Renowned auction house, Sotheby’s in New York, prepares itself for the sale of possibly the most expensive historical document ever sold at an auction, in the form of Codex Sassoon. This is one of the oldest surviving biblical manuscripts, more specifically, it is a nearly 1,100-year-old version of the Hebrew Bible, which will be going up for auction in May. Experts are speculating that it will fetch anywhere between $30 and $50 million!
The Codex Sassoon and Israel’s Historical Reclamation
The Codex Sassoon is a significant artifact not only for Jewish history but also for the study of ancient manuscripts. The codex contains the entire Hebrew Bible , known as the Tanakh, with the exception of some parts of the Book of Isaiah.
It is written on vellum, a parchment made from animal skin, and contains almost 800 pages. Its 24 books are divided into three parts: the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings.
The Codex currently can be viewed for free at Tel Aviv’s Anu Museum , reports The Times of Israel , but will soon continue its tour, including Dallas, Los Angeles and will end up in New York where the auction will take place.
“There are three ancient Hebrew Bibles from this period,” said Yosef Ofer, a professor of Bible studies at Israel’s Bar Ilan University: the Codex Sassoon and Aleppo Codex from the 10th century, and the Leningrad Codex, from the early 11th century.
Only the Dead Sea Scrolls and a handful of fragmentary early medieval texts are older, and “an entire Hebrew Bible is relatively rare,” he said according to AP News.
The Codex Sassoon is currently mid-tour in Israel, having visited the UK, and going to the USA, before auction in May. ( Courtesy of Sotheby’s )
Just how much this rare example is worth will be discovered in May, but the experts are hopeful that it could be a record-breaking document sale and exceed the current holder of the most expensive historical document sold, which is a 1787 copy of the U.S. Constitution sold in 2021 for $43 million.
Masoretic Annotations and the Codex Sassoon
One of the unique features of the Codex Sassoon is its Masoretic annotations. The Masorah is a system of notes and symbols that were added to the text of the Hebrew Bible to ensure its accuracy and preserve its transmission over generations.
The Masoretes were a group of Jewish scholars who developed this system in the early Middle Ages, between the 6th and 11th centuries AD. Their work was essential in standardizing the text and vocalization of the Hebrew Bible, ensuring that it remained consistent across different communities and geographic regions. Their primary task was to preserve and transmit the oral traditions that had been handed down from generation to generation about the correct pronunciation, spelling, and punctuation of the Tanakh.
The Masorah contains various types of notes, such as marginal notes that indicate alternative readings, notes on the pronunciation of words, and notes on the structure and layout of the text. These notes are written in a variety of scripts and styles, making the study of the Masorah a challenging and specialized field.
Close up of the Codex Sassoon showing the writing on vellum, a parchment made from animal skin. ( Courtesy of Sotheby’s )
The Most Comprehensive Hebrew Canon?
The Codex Sassoon is particularly significant because it contains one of the most extensive Masoretic annotations of any known manuscript. The annotations include both traditional Masorah notes and a newer form of notes known as Masorah magna, which provides additional information on the text’s structure and organization. The extensive annotations make the Codex Sassoon a crucial source for scholars studying the Masorah and its development over time.
However, it is by no means a canonical authority over works like the Aleppo Codex, for example, reports The Associated Press . “Any Masoretic scholar in their right mind would take the Aleppo Codex over the Sassoon Codex, without any regret or hesitation,” said Kim Phillips, a Bible expert at the Cambridge University Library. He said the scribal quality was “surprisingly sloppy” compared to its counterpart.
The Aleppo Codex, which has been dated to around 930 AD, has long been considered the gold standard of the Masoretic Bibles for almost 1,000 years. It is much more precise than the Sassoon Codex, but missing a third of its pages, which are rather significant in the larger scheme of things. The Codex Sassoon’s 792 pages make up around 92% of the Hebrew Bible.
Development of the Codex Sassoon: A Journey Through Time
In addition to its Masoretic annotations, the Codex Sassoon is significant for its role in the transmission of the Hebrew Bible. The codex was likely produced in the Middle East, possibly in Iraq or Iran, during the ninth or tenth century AD.
This period saw significant cultural and intellectual development in the Jewish community of the Middle East, with scholars producing numerous works on theology, philosophy, and Jewish law. The Codex Sassoon represents a culmination of this intellectual ferment.
The codex’s journey from its original creation to its current location is also a fascinating story. The Codex Sassoon was originally housed in the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, in what is now Syria. The synagogue was a center of Jewish learning and culture for centuries, and the Codex Sassoon was one of its most prized possessions. For 500 years in the middle, its whereabouts were unknown.
It was only in 1958 that the codex reappeared on the market, having been acquired by David Solomon Sassoon, a prominent Jewish philanthropist and collector of manuscripts. Sassoon purchased the codex for £350 ($430) and brought it to his home in London, where it remained until his death in 1947. Since then, the Codex Sassoon has passed through several hands and has been exhibited in various locations around the world.
“People in all walks of life, for whom the Bible is a very powerful document, the word of God, are drawn to it. It is not just for the Jewish people. It is also important for Christianity and Islam,” offered Sharon Mintz, part of the Sotheby’s Books and Manuscripts Department.
Just how valuable in monetary terms will be discovered when it goes under the hammer in May. It could become the most valuable historical document in the world.
Top image: Sharon Mintz of Sotherby’s with the Codex Sassoon, oldest Hebrew Bible. Source: Courtesy of Sotheby’s
By Sahir Pandey
Davis, B. 2023. Codex Sassoon: One of the most valuable manuscripts comes to Ramat Aviv . Available at: https://www.jpost.com/must/article-735180.
Jackson, F. 2023. Oldest most complete Hebrew Bible created by a scribe in Egypt 1,100 years ago is going up for auction – and experts say it could fetch a staggering $50 MILLION . Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-11906475/Oldest-complete-Hebrew-Bible-created-1-100-years-ago-fetch-50-MILLION-auction.html.
Steinberg, J. 2023. Oldest and most complete Hebrew Bible manuscript on display in Israel for 1st time . Available at: https://www.timesofisrael.com/oldest-and-most-complete-hebrew-bible-manuscript-on-display-in-israel-for-1st-time/.
Zion, I.B. 2023. One of the oldest surviving Bibles could be yours — for $30 million . Available at: https://apnews.com/article/israel-sassoon-codex-sothebys-bible-auction-dca8dc9d9bd5a79903ce693bdc26e0f5.
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