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With news this week of the discovery of what could be the earliest known siddur, a Jewish prayer book dated at around 840 AD – we have put together a list of 10 of the oldest known surviving books in the world today.
Writing and literature are thought to have been first developed between the 7th and 4th millenium BC. Since the dawn of writing an incredible array of different materials have been used for recording text, including clay, silk, pottery, papyrus, even coffins – so the question of the oldest surviving book depends very much on how you classify one.
The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines a book as: a set of printed sheets of paper that are held together inside a cover; a long written work. This definition rules out clay tablets, scrolls and similar, though many scholars have expanded the definition to include any significant piece of writing bound together inside a cover.
The question can also touch on the nature of the book. Some scholars have considered that a significant book should contain aworldview, setting it apart from mere accounting or administrative records.
We have tried to pull together what we hope is an interesting range of some of the oldest surviving books in the world. We cover everything from the earliest surviving printed books, to the oldest known surviving book in existence.
Discovered in Spain in the 1860s, the Madrid Codex – also known as the Tro-Cortesianus Codex – is one of the only surviving books attributable to the pre-Columbian Maya culture of around 900–1521 AD.
Most likely produced in Yucatán, the book is written in Yucatecan, a group of Mayan languages which includes Yucatec, Itza, Lacandon and Mopan.
Experts disagree on the exact date the Madrid Codex was created, though it is said by some to have been made before the Spanish conquest of the 16th century.
The book is currently held in the Museo de América in Madrid, Spain.
The Gutenberg Bible, also known as the 42-line Bible, is listed by the Guinness Book of World records as the world’s oldest mechanically printed book – the first copies of which were printed in 1454-1455 AD.
Printed by Johannes Gutenberg, in Mainz, Germany, it is considered to be oldest printed book using movable type in the West – though in China there were examples of book printing many centuries earlier, such as the Diamond Sūtra.
There are 48 original copies in known existence, of which 21 are complete. The above image is of the New York Public Library’s copy, the first to come to the USA.
Considered to be some of the oldest surviving bound books – 13 leather bound papyrus codices were discovered in 1945 buried inside a sealed jar, by a local man in the town of Nag Hammadi in Upper Egypt.
The books, containing Gnostic texts, are dated from around the first half of the 4th century AD. Written in the Coptic language, the codices are thought to have been copied from Greek.
The Nag Hammadi codices are currently found at the Coptic Museum in Cairo, Egypt.