The beginnings of the holy bible are still cloaked in mystery. As soon as was the written? who wrote it? and how reliable is it as an historical record? BBC history Revealed newspaper charts the development of maybe the many influential book of every time



In 2007, Time magazine asserted that the holy bible “has done an ext to shape literature, history, to chat and society than any kind of book ever written”.

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It’s a interlocutor claim, however one that’s tough to refute. What other publication resides top top bedside tables in countless hotel rooms throughout the globe? What other book has bequeathed the world such instantly recognisable catchphrases together “an eye because that an eye”, “thou shalt not kill” and “eat, drink and also be merry”?


Factor in the number of copies that have actually been sold down the century – somewhere in the an ar of 5 billion come date, swollen by a further 100 million every year given far for free – and there’s no denying the the Bible’s influence on western civilisation has been monumental.


But if the Bible’s standing as a social behemoth is past doubt, its history is anything but. Because that centuries, some of the world’s best thinkers have puzzled over the origins and also evolution the this remarkable document. That wrote it? When? and why?

These space the thorniest the questions, made every the an ext tangled through the Bible’s good age, and also the reality that some, or all of it, has become a spiritual text because that members of 2 of the world’s good religions – Judaism and also Christianity – numbering much more than two billion people.



one illumination native a oriental manuscript showing Jesus Christ. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal images Group/Getty Images)

Where does the bible originate?

Archaeology and also the research of written sources have melted light on the history of both halves the the Bible: the Old Testament, the story the the Jews’ highs and lows in the millennium or so before the bear of Jesus; and the new Testament, which papers the life and also teachings the Jesus. This findings might be incomplete and also they might be very contested, yet they have helped historians paint a picture of exactly how the bible came come life.

Perhaps the best place to start the story is in Sun-baked northern Egypt, for it was here that the Bible and also archaeology may, simply may, first collide.

For centuries, the Old Testament has been widely interpreted as a story the disaster and also rescue – the the Israelites falling native grace before picking us up, dusting us down and finding redemption. I do not have anything is this theme more evident than in Exodus, the dramatic second book the the Old Testament, i beg your pardon chronicles the Israelites’ to escape from captivity in Egypt to the promised land.

But has archaeology unearthed among the web page of the Israelites’ captivity?

That’s the question that some historians have actually been questioning themselves because the 1960s, when the Austrian archaeologist Manfred Bietak identified the location of the ancient city the Pi-Ramesses in ~ the website of the modern town that Qantir in Egypt’s Nile Delta. Pi-Ramesses was the great capital developed by Ramesses II, among Egypt’s many formidable pharaohs and also the biblical tormentor that the Israelites. The been said that Pi-Ramesses to be the biblical city that Ramesses, and also that the city to be built, as Exodus claims, through Jewish slaves.

In this podcast, biblical scholar man Barton considers the historic background to the most influential book in west culture, trying out its creation and also how it fits right into the backgrounds of Judaism and also Christianity:


It’s an attractive theory, and also one that definitely has the doubters. However if it were true, that would location the enslaved Israelites in the Nile Delta in the years after 1279 BC, once Ramesses II ended up being king. Therefore what happened next?

The holy bible is in tiny doubt. It tells united state that Moses led the Israelites out of their captivity in Egypt (whose populace had been laid short by ten plagues inflicted on castle by God) prior to Joshua spearheaded a brilliant intrusion of Canaan, the promised land. The historical sources, however, are much less forthcoming. As man Barton, previous professor of the translate of holy scriptures at the college of Oxford, puts it: “There is no evidence of a an excellent invasion through the Israelites under Joshua; the population doesn’t seem come have adjusted much in that duration as much as we have the right to tell by historical surveys.”



In fact, the finest corroborating proof for the Bible’s case that the Israelites surged into Canaan is Merneptah’s Stele.

What is Merneptah’s Stele?

Like all great autocrats, Merneptah, pharaoh that Egypt, loved to brag about his achievements. And also when the led his militaries on a effective war of conquest at the finish of the 13th century BC, he wanted the world, and also successive generations, to know all about it.

The tool on i beg your pardon the pharaoh determined to trumpet his martial prowess was a three-metre-high bump of carved granite, now well-known as the Merneptah Stele. The stele, which was uncovered at the site of the ancient Egyptian city the Thebes in 1896, includes 28 lines of text, largely detailing the Egyptians’ victory over the Libyans and also their allies. But it is the last three present of the inscription that has arguably excited many interest among historians.

“Israel has actually been shorn,” it declares. “Its particle no much longer exists.” These few words constitute the an initial known written referral to the Israelites. It’s an inauspicious start, one the boasts that this people’s near damage at the hand of one of the old world’s superpowers in your homeland that Canaan. However the Israelites would survive.


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And the story they would certainly go on to tell around themselves and also their connection with your God would arguably eclipse any type of of Merneptah’s achievements. It would generate what is certain the many influential publication of every time: the Bible.

Merneptah’s Stele may describe much more Jewish pain in ~ the hands of your perennial Egyptian persecutors, yet it in ~ least says that they may have remained in Canaan throughout Merneptah’s power (1213–1203 BC).

