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A History of the Bible

The origins of the Bible are still cloaked in mystery When was it written? Who wrote it? And how reliable is it as an historical record? Spencer Day charts the evolution of arguably the most influential book of all time

Like all good autocrats, Merneptah, pharaoh of Egypt, loved to brag about his achievements. And when he led his armies on a successful war of conquest at the end of the 13th century BC, he wanted the world, and successive generations, to know all about it.

The medium on which the pharaoh chose to trumpet his martial prowess was a three-metre-high lump of carved granite, now known as the Merneptah Stele. The stele, which was discovered at the site of the ancient Egyptian city of Tebes in 1896, contains 28 lines of text, mostly detailing the Egyptians’ victory over the Libyans and their allies. But it is the final three lines of the inscription that has arguably excited most interest among historians.

“Israel has been shorn,” it declares. “Its seed no longer exists.” Tese few words constitute the first known written reference to the Israelites. It’s an inauspicious start, one that boasts of this people’s near destruction at the hands of one of the ancient world’s superpowers in their homeland of Canaan. But the Israelites would survive. And the story they would go on to tell about themselves and their relationship with their God would arguably eclipse any of Merneptah’s achievements. It would spawn what is surely the most influential book of all time: the Bible.

ABOVE: Despite his advanced years, Merneptah claimed crucial military victories in his ten-year reign as pharaoh of Egypt

In 2007, Time magazine asserted that the Bible “has done more to shape literature, history entertainment and culture than any book ever written”. It’s a bold claim, but one that’s hard to refute. What other book resides on bedside tables in countless hotel rooms across the globe? What other book has bequeathed the world such instantly recognisable catchphrases as “an eye for an eye”, “thou shalt not kill” and “eat, drink and be merry”?

RIGHT: Merneptah chose to immortalise his achievements in granite – the Merneptah Stele, discovered at Thebes in 1896
ALAMY X1, GETTY IMAGES X3

Factor in the number of copies that have been sold down the centuries – somewhere in the region of five billion to date, swollen by a further 100 million every year given away for free– and there’s no denying that the Bible’s influence on Western civilisation has been monumental.

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About BBC History Revealed

Few stories can match that of the end of the Incas, when the largest empire in the pre-Columbian Americas was defeated thanks to deceit and double-crossing. How did thousands of experienced Inca warriors fail to repel just 170 Spaniards? Plus: the CIA’s mind-boggling PsyOps experiments, the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings, the origins and accuracy of the Bible, wacky races, jousting and much more