How old is Judaism - not legendary, but indicated by science?

What are the oldest scriptures found of the story of Moses, for example? Or are the scriptures imported from very different cultures so that there is no identifiable mainline, where Judaism originates?

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    Hello user unknown and welcome to Judaism.SE! Thanks for the interesting question and for registering your account. What exactly do you mean by "mainline"?
    – WAF
    Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 2:08
  • I don't know the history of Judaism. If their predecessors (I don't believe they were originally formed by god) is just a single group, this would be the mainline. If there are more groups which mixed before creating their religion, there might be a bigger group or a group with more influence, which would form the mainline, but maybe there is no identifiable mainline? Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 16:39
  • The Dead Sea scrolls contain parts of Tanach and can be as old as 400 BCE. Two silver scrolls dating back to 600 BCE from Ketef Hinnom contain a line of text found in Bamidbar. The Zayit Stone contains the first known Paleo-Hebrew writing, the alphabet, and indicates the Hebrew language existed at least in some form possibly before the 10th century BCE. There is evidence of a kingdom of Israel from before the 10th century BCE.
    – A L
    Commented May 3, 2013 at 23:35
  • @AL: Why don't you post it as answer? Commented May 5, 2013 at 20:14
  • @userunknown I felt the information was relevant but couldn't fully address your question. If you want what is accepted among scholars about when different parts of Tanach were written, by whom, and why, it's not what is accepted among Orthodox Judaism.
    – A L
    Commented May 5, 2013 at 22:35

2 Answers 2


It is important to bear in mind that a lot of the techniques that science (specifically, archeology) uses to derive information about ancient cultures and religions can't be validly applied to Judaism. Consider, for example:

  • One source of such information is the arts, such as statuary, vase paintings, and the like. The Torah outlaws the making or possession of images "of anything in the heavens above, on the earth below, or in the waters below the earth" (Ex. 20:4), "the form of a male or female... of any animal on the earth... of any winged bird... of anything that crawls on the earth... of any fish in the waters below the earth" (Deut. 4:16-18). Furthermore, unlike other deities, G-d is not representable in any form. So that's out; any such image would in fact be prima facie evidence of failure to observe Jewish law properly.

  • Another is the remains of cultic centers, be they private shrines in people's houses, or major ones funded by the state. In Jewish law, except for brief periods, only one central place of sacrificial worship was permitted (it moved around until it was established on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, not exactly an area conducive to archeological study). Again, then, any altar or whatnot that you'd find elsewhere would almost certainly have been set up in violation of the law.

  • Then there is written material, such as monumental inscriptions by various kings in which they mention the gods they worshipped, or copies (on clay tablets or the like) of famous myths that formed part of the basis of the local religion. We Jews have only one written Law, and the rules for writing it are fairly strict - it is to be written with ink on parchment (as indeed is done to this day), a material which generally doesn't survive without efforts at preservation.

So the available scientific data about early Judaism is pretty fragmentary; your average secular writer's description of it is likely to be about 1% fact and 99% conjecture - much of that based on Comparative Religion 101 (and, as above, much of that can't correctly be applied from the outset).

With that said, to the best of my knowledge the earliest known extant part of the Bible is a small silver scroll containing the Priestly Blessing (Num. 6:24-26), found in an archeological dig near Jerusalem and dated to the late First Temple period (about 600 BCE). More complete texts, differing from ours only in detail, are the Dead Sea Scrolls, usually dated to around the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE.

It is also worth noting, though, that the Samaritans have an independent tradition of the Torah (and of Judaism, although that's not the term they use since they don't trace their descent to the tribe of Judah). Their text of the Five Books of Moses differs from ours but is still recognizably the same, and they also have a book of Joshua whose contents are considerably different - but no others. Now, the Samaritans and the mainstream Jews have been enemies at least since the 5th century BCE, meaning that there is no time since then when one could have borrowed from the other; that, then, is a latest possible date (terminus ad quem) for the writing of the Torah. In a couple of his books, R. Avigdor Miller goes further and points out the following:

  • The Samaritans themselves claim to be descended from the original Israelite inhabitants of northern Israel. The biblical account (II Kings 17:24ff) states that they are descended from foreigners imported into the land by Sennacherib after he had destroyed the northern Israelite state and exiled its people, but who learned the Torah from Israelite priests whom Sennacherib brought back at their request. Either way, then, the Samaritan scriptures must derive from earlier Israelite originals.

  • The Israelite and Judean kingdoms were at loggerheads, politically and religiously, almost continuously. In particular, each side considered the other's form of divine worship to be illegitimate. There is therefore no real possibility of either one having borrowed religious concepts from each other; if they both had Torahs that are recognizably the same, they must go back to a common source predating their split - which brings us back to the 9th or 10th century BCE.

  • Aside from the Pentateuch and Joshua, there are a couple of other biblical books (including Judges, Samuel and Ruth) that describe events before the split of the two kingdoms. But we see that the Samaritans don't have any version of those, which would imply that neither did the northern Israelite kingdom. The reason, R. Miller writes, can only be that those had been written fairly recently, and the Israelite kingdom could feel free to discard them (the more so since many of them are associated with the Davidic dynasty against which they had revolted); but evidently the first six books of the Bible were so old and venerated by that time that they were kept. Which fits well with our tradition, that these books were first written down in the 13th century BCE.

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    A good answer, as far as I can tell, after a miserable introduction. If Jewish people build temples without pictures, a temple without picture would be a fine indication. A temple with paintings would be a contraindication. 3rd parties could have made documents, for example the egypts, if the jews really migrated from there. Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 21:12
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    @userunknown, but say you found a temple without pictures. How would you know, even, that it was a temple, or whom indeed it honors? Just to give you an example of what I mean: the Louvre has a couple of altars found in Palmyra, with inscriptions in honor of a deity who is listed with all kinds of titles - but no name, and (as far as I recall) no reliefs. It occurred to me - not by any means a professional antiquarian - that perhaps they were made in honor of the Jewish G-d (whether they were set up by a Jew or a non-Jew is another question), but how would you know from the inscriptions alone?
    – Alex
    Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 22:04
  • I am not an archaeologist, but I guess from a way to build buildings, you can derive, whether one culture is the follower for another one. From the size of a temple you would see, that it isn't a normal house. This would probably only be indications. Commented Oct 2, 2011 at 23:06
  • Alex, and @userunknown I just thought I'd throw this at you, since it addresses Palmyra, which does bolster Alex's point about there being a temple there that may (or may not) have been built by Israelites and shows the difficulty in determining such things. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palmyra#Ancient
    – Seth J
    Commented Dec 6, 2011 at 15:38
  • One problem with the introduction is that the Tanach specifically tells us the the Jewish people broke many halachot and ended up worshiping idols!
    – avi
    Commented Jan 19, 2012 at 16:58

Cyrus the Great, reigning 559 BC–530 BC, conquered Babylon in 538 BC and freed the Jews slightly thereafter. He issued some of the first declarations on human rights. While this snapshot does not cover the start of the religion, Cyrus the Great is a historical figure well documented in various cultures' archaeological records (and well worth reading about) who pins down with certainty a time when the Jews were already completely established.

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    Welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for the data point. I hope you stick around and enjoy the site. You may be interested in further history questions, for example.
    – msh210
    Commented May 8, 2013 at 19:54

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