The Oldest Book in the World
The question of which is the Oldest Book in the World will probably never be answered…
Because first of all, the definition of what is considered a book is not universal. Weird, right? But bear with me.
Should we consider a collection of papyri about a specific topic a book? What about clay tablets? Or how about oral wisdom transmitted to disciples then written down decades later? Which of these is more of a “book”?
It’s hard to say and ultimately you’ll have to decide for yourself what you believe… it’s a subjective matter at this point.
The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep, the Oldest Book in the World
But with that in mind, there is one piece of ancient Egyptian literature that many people consider to be one of the oldest. For a long time it was proclaimed to be the oldest book in the world:
The Instruction of Ptah-Hotep.
Also called The Maxims of Ptah-Hotep
This was a teaching containing ethics and codes of conduct for boys and young men on how to best behave in the society of that time.
It’s attributed to a Vizier of King Djedkare-Isesi (2414-2375 BCE) named Ptah-Hotep who believed that keeping the social order as-is the right thing to do – obedience and listening were virtues he really emphasized throughout the text.
Which means you can also think of him as one of the Oldest Conservatives in the World 😉
Still, even though he lived during the 5th Dynasty, Old Kingdom, he had some insights that are still so relevant and wise that the book is worth reading not only because of its historical significance, but also for inspiration.
“Be not proud because thou art learned; but discourse with the ignorant man, as with the sage. For no limit can be set to skill, neither is there any craftsman that possesseth full advantages. Fair speech is more rare than the emerald that is found by slave-maidens on the pebbles.”
“Let thy face be bright what time thou livest. That which goeth into the storehouse must come out therefrom; and bread is to be shared. He that is grasping in entertainment himself have an empty belly; he that causeth strife cometh himself to sorrow. Take not such an one for they companion. It is a man’s kindly acts that are remembered of him in the years after his life.”
– from the Battiscombe Gunn translation.
And also things like how to treat your wife, how to be a good leader, etc… the form the instructions took was from father to son, as Ptah-Hotep passed down his teachings to his boy.
But it’s good to keep in mind that it also has many outdated ideas. Still, you can cherry-pick the maxims that you like!
And another thing to keep in mind is that in this translation, the author notes in his introduction is that this book is 6000 years old, which is not the case. But the author notes that it’s a claim, not a fact, though this claim is why the book was thought to be the oldest book in the world.
So, to get a free ebook copy of the Instruction of Ptah-Hotep contained in the Prisse Papyrus and translated by Battiscombe Gunn, just enter your name and email below and you’ll be sent the download link. You’ll also get to be part of The Pyramid Scrolls newsletter, which is full of great information and the latest updates from yours truly.