10 of the Oldest Known Surviving Books in the World

The Green Collection - Siddur, Jewish Prayer book

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 a worldview, 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.

Madrid Codex

Madrid Codex (Maya)

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.

Source: 1. Image: 1.

Estimated age: 494 years old.


Gutenberg Bible

Gutenberg Bible, Lenox Copy, New York Public Library, 2009

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.

Source: 1. Image: 1.

Estimated age: 559 years old.


Celtic Psalter

Celtic Psalter - Image via University of Ediburgh

The Celtic Psalter is described as Scotland’s Book of Kells. The pocket-sized book of Psalms is housed at the University of Edinburgh, where it went on public display in 2009 for the first time.

The book is thought to be have been created in the 11th century AD, making it Scotland’s oldest surviving book.

You can view pages of the Celtic Psalter on the University of Edinburgh website here.

Source: 1. Image: 1

Estimated age: 938 years old.


Diamond Sūtra

Diamond Sutra. Cave 17, Dunhuang, ink on paper

A Buddhist holy text, the Diamond Sūtra is considered to be the oldest surviving dated printed book in the world.

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.

The book was copied by a man called Wong Jei, in May 868 AD, on the instruction of his parents, which is noted at the end of the text.

Source: 1. Image: 1.

Estimated age: 1,145 years old.


Siddur, Jewish Prayer Book

The Green Collection - Siddur, Jewish Prayer book

Discovered in 2013, the third major discovery this year, was a ‘siddur’ – a Jewish prayer book dated back to around 840 AD.

The complete parchment, still in its original binding, is so old that it contains Babylonian vowel pointing – akin to the Old or Middle English for the English language.

This allowed experts to date the book to the times of Geonim – Babylonian & Talmudic leaders during the Middle ages.

Source: 1. Image: 1.

Estimated age: 1,173 years old.


Book of Kells

Book of Kells

The Book of Kells is kept in the Trinity College Library in Dublin, Ireland, and is thought to have been created by Celtic monks around 800 AD.

The book is an incredibly ornate illuminated manuscript Gospel book, written in Latin, containing the four Gospels of the New Testament.

Image: 1.

Estimated age: 1,213 years old.

St Cuthbert Gospel

St Cuthbert Gospel - British Library

Europe’s oldest known surviving intact book is the St Cuthbert Gospel, bought by the British Library in 2012 for £9 million pounds as part of a fundraising campaign.

The book was buried with St Cuthbert, an early British Christian leader, on the island of Lindisfarne off Northumberland, in around 698 AD.

Only just surviving the Vikings conquests, the book was moved to Durham to avoid Viking raiders, narrowly escaping destruction.

The book was again rediscovered in 1104 AD, with an inscription added to the inside cover (see image below).

St Cutchbert inscription - British Library

You can now view the a digitised version on the book on the British Library website.

Source: 1

Estimated age: 1,315 years old.


Nag Hammadi Library

Nag Hammadi Library - Codex IV

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.

Source/Image: 1.

Estimated age: 1,693 years old.

Pyrgi Gold Tablets

Pyrgi Gold Tablets

Found in 1964 in the excavation of a sanctuary in ancient Pyrgi, Italy, the three gold plates date back to 500 BC.

Containing holes around the edges, scholars think they were once bound together.

Two are written in Etruscan text, with one written in Phoenician – comprising of a dedication from King Thefarie Velianas to the Phoenician goddess Astarte.

The plates are now displayed at the National Etruscan Museum in Rome, Italy.

Source/Image: 1.

Estimated age: 2,513 years old.


Etruscan Gold Book

Etruscan Gold Book

Thought to be the oldest multi-page book in the world, dating to about 660 BC, the Etruscan Gold Book was discovered 70 years ago whilst digging a canal off the Strouma river in Bulgaria.

The book is made from 6 sheets of 24 carat gold, bound together with rings.

The plates are written in Etruscan characters, and also depicted is a horse, horseman, a Siren, a lyre, and soldiers.

The book was donated to Bulgaria’s National History Museum in Sofia, by an anonymous 87 year old donor.

Etruscans were an ancient race of people that migrated from Lydia – in now what would be modern Turkey – settling in central Italy nearly 3 thousand years ago.

Sources: 1, 2. Image: 1.

Estimated age: 2,673 years old.


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54 replies on “10 of the Oldest Known Surviving Books in the World

    • Steph

      This article is about the oldest surviving manuscripts. The original manuscript of Job is no longer in existence, but if it was it would be on this list.

