Around the 2nd or 3rd century CE, the Romans began to create the first “books” known as “codex”. A codex was an ancient book form in which individual sheets of papyrus, parchment, or paper were folded in half and sewn together at the fold. The reader would open the pages to reveal two columns of text that shared a page. On that note, I will be discussing the oldest surviving books in the world.
One of the first ‘books’ can be seen in the creation of ancient scrolls, going as far back as the 4th millennium BCE. The book, as we know it today, was made by German inventor Johannes Guttenberg in 1452.
The oldest surviving books in the world include:
- Etruscan Gold Book
- Pyrgi Gold Tablets
- Nag Hammadi Library
- St Cuthbert Gospel
- Book of Kells
- Siddur, Jewish Prayer Book
- Diamond Sutra
- Celtic Psalter
- Gutenberg Bible
- Madrid Codex
1. Etruscan Gold Book
The Golden Orphism Book (Bulgarian) is a Thracian golden artifact weighing 100 grams, with a size of 5 to 4.5 cm, made of 23.82-karat gold. It was written in 600 BC.
The gold sheets contain a text related to the local religious and philosophical school of thought based on the cult of Orpheus that came from the Greeks. In addition to the text, the pages are decorated with engravings of warriors, horses, mythical creatures and string musical instruments.
It was discovered in 1955 at Struma, Bulgaria. It is presently at a National Historical Museum.
The Etruscan civilization occupied a large area of central Italy during the Iron Age, including the modern-day regions of Tuscany, Lazio, and Umbria, with local expansions into neighboring Italian regions throughout its existence.
2. Pyrgi Gold Tablet
The Pyrgi Tablets (dated 500 BC) are three golden plates inscribed with a bilingual Phoenician–Etruscan dedicatory text. They are the oldest historical source documents from pre-Roman Italy and are rare examples of texts in these languages.
They were found in 1964 during excavations and they are currently in the Etruscan Museum in Rome. The holes in the tablets have been analyzed as the result of nailing the texts to the wood of the temple.
This tablet is housed within the museum and it consists of three important gold tablets, on which brief texts written in languages no longer spoken have been inscribed: two in the Etruscan language, the third in Phoenician. They are in perfect condition for being more than 2500 years old. This is because they were rolled up and buried with great care to protect them.
3. Nag Hammadi Library
The Nag Hammadi library is a collection of early Christian and Gnostic texts discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945. Although the manuscripts discovered at Nag Hammadi are generally dated to the 4th century, there is some debate regarding the original composition of the texts.
The Nag Hammadi Library consists of thirteen codices (singular “codex”, an ancient, hand-printed book) with papyrus pages and leather covers. The Nag Hammadi codices are 13 leather-bound volumes that offer an alternate testament to Jesus’ life and teachings. It includes the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and the recently discovered Gospel of Judas, as well as other Gnostic gospels and sacred texts.
The discovery of these texts significantly impacted modern scholarship’s pursuit and knowledge of early Christianity and Gnosticism. The contents of the codices were written in the Coptic language.
4. St Cuthbert Gospel
The St Cuthbert Gospel, also known as the Stonyhurst Gospel or the St Cuthbert Gospel of St John, is an early 8th-century pocket gospel book, written in Latin. It is a small copy of the Gospel of St John.
The book derived its name from Saint Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, North East England, in whose tomb it was placed, probably a few years after he died in 687. It is the earliest European book with an original, intact binding, and was discovered in 1104, when the coffin of St Cuthbert (d. 687), bishop of Lindisfarne, was opened at Durham Cathedral.
The British Library in London has just paid about $14 million to purchase the most Europe’s oldest intact book.
5. Books of Kells
The Book of Kells is one of the most famous artefacts in the world. An illuminated manuscript made by Scottish or Irish monks in around 800. The name the Book of Kells comes from the Monastery of Kells in what is now the modern County Meath.
The Book of Kells was written by Saint Columbkil in 475 and it is the one of the oldest books in the world, and the most perfect specimen of Irish art, with the richest illuminations, and valued at £12,000.
The text is a copy of the four gospels in Latin, so not an ‘original’ work of literature. It contains the four Gospels in Latin based on the Vulgate text which St Jerome completed in 384AD, intermixed with readings from the earlier Old Latin translation.
In 1641, the monastery of Kells was destroyed. Twelve years later the Book of Kells was brought to Dublin for safekeeping and it has been in the possession of Trinity College since at least 1661.
