[Dates prior to c. 800 BCE follow the traditional chronology (See Chronology).]
c. 1800 BCE – The Israelites entered Canaan. Their roots were to the east in Mesopotamia, but they were widely traveled caravaners whose wanderings probably brought them in contact with Egypt at an early date. Writing systems were available, but the Israelites had no tradition of sustained written narrative. The historical traditions of the people were preserved orally.
1200 BCE – According to tradition,
Moses, the leader of the Exodus out of the Egyptian Captivity, is also the "author"
of the Torah or Pentateuch. (Pentateuch is
a Greek word that refers to the first five books of the Christian Old Testament. Jewish tradition refers to the collection as the Torah.) There is still no evidence of written narrative.
c. 1000 BCE – The oral traditions of the Israelites are written for the first time. The oral tradition does not disappear, however, and it continues to influence written texts for many centuries. While written texts probably became standardized in the first centuries of the current era under the pressure of competition from Christianity, oral accounts continued to play an important role in dissemination. This importance is demonstrated by the work of Caedmon, an oral poet who lived in early medieval England. Literate monks read Old Testament stories to him, and he converted them into oral poetry that was circulated among those who could not read. And oral versions of Biblical tales continue today.
c. 1000 BCE – the traditions of the Israelites are recorded for the first time, probably in northern Israel. This is the J-Version, so named because the unknown scribes are collectively referred to in the singular as the "Jahwist," Jahweh (/ja we/ is widely accepted by concensus, but the actual pronunciation is much discussed) being the name they use for God. Such an ambitious project requires considerable resources, so it is not coincidental that it occured during the first flowering of Israelite political and economic ascendency under the leadership of the great kings David and Solomon.
c. 900 BCE – About a century after the J-Version, another, more southerly, redaction was created. These scribes are called collectively "the Elohist," because their name for God is Elohim /ε lo him/.
c. 800 BCE – By this date the J-Version and E-Version had merged. The two versions are stylistically similar; they are steadily advancing historical narratives that are relatively objective in tone. Today many scholars believe it is impossible to separate the two traditions with consistent accuracy, and it is common to refer simply to the J-E Version. When these traditions merge, instead of eliminating one of the names of God in favor of the other, the J-E Version uses both names -- Jahweh Elohim. In the King James translation (among others) the two names are translated into English as "the Lord God," thus making it relatively easy to identify the J-E passages.
BCE – When Cyrus the Great of Persia conquers Mesopotamia, the centuries long
Israelite "Babylonian Captivity" comes to an end. The temple in Jerusalem is rebuilt, and Judaism, long suppressed, begins
to create a new liturgy with which to conduct temple services. Many of the old traditions -- sometimes infused with borrowings from neo-Babylonian
tradition -- are written down yet another time. This fifth and fourth century material is called the P-Version, for "Priestly,"
because it is the temple priests who record it. The P-Version passages of the Pentateuch are recognizable by their high
degree of repetition, their subjective phrasing, and their frequent use of antiphony -- a feature of religious services all over the world. At the same time, the law codes are being recodified and recorded – the "Deuteronomic," or D-Version, passages of theTorah. Also, in the fifth century BCE and after, many of the other religious texts
that would subsequently constitute the Old Testament (Joshua,
Judges, Samuel I, Samuel II, etc.) were recorded.
300 BCE – By the third century BCE both the Torah and most of the books that would constitute the
Christian Old Testament have been recorded. However, the evidence suggests that during these centuries
preceding the time of Jesus, Judaism is not a monolithic religion. It is likely that different sects held different views and emphasized different
religious texts. During the third century BCE the Jewish community in Alexandria,
Egypt, commissioned a translation of the Torah (and perhaps some other books) into Greek. Today this version of the Christian Old Testament is called the Septuagint. (Possibly only the Pentateuch is third century BCE, the other
books being added later.) The Septuagint
(see a c.2nd Century
CE papyrus) formed the basis for the Latin "Vulgate" Bible, and
today is the basis of both the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Old Testament.
300 CE – In the third century of the current era, probably under pressure from
nascent Christianity, the Jewish texts (the Christian Old Testament) become relatively codified. However, (at least) two distinct traditions exist simultaneously. In addition to the Greek Septuagint,
another manuscript tradition continues to be recorded in Hebrew. It survives into the early Middle Ages and becomes the basis for the later
Massoretic tradition. (There was also
a Samaritan Old Testament, and perhaps others as well.) Earlier generations of scholars assumed that the varying traditions must
have branched from a single source; today (thanks in large part to the evidence of the Qumran, or "Dead Sea" Scrolls)
it is recognized that different traditions
existed all along. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the English King
James commissioned a new translation of the Bible for Protestant services. Scholars based their translation on the Massoretic texts, and so today
the Protestant Old Testament differs from that of Roman Catholic and Orthodox
tradition (which,as noted above, is based on the Septuagint).
600 CE – The scribal copyists of the Hebraic texts come to be called the Massoretes
(from Hebraic massorah, “tradition”). A few fragments of Massoretic manuscripts survive from prior to 1000 CE,
but most of the extant manuscripts are more recent. The oldest complete manuscript of the Massoretic tradition is the Leningrad
Codex, which dates to c. 1010 CE. The
surviving manuscripts reveal a scribal tradition that put great emphasis on accuracy
and precision. With the close of the Middle Ages, the primary means of textual
preservation shifted from hand-written manuscripts to printed copies. But just as Old Testament tales maintain a marginal survival in oral tradition,
so, too, does handwriting continue to hold a place (consider the Biblical verses
written on a grain of rice or the head of a pin!).
c. 1400 CE – At the end of the Middle Ages, literacy and a demand for reading materials were on the rise. Early printing presses were inefficient, but demand for Bibles led to early attempts at printing them. In 1440 Johannes Gutenberg invented an efficient printing press that used movable type. He printed a number of Bibles in Latin, and the modern print era of the Bible began.