What is the oldest Bible? Before we can answer this common question, we need to consider a few others.
First, which Bible? “Bible” is not a monolithic concept across faith communities. Even today, Jewish and Christian faith communities disagree on which books to include in their biblical canons. Which is the oldest Bible depends on which faith community someone identifies with.
Second, how do we define “Bible”? Do we mean a single bound volume containing a complete collection of scriptures with unique authority, something like what you would find under a church pew on Sunday morning? If so, we would need to eliminate any texts written before the Common Era, when scriptures were written on scrolls. Scholars still debate when and how ancient scriptures became codified as uniquely authoritative and started being widely shared, a process known as canon formation. (Interested readers can listen in on the debate by checking out the Old Testament canon forum published by the Ancient Jew Review or the Bible Odyssey article on the New Testament canon listed in Related Articles on the right.
Nevertheless, several different bodies of literature could have a claim to being the oldest Bible. If you are looking for the oldest available edition of a more inclusive Bible, Codex Sinaiticus (circa 350 C.E.) would fit the bill. However, its Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible are not the oldest witnesses we have to the Hebrew/Aramaic scriptures. The Dead Sea Scrolls (circa 250 B.C.E.–70 C.E.) are centuries older than Codex Sinaiticus, but they are extremely fragmentary and rarely make up anything close to complete books. The Old Greek translations of the Hebrew/Aramaic scriptures—popularly called the “Septuagint”—occasionally testify to a Hebrew/Aramaic text even more ancient than the Dead Sea Scrolls (the Pentateuch began to be translated around 250 B.C.E.). In these instances, the Septuagint could, therefore, be called the oldest available Bible text. These Greek texts are, however, translations, and scholars are still sorting out the exact wording of the earliest recoverable texts.
Because of the Masoretes’ meticulous work, some consider the Leningrad Codex (circa 1000 C.E.) or the Aleppo Codex (circa 925 C.E.) to be the best representatives of the Hebrew/Aramaic Bible. The problem is that the Masoretic manuscripts themselves are from the medieval era. At least materially, the Masoretic manuscripts are much later than the Dead Sea Scrolls, Old Greek translations, and Codex Sinaiticus. Each of these bodies of literature could in some sense be called the oldest Bible.
Modern translators do not seek to represent the oldest Bible. At some point, each biblical book ceased to undergo large-scale editorial changes and reached its “final edition.” Scholars who do textual criticism survey the various ancient witnesses to the biblical books in order to trace each book’s development, from its earliest recoverable stages to its current form in modern editions. Based on this work, scholars publish one of two types of Hebrew or Greek Bibles: (1) a single eclectic text that weaves together various readings from ancient witnesses or (2) an edition consisting of one particularly esteemed ancient manuscript, with variant readings included in the footnotes or margins. Modern translations of the Hebrew Bible are based on a single medieval manuscript (the Masoretic Text), supplemented by readings from older texts like the Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls. Editions of the New Testament are based on an eclectic text, a mix of readings from various manuscripts that is usually related to the latest available Nestle-Aland edition available.
Rather than attempting to produce a translation of the “oldest Bible,” modern translations (such as the New Revised Standard Version, English Standard Version, Revised English Bible, and New International Version) reflect what each editorial committee considers to be the original or earliest recoverable form of each biblical book’s final edition. (For more on how modern translations differ, see Jonathan Potter’s article on Bible translations listed in Related Articles.)
If you would like more information on the various texts mentioned above, you can find them listed under Related Links.