Hebrew Literature Before the Bible

Ancient Israel had no Bible, but the literature that scholars think they did have is not accessible to the public.1 This project aims to change that by producing the first open-access versions of the sources of the Pentateuch (called the Torah in Hebrew), starting with the Priestly work and followed by the rest.

Our Bible assumed its current form around 200 CE, but much of it describes events 1000 or more years earlier. How do we know how far back the Bible we have really goes? The Bible’s own writers refer to a whole range of literature, some of which we still have, but much of which we don’t. Indeed, the Hebrew Bible mentions books that are not included in it at least as often as it mentions ones that are.2 Even when biblical writers refer to ones we do have, like the Torah, they sometimes include parts we no longer have, such as when Nehemiah describes the command to make regular wood-offerings as being written in the Torah.3

If we know that ancient Hebrew writers and audiences used a very different set of texts than what we read today, what does this mean for the Bible? What is certain is that if we want to understand what religion and history were like in ancient Israel, we will be in trouble if we assume that our Bible is an accurate and unbiased snapshot of ancient Hebrew literature.

At least in the case of the Pentateuch, the material on this website is closer to what ancient Hebrew literature would actually have looked like than our Bible. This makes it a good starting point for understanding ancient Israel, whether historically or theologically. There are three advantages these texts have over the canonical Pentateuch if you want to look back to biblical times, that is, before the era of Rabbinic Judaism and the Christian church (c. 200 CE), to their sources in the period of Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Davidic dynasty of Judah and Jerusalem.

1. There was no Bible in our sense before 200 CE.

Study of the earliest known Jewish library, the Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran, has shown that while they had copies of almost every book that appears in our Hebrew Bible, those books didn’t constitute a bible for them. There is no evidence that people collected just those books together or treated them as parts of a unique whole. Instead, to judge by the number of copies we have found, where they kept them, and the number of times Qumran writers drew on a work’s religious authority, it seems that texts like the early books of Enoch (the Book of the Watchers and the Astronomical book) were at least as important as many biblical books.4 In fact, even some of the books in our Bible looked totally different from their current form. A stunning example is the Book of Psalms: there is not one copy of it at Qumran that has anything like the same psalms in the same order as ours.5

It is only as late as the second and third centuries CE that we are able to find collections clearly resembling our Bible. This is about a thousand years after inscriptional evidence suggests the earliest Hebrew literature was written down—a thousand years of creativity and experience, and a thousand years during which a lot could have changed. And it is only as late as 367 CE that the letter of Bishop Athanasius appeared, which is often described as the first complete list of the Hebrew Bible and New Testament in something like their current form. But even here, he does not yet include Esther!

2. Historians are not sure how far back the Torah goes, but critical scholars agree that the Priestly work is the oldest part we can be sure about.

When scholars first began reading the Bible critically, using the same historical and literary tools they would use for understanding any other human artifact, they quickly noticed a clear pattern running through its first books. This is the one in which God creates the universe by sheer verbal command in seven days. This story then constantly refers back to the calendar and God’s commandments, while adding a whole new set after Moses’ return from Mount Sinai. The plot events and religious ideas are consistent within this thread but often disagree strongly with the rest of the Torah.

This narrative tells how the universe and humanity were created through divine command, so that humans could learn and follow these commands. Its plot and ideas form such a bright line that scholars used it as a foundation for understanding how the other parts were likely to have been shaped and added, and called it the “founding document” (Grundschrift in German) when they were first developing these ideas in detail in the 19th century.

Today it is one of the only things that scholars of every school agree came before the Torah. This makes it an ideal starting point for those curious about what an ancient Hebrew audience might have actually read and thought.

3. This project is oriented toward discovery rather than doctrine.

Scholarship on the history and composition of the Bible can tend to be either doctrinaire—just telling you how it is—or complex and hard to digest. Often it is both. By contrast, this site is experimental and experiential. Uniquely, it gives any reader in the world the chance to read a reliable English translation of scholars’ best guess at what came before the Bible, and see for themselves what it is like. Does it cohere or raise new questions? Does it seem plausible as the main building block of this foundation of Western religion and culture? It is designed to help you explore, compare, and understand things for yourself.

This project was supported by the UC Davis Jewish Studies program and a grant from the UC Davis Academic Senate.



Indeed, in the case of the Bible’s building blocks it is not accessible to scholars either, since there are no up-to-date versions of these in the form of independent literary works. In terms of scholarly books one key part was addressed by Tzemah Yoreh’s edition of the Elohistic work (The First Book of God. BZAW 402. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), and will be further addressed by the most welcome translation and edition of the Priestly work planned by Liane Feldman for 2023. In the realm of popular treatments there is Bloom and Rosenberg’s Book of J (New York: Grove, 1990).


Famously in Joshua the prayer by which he commands the sun and moon to halt during the battle of Gibeon is described as also written in the “Book of Yashar” (Joshua 10:12-13), and David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan is said to be recorded in the same book in 2 Samuel 1:18. There are something like 20 different lost ancient Hebrew sources mentioned in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.


Nehemiah 10:35. While this practice is not mentioned in the Torah, it was a sufficiently important part of early Jewish ritual and thought that the precise calculations for this offering (using Babylonian mathematics!) appear in the Aramaic Levi document from the Dead Sea Scrolls. The practice is also mentioned in various ways in Josephus (Jewish War II 425, the Mishnah (Taanit 4.5), and the Qumran text 4Q365, which is ambiguous by modern standards since it could either be an alternative version of Leviticus or a passage of Leviticus followed by an interpretation of it. For details see Harrington, “The Uses of Leviticus in Ezra-Nehemiah”, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 2003:17-19.


See James VanderKam, “Authoritative Literature in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Dead Sea Discoveries 5 (1998): 382–402.


For the strongest presentation of this whole issue including detailed evidence on the Qumran Psalms texts see Eva Mroczek, The Literary Imagination in Jewish Antiquity (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016).