Old TestamentFour Ways Scholars Date Early Hebrew Bible Manuscripts Scholars use multiple methods to date the earliest copies of the Old Testament. At their best, they yield a range of fifty years. Drew LongacreSolomon Schechter studying the thousands of manuscripts discovered in the Cairo Geniza around 1898. Image reproduced by kind permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library. SourceNovember 8, 2022 ShareFacebookTwitterLinkedInPrint Level In recent years, some scholars have argued that the Psalms were still being collected into the Psalter late into the 1st century AD, well after Jesus’ death. But what if there was a copy of the book of Psalms written much earlier than that? In fact, that seems to be the case with 4QPsa, a Psalms manuscript from the Dead Sea Scrolls dated to the late 3rd or early 2nd century BC that must surely play an important role in determining when the book of Psalms was compiled. The dates when manuscripts were written are thus very important for understanding their significance and for understanding the history of the Bible. But the process of how scholars determine those dates is complex and involves several sources of information. The earliest period from which we have copies of the books of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament starts from the 3rd century BC. The Dead Sea Scrolls include nearly 1000 early manuscripts—mostly in Hebrew and Aramaic (which use the same alphabet), but also some other languages—discovered in the Judean Desert, most of which date between 350 BC to AD 135. Far fewer early Hebrew manuscripts have survived from other places like Egypt and from the so-called “silent period” from the 3rd to the 8th centuries AD. That means that the Dead Sea Scrolls are our earliest direct sources for the Hebrew scriptures and Jewish literature and are of immense historical and religious significance. But how do scholars go about dating them? There are four main ways. 1. Internal Dates and Contents Sometimes scribes wrote the date explicitly on their manuscripts. In such cases, it is easy to know when it was written—as long as the type of calendar the scribe used is clear and well-understood. For instance, the manuscript known as 5/6Ḥev papLease of Land is dated to the third year of the revolt against the Romans by Bar Kokhba (AD 132–135), which corresponds to AD 134. Such dates are common in legal documents and letters, though precious few survive from some periods. Unfortunately, the ancient scribes who copied works of Hebrew literature like the scriptures did not write the date on their manuscripts. When an explicit date is lacking, the contents of a manuscript may also imply something about its date. If it is possible to determine when a book was originally composed, the copy obviously cannot be dated earlier. In most cases, the books of the Old Testament were written significantly earlier than their earliest surviving copies, so this criterion is generally of limited value. 2. Archeological Context One of the best indicators for dating early Hebrew manuscripts is where they were discovered, otherwise known as their provenance. Many ancient manuscripts were found in archeological contexts that are datable. For instance, a Leviticus scroll called EGLev was found charred inside a synagogue in En Gedi in Israel that was burned in the 6th or 7th century AD, which means that the scroll cannot be dated later than this destruction. The site of Qumran in the Judean Desert (east of Jerusalem) was destroyed by the Romans in AD 68, so all of the scrolls found in the surrounding caves associated with the site (labelled 1Q, 2Q, 3Q, 4Q, etc.) must have been written earlier than this date. It is unusual (though not impossible) for manuscripts to be many centuries older than the archeological context in which they were discovered. Thus, dating is one reason why it is so important to know as much as we can about where ancient manuscripts came from. The site of the En Gedi synagogue allows a more precise dating of a Leviticus scroll found at the site. David Jones 3. Radiocarbon Dating Another important tool that is used to date early Hebrew manuscripts is radiocarbon dating. Carbon-14 (aka 14C or “radiocarbon”) is a radioactive isotope of carbon that is found throughout the atmosphere and is absorbed into plants and the animals that eat them. 14C decays at a known rate to become the more common 12C. When plants or animals die, they stop taking in new 14C, so the amount of 14C gradually diminishes at a constant rate. By comparing the amount of 14C left in the organic material with the amount of 12C and known historical atmospheric conditions, scientists are able to determine approximately how long ago the plant (e.g., papyrus) or animal (e.g., parchment) that was used to make a manuscript died. