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From the Book of Kells, a 9th century New Testament currently kept at the Trinity College Library in Dublin | WikiCommons
From the Book of Kells, a 9th century New Testament currently kept at the Trinity College Library in Dublin | WikiCommons
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Here Are Some of the Oldest Surviving Books in the World

Picture of Simon Leser
UK Literary Editor
Updated: 20 August 2017
Though it’s certainly comforting to think literature began to appear as soon as language did, or was at least scribbled down as soon as writing became a thing, the fact is we can’t be too sure. What we do know is that the oldest known texts—5,000-year-old Iranian tablets—are mostly accounts of property (shows you where our concerns lie), and that the first extended works were made in Egypt a few hundred years later. Here are a few of the most well-known, odorous old texts still in existence.

Diamond Sūtra, May 11, 868

Diamond Sutra frontispiece
Diamond Sutra frontispiece | ©British Library

The precision with which one can date the creation of this book is purely down to the fact that it gives us its ‘publication’ date—the only such case on this list (it is, according to the British Library, where it now resides, the earliest example of a dated, printed book in the world). A Chinese version of a key text in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, this Diamond Sutra—found among other manuscripts in a cave in Dunhuang—was printed from wooden blocks onto a scroll over 5m (16.4 ft.) long.

Regula Sancti Benedicti (The Rule of St Benedict), 8th century

©Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Another religious book, this time kept at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. It is the earliest surviving manuscript of the Rule of Saint Benedict of Nursia, which he enumerated sometime around 540 as a guide to the principles of monastic life. Not much about the parchment book’s provenance is known, except that it was kept at Worcester Cathedral from the 11th to the 17th century, at which point it came into the Bodleian’s possession.

Codex Parisino-Petropolitanus, 7–8th century

The part of the manuscript held at the University of Birmingham
The part of the manuscript held at the University of Birmingham | Wikimedia Commons

One of the oldest manuscripts of the Quran in the world, the codex was housed in the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As in Egypt until the Napoleonic expedition of 1798, when a few folios were brought back to Paris. The whole text includes a little less than half of the Quran, and was produced by five scribes in Hijazi script. Most of the codex is held at the Bibliothèque National de France in Paris, while smaller parts are in the National Library of Russia in Saint-Petersburg, the Vatican Library, and in the Khalili Collection in London.

St. Cuthbert Gospel, 7–8th century

The St. Cuthbert Gospel
The St. Cuthbert Gospel | ©British Library

The earliest intact European book is a pocket gospel book, written in Latin and currently housed at the British Library—which bought it for £9 million (US$11 million) in 2012. Found in the tomb of Saint Cuthbert in the northeast of England (where it was notably saved from various Viking invasions by being kept in Durham Cathedral), it contains the Gospel of John, and is famous for possessing its original, crafted-leather cover.

The Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius, 6–7th century

An illustration in the Herbarium, from a manuscript dating from the 13th century,
An illustration in the Herbarium, from a manuscript dating from the 13th century,

The Pseudo-Apuleius Herbarius was the most influential herbal in Europe until the High Middle Ages. This is its oldest manuscript still in existence, one replete with fanciful botanical illustrations, and housed at the Leiden University library in Holland. Not much is known about the author, of this manuscript itself or the text in general, though we know this particular version was produced in southern France.

Gärima Gospels, 390–570

Two pages with illuminated Eusebian Canons from Garima 1, likely the later of the two Garima Gospels
Two pages with illuminated Eusebian Canons from Garima 1, likely the later of the two Garima Gospels | Wikimedia Commons

Still stored in the Abba Garima Monastery in Ethiopia, where they were most likely written, the gospels are two Ge’ez-language illuminated books, the second of which could date as far back as the 4th century. The first is notable for being the oldest book in the world with a front cover still attached to it. Due to the fairly medieval style of its illustrations, it was long thought to have been made much later than it actually was, an error carbon dating remedied only recently, by dating it back to Christianity’s first forays in the region.

Codex Sinaiticus, 330–360