What Are the Oldest Copies of the Bible?

We explore the rarest and oldest surviving copies of the Bible from throughout history, including complete volumes and fragments.

Oct 24, 2023By Ryan Watson, MA History, BA History
what are the oldest copies of the bible

 

The Bible has been considered for centuries a cornerstone of religious faith for many.  While its contents are continuously debated, it still remains as possibly the most important work of humanity ever produced. The Bible, which is the name for the collection of the scriptures considered holy by Christians, is separated into two parts – the Old Testament (with 39 books) and the New Testament (with 27 books). While there is additional material debated upon as to whether or not it should be included, there are 66 books of the Bible that most Christians agree are canon (accepted as genuine).  While no manuscripts of any books written in the hand of the author exist, there are copies of the books that date to within just a few generations of their original writing.

 

Codex Sinaiticus: The Oldest Complete New Testament

The Codex Sinaiticus oldest bible
The Codex Sinaiticus

 

The Codex Sinaiticus, compiled around 350 CE, contains the oldest known complete New Testament in the entire world. It was discovered in St. Catherine’s monastery in Egypt by Constantin von Tischendorf in 1846.  Due to some political and international matters, the Codex is now split among four museums: the Liepzig University Library in Germany, the National Library of Russia in St Petersburg, St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai, and the British Library, but it has also been compiled into digital form and remains under study.

 

Codex Sassoon: The Earliest Complete Old Testament

The Codex Sassoon oldest bible
The Codex Sassoon

 

The Oldest complete copy of the Old Testament Hebrew Bible is called the Codex Sassoon, and was compiled sometime in the 1000s-1100s CE.  It has changed hands among various collectors through the centuries, has disappeared, reappeared, and was recently purchased by the business ambassador Alfred H Moses for $38 million dollars, which he then gifted to the ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv.

 

The Surviving Oldest Fragments of the Bible

Hand study with bible, Albrecht Durer, 1506, via WikiArt
Hand study with bible, Albrecht Durer, 1506, via WikiArt

 

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One of the interesting aspects of the many finds of portions of the Bible is the lack of variation among texts.  While there are minor changes that have occurred naturally over the years, a majority of the texts have remained consistent in their transmission through the centuries.  Many Christians argue that no major theological or historical claims made in the Bible have been changed since they were originally written.  While the accuracy of the content may be debated, the transmission has remained consistent.

 

luthers bible
Luther’s Bible, 1550, via the International Museum of the Reformation, Geneva

Another interesting note regarding Biblical transmission is the time period of copies relative to when they were originally written, particularly with the New Testament.  For instance, the writing of Plato, who lived around 400 BC, dates from 900 CE.  In contrast, the earliest known copies of the New Testament may date from less than two hundred years from when they were originally written. 

 

The Oldest Fragments from the New Testament

The P90 fragment of the New Testament
The P90 fragment of the New Testament

 

There are several fragments of the New Testament which date to the second century.  P90 is a fragment of John 18 and 19. P104, is a portion of Matthew 21, and P98 is a fragment of Revelation 1.  Each of these survived in the dry climate of Egypt. The most famous fragment may date from slightly earlier than the above, and is from John 18.  This fragment is known as P52, and is the earliest known mention of Jesus Christ.

 

The Earliest Fragments from the Old Testament

Surviving fragments from the Hinnom Scrolls
Surviving fragments from the Hinnom Scrolls

 

The earliest surviving portion of the Old Testament was actually found in a piece of jewelry. The Hinnom Scrolls are two tiny silver scrolls that were hidden within an amulet. They were discovered near Jerusalem in 1979, and date from about 600 BC, placing them at around the time of Biblical figures King Josiah and the prophet Jeremiah. These extremely fragile passages of Hebrew text contain a blessing from Numbers 5:24-26.  

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By Ryan WatsonMA History, BA HistoryRyan Watson is a husband, father, underwriter, writer, and reseller. He graduated with a Bachelor's and Master's in History from Louisiana Tech University in the early 2000s. He focuses on Biblical, post-Biblical, and medieval history with occasional dabblings in other arenas.