Torah, Tanach, gospels, septuagint, dead sea scrolls, masoretic, whatever.

Which one is the oldest and how far?

  • 1
    Just to be clear, you are looking for the oldest surviving manuscript or fragment that represents a canonical Christian book, right? Sep 9, 2013 at 16:03
  • 1
    Your first line is a bit of a red herring, however, as these aren't even a grouping. Sep 9, 2013 at 16:04

3 Answers 3


the Ketef Hinnom is typically dated to 600BC - prior even to the fall of Jerusalem. It only contains 3 verses, however.

In 1979, Gabriel Barkay (or more properly his 13 year old assistant), unearthed the Ketef Hinnom, a small silver scroll containing the blessing in Numbers 6: 24 - 26. To wit, it is a traditional blessing still used today:

“The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.”’

It's text is essentially unchanged from what we have today, matching both the Masoretic Text and the Dead Sea Scrolls, which have been dated anywhere from 418 BC to 318 AD. (Personally, I favor the Qumran-as-an-Essene-community 200 BC interpretation.)

It looks like this.

enter image description here

In 2004, the scroll was unrolled and discovered to contain what is probably the oldest scripture we have - from 600 BC. The primary significance of the fragment is to put a "latest date" of composition on the Torah. JEPD traditionally held that the Scriptures were composed over various authors between 1000 BC and 600 BC. This fragment shows this blessing, at very least, was in its current form, no later than 600 BC, although some scholars insist that generalizing the blessing to the entire book would be an over-interpretation.


Currently, the oldest known manuscript is the Nash Papyrus, dated at 150 BC. It contains the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and Deuteronomy.

If you're looking for more than just one book, the Codex Sinaiticus is considered the oldest Bible in the world. It was written by a number of hands around the time of Constantine the Great sometime between 325 and 360 AD, well over 1600 years ago. It's available for online viewing here.

  • So even dead sea scrolls aren't that old?
    – user4951
    Sep 9, 2013 at 3:49
  • 1
    The age of the Dead Sea scrolls are somewhat unclear and I don't feel that it would be constructive to include uncertain items. Sep 9, 2013 at 3:58

Complete manuscripts of the scriptures are very rare, and the ones we do have are quite "late" in archeological terms. Generally speaking, manuscripts will occasionally comprise a complete "book" (or almost a complete book, as in the "Great Isaiah Scroll" from the cave at Qumran near the Dead Sea), but other than that, the oldest complete copy of the Old Testament came over a thousand years after the Dead Sea Scrolls (see http://dss.collections.imj.org.il/isaiah).

More often than not, passages of scriptures are found on papyrus fragments, fragments of codices, palimpsests, and the occasional scroll.

In the 1990s, Carsten P. Thiede took a "second look" at the Magdalen papyrus which was housed at Magdalen College in the UK. With technologically sophisticated measurements he dated the fragment to the first century AD. The papyrus contained a couple verses from the gospel of Matthew, and Thiede identified it as coming from a codex, an ancient form of book, with writing on both sides of the papyrus.

As with most "discoveries," Thiede's findings were and are contested. See, for example, http://www.tyndale.cam.ac.uk/Tyndale/staff/Head/P64TB.htm. Thiede published his findings in an article titled "Papyrus Magdalen Greek 17 (Gregory-Aland P64): A Reappraisal," TynB 46 (1995) 29-42, though Thiede’s article was originally published in ZPE 105 (1995) 13-20, and a book followed: Der Jesus- Papyrus, by Thiede and Matthew D'Ancona.

According to Peter M. Head ("The Date of the Magdalen Papyrus of Matthew (P. Magd. Gr. 17 = P64): A Response to C.P. Thiede"), "Thiede’s arguments concerning the date of P64 suggest that he both over-estimated the amount of stylistic similarity between P64 and several Palestinian Greek manuscripts and under-estimated the strength of the scholarly consensus of a date around AD 200" (see Tyndale.cam, above).

Assuming professor Head is correct, even AD 200 is very early indeed for a fragment of the New Testament.

If one of the implications of your question (and hence my inference) is that you are wondering how good the evidence is for the scriptures' being reliable and faithful to the "originals" (which have in all likelihood long since turned to dust), I suggest quite confidently that there is no other book on the face of the earth that has been more faithfully and meticulously transmitted down through the centuries than the various books comprising the Old and New Testaments of the Holy Bible.

Manuscript evidence , though far from satisfyingly complete (as a layman and non-specialist would measure completeness today) is plentiful, and more evidence of the Bible's historicity is being unearthed and/or discovered all the time. If you haven't already, I suggest you read a book or two on the general theme of "how we got our Bible," which will only solidify your confidence in the historicity, reliability, and accuracy of the Bible you hold in your hands today. Simply "google" the words "how we got our Bible."

  • This answer would be improved if there was some discussion of p52. Additionally, OT MSS evidence should be older than NT, but no OT references are in this answer. Sep 9, 2013 at 16:00
  • @AffableGeek: I'm sure you're right. Thanks for the hyperlink to p52. You covered the OT quite nicely; I scratched only the surface (if that) for the NT. Plus, I kind of read between the lines of the OP's question, should the OP be wondering about issues of accuracy, historicity, and the like. Sep 9, 2013 at 18:34

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