Discover the Oldest Religious Texts in the World

The Pyramid Texts - Oldest Religious Texts in the World
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Written by Kristen Holder

Published: February 2, 2023

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While the earliest examples of writing were inventories and business notes, writing was soon used for esoteric pursuits. Abstract concepts like religion began to be recorded for future generations on objects instead of being passed on orally. Let’s discover the oldest religious texts in the world and discuss some interesting details about each one.

Rigveda in 1500 BCE: Oldest Hindu Text in the World

2D Artwork of Rigveda Text - Rig Veda Text - Oldest Religious Texts in the World

It is generally agreed that the Rigveda was written around 1500 BCE.

©Ms Sarah Welch/Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

The Rigveda originated in India and it’s written in Vedic Sanskrit. This ancient script is a forebearer of today’s Sanskrit.

The Rigveda is one of the four Vedas which are sacred texts in Hinduism. Some of the humans mentioned may be kings and enemies of the Hindu author’s distant past.

The items used throughout the text have aided scholars in proper dating. Porridge and rice are foods mentioned; however, their cultivation isn’t discussed. There is also a mention of a metal covered in gold which suggests metalworking was in existence. However, there is no mention of iron. These clues help point to the approximate agreed-upon date of 1500 BCE.

The Rigveda is a collection of 1,028 hymns throughout 10 books and these may have been passed around orally for a thousand years before being written. 8 of the books are dedicated to praising gods, cosmology, ritual, and rites. The other 2 are devoted to philosophy and speculation on subjects like charity and the natural world.

These hymns are meant for chanting or singing for religious purposes. It’s apparent to scholars that the Rigveda was edited a handful of times before its earliest form that is known today. It is most likely the oldest continually recited text in the world.

There are words from a different language family than the rest of the text that are hard to identify. They may be part of a lost language from Central Asia. The words donkey, camel, and mustard are examples of these words.

The hymns praise various gods by focusing on their attributes. When the hymns have been performed by adherents, the gods may bestow their characteristics on the person’s life.

Epic of Gilgamesh in 2100 BCE: Oldest Literature on Earth

A Tablet of the Epic of Gilgamesh

As the oldest literature text in the world, the Epic of Gilgamesh is a vastly important text.

©Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin FRCP(Glasg), CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)/Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest surviving piece of literature in the world. It centers around Uruk’s king named Gilgamesh. The Uruk Period is a time in Mesopotamian history that happened between 4000 BCE and 3100 BCE.

Gilgamesh had a friend and war buddy named Enkidu and they undertook adventures and missions. Enkidu was made by the gods to keep Gilgamesh from oppressing his people, but the gods end up killing him. This distresses Gilgamesh so he starts looking for immortality.

Mesopotamian myths gave rise to the Epic of Gilgamesh though it was first recorded later by the Babylonians. It was orally composed after 2100 BCE and it was written down in Babylon by 1200 BCE. The original Mesopotamian author is unknown.

Epic poems are stories about how a mortal interacted with the gods to create the universe. Some of the themes of epic poems from antiquity drift from this definition but the idea of the exaltation of creators is almost always a central theme.

The Pyramid Texts in 2400 BCE: Oldest Egyptian Religious Texts

The Pyramid Texts - Oldest Religious Texts in the World

The oldest of the Pyramid Texts is from around 2400 BCE.


The Pyramid Texts are a collection of funerary texts from Ancient Egypt. They’re inscribed in various tombs on stone walls.

The oldest of the texts is from around 2400 BCE and the practice continued throughout Ancient Egyptian history. The inscriptions are in Old Egyptian and they originate from the Fifth Dynasty during the Old Kingdom. The writings were found in Saqqara.

They are records of spells and rituals performed for the dead. They also tell of the deceased person’s journey and interactions with the gods after death.

Instructions of Shuruppak in 2500 BCE: Oldest Morality Discussion

Instructions of Shurrupak - Oldest Religious Texts in the World

An exhibit for the Instructions of Shurrupak at the Oriental Institute Museum in Chicago.

©Daderot/Wikimedia Commons – Original / License

The Instructions of Shuruppak reference a time that was ancient to the Sumerians. By 3400 BCE, Sumerians had developed a writing system called cuneiform which was used to write this tablet over a thousand years later. These instructions, along with the Kesh Temple Hymn, are considered the oldest original copy of literature on earth.

The tablet references a king that was alive before the Great Flood which is also referenced in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Part of the tablet also discusses moral issues such as promiscuity and speaking out of turn. Some believe that the Instructions of Shuruppak may be part of the inspiration for the Book of Proverbs and the 10 Commandments in Christianity.

Kesh Temple Hymn in 2600 BCE: Oldest Religious Text in the World

The Kesh Temple Hymn is also called the Liturgy to Nintud and it’s over 4500 years old. These clay tablets are from Sumeria and they were discovered in Iraq at Abu Salabikh. At this site, many tablets were found in the Temple Library at Nippur.

Scholars know the hymn was important because it was translated without much variation for around 8 centuries. The original Kesh Temple Hymn wasn’t complete so what’s written has been cobbled together from later sources of antiquity. It has 8 sections that separate a total of 134 lines into parts.

The hymn talks about the creation of the Temple of Kesh by the god Enlil. This interweaves with a global creation story. It also praises Nintud who was a priestess and a goddess.

Nisaba is the one who wrote the tablet. The act of writing was seen as divine since very few could do it or read it. Nisaba not only witnessed Enlil’s actions, but she was also able to use her godly wisdom to write them down.

Enlil is the creator of the earth and the Kesh Temple while Nisaba is a goddess scribe that’s a priestess. Their dynamic may be the inspiration for God and Moses in later Abrahamic religions. The tale as a whole may have inspired the Adam and Eve creation story as well.

Nintud is the ultimate creator of everything and the Sumerian mother deity. She is responsible for the creation of humankind. At the end of every hymn, she is thanked.

This is why the Kesh Temple Hymn has the name the Liturgy of Nintud. Each hymn also ends with a question meant to be pondered. The physical appearance of the temple is also described giving scholars a vague snapshot into the architecture of the original structure.

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About the Author

Kristen Holder is a writer at A-Z Animals primarily covering topics related to history, travel, pets, and obscure scientific issues. Kristen has been writing professionally for 3 years, and she holds a Bachelor's Degree from the University of California, Riverside, which she obtained in 2009. After living in California, Washington, and Arizona, she is now a permanent resident of Iowa. Kristen loves to dote on her 3 cats, and she spends her free time coming up with adventures that allow her to explore her new home.

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