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: With few exceptions, writers usually used these writing materials soon after they were prepared, so scholars generally suppose that the date when a manuscript was written was very close to when the plant or animal died. In most cases, these tests can tell researchers approximately in which century the manuscript was written. However, fluctuations in the original atmospheric conditions make it difficult to distinguish certain periods, yielding less precise or more ambiguous dates for these stretches of time. Radiocarbon dating also requires destroying a small part of the manuscript, which makes many institutions hesitant to use the technique. Despite this, the method has been frequently applied to early Hebrew manuscripts, providing a wealth of information that is not available to scholars working on most other types of ancient manuscripts. So far, more than 60 early Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts have been subjected to radiocarbon dating, yielding dates ranging from the 4th century BC up through the 8th century AD. So far, more than 60 early Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts have been subjected to radiocarbon dating. 4. Ancient Handwriting Another way of dating early Hebrew manuscripts—in fact, often the most important—is by studying their handwritten scripts, which is a discipline called paleography. When attempting to date early Hebrew manuscripts, the other means of dating mentioned above are frequently unavailable or not sufficiently precise. In such cases, paleographers study the development of different styles of writing over time and try to figure out where an undated manuscript fits into that history on the basis of its handwriting. One of the best ways of paleographically dating an early Hebrew manuscript is by finding dated or datable manuscripts written in very similar writing styles. The more similar the scripts are, the more likely they are to be from the same period. For instance, one Psalms scroll called 5/6Ḥev Ps was deposited in a cave in Naḥal Ḥever by refugees during the Bar Kokhba revolt (AD 132–135). The script style looks very similar to 5/6Ḥev papLease of Land, a contract from the same cave which we noted earlier was dated to AD 134. This suggests that 5/6Ḥev Ps must have been written some time close to AD 134, and its archeological context means that it could not have been written later. Thus, 5/6Ḥev Ps can be dated approximately to AD 50–135. Whenever it is impossible to find close analogies with manuscripts of known date, paleographers try to analyze scripts in light of the general development of writing styles. Since handwriting styles change over time, paleographers can create typologies or timelines for these developments, noting both changes in the general appearance of the scripts and changes in individual letter shapes. They start by placing datable manuscripts on the timeline and observing what has changed between the earlier and the later manuscripts. When paleographers try to date an early Hebrew manuscript that has some features of the earlier manuscripts and some of the later ones, they normally presume that that manuscript was written sometime between the manuscripts dated on either side of it. For example, when paleographers date 4QSamb (an old copy of 1 Samuel), they might compare it to early dated manuscripts like WD papDeed of Slave Sale (335 BC) and later ones like 5/6Ḥev papLease of Land mentioned above. The handwriting of 4QSamb has many features of the earlier manuscripts, but also some later features, so we can place it on the timeline between WD papDeed of Slave Sale (335 BC) and 5/6Ḥev papLease of Land (AD 134) like so: WD papDeed of Slave Sale → 4QSamb → 5/6Ḥev papLease of Land. Since 4QSamb is much closer to WD papDeed of Slave Sale than 5/6Ḥev papLease of Land, it must also be dated very early on the timeline. Thus, most paleographers conclude that 4QSamb must have been written in the 3rd century BC, possibly making it the oldest copy of any part of the Hebrew scriptures in existence. The more the timeline is filled in with datable manuscripts, the more precisely paleographers can date other manuscripts based on where they fit in the timeline. For this reason, paleographers are constantly looking for new evidence for dating ancient manuscripts and revising the timeline where evidence requires it. And recent developments have seen the use of computer tools to help study and compare ancient handwriting, which has great promise for future gains in the field. The Foundation for Further Study By combining the information from the contents of the manuscripts, their archeological contexts, radiocarbon dates, and their handwriting, scholars are able to propose dates for early Hebrew manuscripts. Based on these sources of information, scholars often suggest dates that are quite precise, even within 50-year ranges of possible dates, not much longer than the working lifespan of a scribe. Not everyone agrees that these narrow date ranges are reliable, however, and a growing number of paleographers prefer to leave open wider ranges of possible dates, such as a century or more. This is especially the case for the 3rd to 8th centuries AD, where hardly any Hebrew manuscripts have survived and the timeline has many long gaps and uncertainties. But despite the limitations, these tools are essential for dating early Hebrew manuscripts and are foundational for any study of the manuscripts and texts of the Hebrew scriptures and thus to the history of the Bible. Drew Longacre Drew Longacre (PhD, University of Birmingham) is a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow at the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. He specializes in the manuscripts and texts of the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures and blogs about them at Old Testament Textual Criticism.