If the early background of the Israelites is uncertain, so is the development of the book that would certainly tell their story.

Catherine Nixey and Edith Hall comment on a pivotal moment in religious history, when Christianity became the leading faith the the roman empire:


Who composed the Bible?

Until the 17th century, obtained opinion had actually it that the first five publications of the scriptures – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy – to be the job-related of one author: Moses. That concept has due to the fact that been seriously challenged.

Scholars now think that the story that would become the scriptures were disseminated by indigenous of mouth throughout the centuries, in the form of dental tales and poetry – perhaps as a method of forging a cumulative identity amongst the tribes of Israel. Eventually, these stories were collated and written down. The question is through whom, and also when?

A clue may lie in a limestone boulder uncovered embedded in a stone wall in the city of Tel Zayit, 35 miles southwest the Jerusalem, in 2005. The boulder, now known as the Zayit Stone, includes what many historians think to be the earliest full Hebrew alphabet ever before discovered, dating to around 1000 BC. “What was found was not a arbitrarily scratching of two or 3 letters, it was the complete alphabet,” Kyle McCarter that Johns Hopkins university in Maryland has actually said that the stone. “Everything about it states this is the ancestor of the Hebrew script.”

The Zayit rock does no in chin tell us as soon as the scriptures was written and collated, however it gives us our an initial glimpse the 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 may be to rule out the single-author hypotheses, concluding rather that it was composed by tide of scribes throughout the very first millennium BC.


questioning the expert: john Barton

John Barton is a previous professor of holy scriptures in ~ the college of Oxford and also the author of A background of the Bible: The Books and also Its Faiths.

Q: Just how reliable is the Old testimony as an historic document?

A: Some parts, such together the beforehand chapters that Genesis, room myth or legend, quite than history. Yet parts that Samuel, Kings, Ezra and also Nehemiah explain events generally known likewise from Assyrian or Persian sources. For example, Jehu, king that Israel in the ninth century BC, shows up on one Assyrian monument, the black Obelisk, doing obeisance to the Assyrian king. From about the eighth century BC onwards, the Old Testament consists of some real historiography, also though it might not every be accurate.

Q: Does it matter if it’s not historically accurate? room we guilty the placing as well much focus on this question?

A: I think us are. Lot of the Old testament is about seeing God at work in human history rather 보다 in accurately record the detail, and also sometimes we exaggeration the prominence of historical accuracy. The Old testimony is no a work of fiction, however nor is it a contemporary piece the history-writing.

Q: How lot does archaeology support the historicity the the Old Testament?

A To a restricted extent. It gives us a context within which the Old Testament makes sense, however it doesn’t check a most the details. The mustn’t it is in forgotten the archaeology has also yielded substantial numbers of papers from the old near-east, such together Assyrian and Babylonian annals, i beg your pardon illuminate the Old testimony world.

Q: How much do us know about the scribes that wrote the Old Testament?

A: The scribes room never explained in detail in the Old testimony itself, yet analogies v Egypt and Mesopotamia make it clear the there must have actually been a scribal class, most likely attached as civil servants come the holy place in Jerusalem or the royal court. ~ the exile the the Jewish civilization in Bablylon in the 6th century BC, scribes progressively turned into spiritual teachers, together we discover them in the new Testament.

Q: once was the Old testimony assembled right into the publication it is today?

A: Probably throughout the an initial century BC, though components of that were absolutely regarded as divine scripture much earlier than that. Yet the repertoire is a occupational of beforehand Judaism. It should be remembered that for a lengthy time it to be a collection of individual scrolls, no a solitary book in between two covers.

Q: did the Old testament anticipate the number of Jesus Christ?

A: There space prophecies the a coming Messiah – which method ‘anointed one’ – occasionally in the Old Testament, and also Christians declared them as foretelling Jesus. However messianic hopes were not prevalent or massively essential in first-century Judaism and are even less central to the Old testament itself. Christians discovered texts they saw as messianic prophecies – because that example, in Isaiah 7 – though various other Jews go not check out them that way.

Q: Why go the brand-new Testament get so much traction in the an initial centuries AD?

A: The new Testament to be accepted because it was component of the package of the Christian message, which to be massively effective in the at an early stage centuries. The message, i m sorry was that all mankind was accepted through Jesus by the God venerated by the Jews, proved a winner.


Who to be King David?

The first wave of scribes may, it’s been suggested, have actually started work throughout the regime of King David (c1000 BC). Whether it is 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 necessary figure in the pursuit to create links in between the Bible and also historical fact, for he shows up to it is in the more quickly biblical number to be evidenced by archaeology.

“I eliminated king that the residence of David.” therefore boasts the Tel Dan Stele, one inscribed stone dating native 870–750 BC and discovered in northern Israel in the 1990s. Like the Merneptah Stele before it, it documents a warlord’s success over the Israelites (the guy doing the gloating was most likely the local ruler Hazael that Aram-Damascus). But it in ~ least suggests that David to be a historic figure.