6. Siddur, Jewish Prayer Book
One of the most important liturgical compilations in Judaism is the Siddur. It contains a time-based order of daily prayers often accompanied by commentaries and instructions, and the Sabbath liturgy for the whole year. It is the Jewish prayer book containing prayers according to the order of the Jewish calendar.
Siddur is a word from a Hebrew root meaning “order,”. It refers to the prayer book generally used through the course of the year. It is a traditional prayer book, containing the three daily prayers; also the prayers for Shabbat, Rosh-Chodesh and the festivals.
It was discovered in 2013. The complete parchment, unmoving in its original binding, is so old that it contains Babylonian vowel pointing, akin to the Old or Middle English for the English language.
7. Diamond Sutra
The Diamond Sutra is considered to be the oldest surviving dated printed book in the world. It is found in a walled-up cave in China along with other printed materials. The book is made up of Chinese characters printed on a scroll of grey printed paper, wrapped along a wooden pole.
It was produced on 11 May 868, according to the Western calendar. The Diamond Sutra takes the form of a conversation between the Buddha’s pupil Subhati and his master.
The four core teachings found in the book are to give without adhering to any notion, to liberate all beings with no notion of self, to live without abiding, and to cultivate without attainment. The essential instructions of the Diamond Sutra are wisdom and emptiness.
It is a powerful source of purification of all previous negative karmas collected since beginning-less rebirths. This is in addition to the merit you collect by reading it or just by keeping it with you.
8. Celtic Psalter
Psalter is a word is often used by ancient writers for the book of Psalms, considered as a separate book of the Holy Scripture. The Celtic Psalter is a 11th-century psalter and is likely to be the oldest Scottish book to be still kept within Scotland nearly 1,000 years old. It is also described as Scotland’s Book of Kells. It contains 114 pages.
According to Jewish tradition, the Book of Psalms was composed by the First Men; Adam, Melchizedek, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, Heman, Jeduthun, Asaph, and the three sons of Korah.
The Celtic Psalter, as its name suggests, contains the Book of Psalms, and is small enough to fit into the pocket of a devout female reader. It is estimated to be 938 years old.
9. Gutenberg Bible
Gutenberg Bible, also called 42-line Bible or Mazarin Bible, is the first complete book extant in the West. This Bible is estimated to be 559 years old. It was the earliest major book printed using mass-produced movable metal type in Europe. It marked the start of the “Gutenberg Revolution” and the age of printed books in the West. The book is valued and revered for its high aesthetic and artistic qualities as well as its historical significance.
The Gutenberg Bible was printed in Mainz in 1455 by Johann Gutenberg and his associates, Johann Fust and Peter Schoeffer. Only 48 copies are known to have survived, of which 12 are printed on vellum and 36 on paper.
Few copies are now remaining in some religious institutions, with most now owned by university libraries and other major scholarly institutions. After centuries in which all copies seem to have remained in Europe, the first Gutenberg Bible reached North America in 1847. It is now in the New York Public Library.
The Bible is printed throughout in double columns, for the most part, with forty-two lines to a page. The capital letters and headings are ornamented by hand in colour. It took between three to five years to complete the entire print run of 180 Bibles and each Bible weighs an average of 14 lbs. The printing process was done entirely by hand.
10. Madrid Codex
The word codex comes from the Latin word caudex, meaning “trunk of a tree”, “block of wood” or “book”. The codex began to replace the scroll almost as soon as it was invented.
Madrid Codex, also called Latin Codex Tro-Cortesianus, together with the Paris, Dresden, and Grolier codices, a richly illustrated glyphic text of the pre-Conquest Mayan period and one of few known survivors of the mass book-burnings by the Spanish clergy during the 16th century. It is evaluated to be 494 years old. It is one of three surviving pre-Columbian Maya books dating to the Postclassic period of Mesoamerican chronology.
Some believe it was produced in the sixteenth century. The content of the Madrid Codex mainly consists of almanacs and horoscopes that were used to help Maya priests in the rendition of their ceremonies and divinatory rituals. The codex also contains astronomical tables, although fewer than the other two generally accepted surviving Maya codices.
You might be wondering why the Holy Bible is not among the oldest surviving books in the world. To answer you question, the oldest Biblical text found is about 2700 years old. The first Biblical stories were passed down orally and only written down later by various authors. Most Biblical scholars believe the Book of Genesis was the first book to be written down.