      Reply
      • DZ

        Aryans came to India 2500 years ago and as they mention the use of weapons in war in their scriptures hence after the Iron age.
        Mahabharata was written around 2nd century BC and Gita is one of part of that epic tale.
        Similarly Ramayan was written around 3rd century AD. Still no original manuscripts found yet.

        Reply
  • ed

    I’m looking for a list of the oldest books in terms of content. Example being the Iliad, written somewhere around 800 BC, not physical books.

    Reply
  • Will Vaus

    You left out, or jumped over, the Codex Sinaiticus (now in the British Library) and the Codex Vaticanus (held by the Vatican). These are the oldest Bibles dating to the fourth century CE.

    Reply
    • mickelodian

      Yes but again although the original texts may be dated by language experts to 4k years or whatever no originals survive. The article is concerned only with extant actual manuscripts. Not copies or reprints or mentions in other scripts.

      Reply
    • Ramesh

      @Sangeeth: Which is the oldest surviving copy of the Vedas? And in which museum is it kept?
      The article refers to oldest surviving COPY of texts and not to the age of the information contained therein.
      While the Vedas may be ancient, they were passed through generations using the oral tradition. So the oldest surviving copy of the Vedas may not be very old.
      If you believe a copy of the Vedas exist which is older, please let us know the name of the museum it is kept in.

      Reply
      • Pranjul

        Here is the original Veadas kept.
        Bhandarkar Oriental Institute in Pune, Maharashtra. These two manuscripts are written in Sanskrit and were found in Rajasthan.

        Reply
  • Abraham Paz

    Just one thing about the Madrid Codex. It couldn’t have been discovered in Spain and be written in Mayan languages since those are native Mexican languages. It was more likely taken from the Mayans by the Spaniards during the colonization of Mexico. It would make sense since the Yucatecan Peninsula was one of the last parts of Mexico to be colonized, it was also probably the most challenging.

    Reply
    • Francis

      The Cathach of the O’Donnells is older still, dating from about 560 AD, and is Ireland’s oldest manuscript (much older than the Book of Kells), but also cause of the world’s first codification of copyright, over a thousand years before the Statute of Queen Anne.

      Reply
  • Mohsin Zain

    Strangely, the list doesn’t mention copy of Quran in Istanbul Topkapi Museum circa 650 AD. Please review and update. Thanks

    Reply
  • Francis Regon

    Undestood from various research materials that Tamil scriptures like Tolkāppiyam, Thirukkural approx 5000~3000 BC and its scriptures were seen in stone carvings too

    Also Vedhas which believed to be of similar period should be included

    Reply
  • Rebouchage

    The correct name for the island of Lindisfarne is: The Holy Island of Lindisfarne situated off the Northumberland coast in England.
    Accredited thus due to St Cuthbert who lived and died there. Following viking raids at the time his body was moved to Chester le Street for a few hundred years and later moved to his final resting place in Durham Cathedral, England.

    Reply
  • Mike B.

    A lot of books asked about here are not the originals that inquirers lay claim. Examples: Iliad, supposedly written in 800 BC, but the oldest copy is 10th Century AD. 10 chapters of Job were found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, but these are just copies, not originals.

    Reply
  • Suraj Giri

    Wow what a good collection of rare and the oldest books. Thank you very much for providing such incredible information with photos of it.
    I am deputy chief librarian of Samtse Higher Secondary School in Bhutan, a small country that lies in South East Asia.
    Thank once again to all concerned for your wonderful upload of such information.

    Reply
  • Ronak Parmar

    Rigveda was the oldest book which was composed 3500 years ago. Rigveda was recited and heard rather than read. Unfortunately, it was printed only 200 years ago that is why this book is not in this list.

    Reply
  • Gail Gunderson

    This is a great list. Though not in print form, findings of archeological digs and artifacts found dating way back BC and writings on walls/caves containing Jewish and Christian artifacts, would be very interesting.

    Reply
  • Seerat Asghar

    Why the “epic of Gilgamesh” has not been mentioned in the list. It certainly is one of the oldest surviving book, written in cuneiform, on the clay tablets.

    Reply
  • Dorcas Kigozi

    Very interesting reading. Being a librarian I was impressed! About the Gutenberg Bible I read under an article on Library of Congress collection that there are 3 copies in the world and LC have one of the copies. Where are the other 2 found?

    Reply
  • Cindy

    Excellent article, thank you for sharing. For those who wish to see other books in the list, they can start a blog and write their own list. After all, there are only 10 spots available. I personally, enjoyed learning of the listed 10 in this article.

    Reply

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