The Tel Dan Stele also suggests that,no issue how capable their rulers, the world of Israel ongoing to it is in menaced by powerful, belligerent neighbours. And, in 586 BC, among those neighbours, the Babylonians, would certainly inflict top top the Jews among the most disastrous defeats in your history: ransacking the spiritual city that Jerusalem, butchering that residents, and also dragging many more back to Babylonia.

For the people of Israel, the autumn of Jerusalem to be a searing experience. It created, in the indigenous of Eric M Meyers, a biblical scholar at fight it out University in north Carolina, “one the the most significant theological situations in the background of the Jewish people”. And, according to many scholars, that crisis may have had actually a transformative influence on the writing of the Bible.

The Old testimony is far more than a formulaic story that a nation’s evolution, it’s also a chronicle of the nation’s relationship with its God. Go the sack of Jerusalem in 586 BC convince a brand-new wave the Jewish thinkers the they hadn’t been maintaining their next of the bargain? Did it spur them into revisiting every previous version of the Jewish bibles in order come sharpen the emphasis on the commitment or ‘covenant’ in between the people and also their one God?

Whether this concept holds or not, there’s little doubt the by the time they changed from your Babylonian exile, the scriptures occupied a unique place in the awareness of the Jewish people. However, it would be centuries before the book would be revered together a secret text because that non-Jews. And the factor for that revolution from nationwide to global significance was, of course, the number of Jesus Christ. That the so-called brand-new Testament, the account of Jesus’s life and also teachings, the turned the Hebrew holy bible into a civilisationshaping, an international icon.

Who was Jesus? walk he yes, really exist?

Most scholar agree the Jesus, a first-century religious leader and also preacher, existed historically. He to be born in c4 BC and died – supposedly crucified on the order of the roman prefect Pontius Pilate – in cAD 30–33. Then, for about 40 years, news of his teachings was spread by native of mouth until, native around advertisement 70, 4 written account of his life arised that readjusted everything.

The gospels, or ‘good news’, of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are critically essential to the Christian faith. That is their descriptions that the life of Jesus Christ that have made him arguably the many influential figure in person history.

“We can’t be sure when the gospels were written,” claims Barton, “and us know small about the authors. However the assumption: v is that note came first, in the 70s, followed by Matthew and Luke in the 80s and also 90s, and also John in the 90s or beforehand in the second century.

“In general, Matthew, Mark and also Luke phone call the same story through variations, and also hence are referred to as the ‘synoptic’ gospels, conversely, John has a very different style, and telling a markedly various version of the story the Jesus. Matthew and Luke seem to it is in attempts to boost on Mark, by adding more stories and also sayings native sources now lost. John is a different conceptualisation of the story that Jesus, portraying a more obviously magnificent figure.”

Though the sport in the four gospels may have actually proved a resource of frustration to those do the efforts to paint a definitive photo of Jesus’s life and teachings, they offer a fascinating insight into the difficulties facing the early Christian church as it spread approximately the Mediterranean civilization in the an initial and 2nd centuries AD.

Mark, it’s been argued, composed for a community deeply affected by the failure of a Jewish revolt versus the Roman empire in the advertisement 60s, while Luke created for a predominately Gentile (non-Jewish) audience eager to demonstrate that Christian ideas could grow within the roman empire. Both John and also Matthew hint at the growing tensions in between Jewish Christians and also the Jewish spiritual authorities.

As a Jew, Jesus would have been well-versed in the Hebrew scriptures and, according to the gospels, saw himself together the realisation of old Jewish prophecies. “Don’t think the I involved destroy the law, or the prophets,” Matthew reports him saying. “I didn’t pertained to destroy, yet to fulfil.” yet for all that, by the moment the gospels to be written, schisms between Judaism and nascent Christianity were plainly emerging.

How did Christianity spread approximately the world?

The Epistles, or letters, created by Paul the Apostle to churches dotted throughout the Mediterranean human being – which space our best source for the initial spread out of Christianity – check that Christianity began in Jerusalem, but spread quickly to Syria and also then to the rest of the Mediterranean world, and was mostly embraced by non-Jews, claims John Barton, previous professor the the translate of holy scriptures at the university of Oxford.

“The epistles room our earliest evidence for Christianity,” states Barton. “The very first date from the advertisement 50s, simply two decades after the fatality of Jesus.”

As Paul’s letters to churches such as the one in the Greek city of Thessalonica reveal, the very first Christian neighborhoods were frequently persecuted for your beliefs.

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And it’s such persecution, particularly at the hand of the Romans, the may have actually inspired the last book of the brand-new Testament, Revelations. Through its dark explanation of a seven-headed beast and allusions to an imminent apocalypse, Revelations is now widely thought to be a foretelling the the grisly fate the the writer believed awaited the roman oppressors the Christianity.

Despite that oppression, through the 4th century Christianity had become the leading religion in the Mediterranean world, v the new Testament widely revered together a spiritual text inspired by God. “It was roughly this time,” states Barton, “that the 27 books of the new Testament were replicated into solitary books as though they developed a solitary work.” One instance is the Codex Sinaiticus, currently in the brothers Library. “The an initial person to list precisely the books we now have as the new Testament is the fourth-century bishop Athanasius the Alexandria, however it’s clear that he was just reporting what was already widely accepted.”