely original text. Sometimes we aren’t 100% confident which word was original, but even then, the message of the whole gets through. That’s the beauty of communication. Unlike a game of ‘Telephone’ where the message quickly gets garbled down the line, Israel’s Scriptures are preserved in thousands of manuscripts, in dozens of languages, by different communities in different parts of the world. God is good at getting his message across.
This is a complex answer to a simple question. But the big picture is that the library of the OT has preserved traditions throughout the history of Israel’s relationship with God, from the time of Abraham to the time of Jesus. We can be confident that what Jesus meant when he referred to ‘Scripture’ is what we pick up when we read the OT today.