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World’s oldest Hebrew Bible up for auction on Tuesday, could fetch $50 million

This manuscript is expected to be sold for the highest amount of money that any document has ever been sold for when it’s auctioned off on Tuesday

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Sotheby’s unveils the Codex Sassoon for auction.

Sotheby’s unveils the Codex Sassoon for auction, Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2023, in the Manhattan borough of New York. The auction house is billing the lot as the “earliest, most complete Hebrew Bible ever discovered.”

John Minchillo, Associated Press

David Solomon Sassoon was the owner of one of the most impressive private collections of Hebrew manuscripts. Among his manuscripts was an early and complete Hebrew Bible, which was called the Codex Sassoon after him.

Now this manuscript, which is called “the earliest, most complete Hebrew Bible,” is up for auction at Sotheby’s. This document is expected to be sold for the highest amount of money that any document has ever been sold for when it’s auctioned off on Tuesday — up to $50 million.

Sassoon knew the Hebrew Bible “practically by heart,” per Sotheby’s. He was both a religious man and a successful scholar who was learned in ancient languages and contributed much to Jewish studies. The crowning jewel of his collection — Codex Sassoon — has brought him into public consciousness.

This manuscript is immensely valuable to Biblical scholars and the general public because of the capacity it has to illuminate history. As a text, the Hebrew Bible is utilized by the Abrahamic faiths and has been significantly influential. With a manuscript like the Codex Sassoon, light could be shed on additional mysteries. Textual changes and variations can be understood in a different way and a manuscript’s provenance — the record of transmission — tells us something about how texts were used.

In the world of Hebrew Bible manuscripts, there are three that are worth mentioning for context here: the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex.

What are the Dead Sea Scrolls?

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, it was something of a watershed moment for Biblical studies. They were found at the Qumran caves, which are in the desert of the West Bank, near the shores of the Dead Sea. The site itself is an enigma. Theories have circulated about the site ranging from a mysterious desert religious community (an offshoot from the Essenes) keeping these texts nearby to Jewish people fearing the destruction of their holy texts and hiding them in the desert. Scholars traditionally favored the former view, but it remains disputed while some modern scholars favor the latter view or a different theory.

Around 230 Biblical scrolls were found, according to the Leon Levy Dead Seas Scrolls Digital Library. They were found starting in 1947 and are dated to third century B.C. up through first century A.D., before the destruction of the temple in 70 A.D.. The scrolls are written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic, and are partial or extant (extant is the term text scholars use that means complete) copies of books in the Bible.

These manuscripts are hugely important, not only because of the text itself, but also because of the way they can be used to better understand Biblical history and the language of Hebrew itself. Studies on Isaiah changed significantly due to the Dead Sea Scrolls.

What is the Aleppo Codex?

The Aleppo Codex was written by scribes in Tiberias, Israel likely around 930 A.D. and is considered an important, early copy of the Hebrew Bible.

Named after where it remained for half a century (Aleppo, Syria), the Biblical Archaeology Society said that even though the Dead Sea Scrolls are older than this codex, this codex contains vowels and notes in the margins about the text. Having vowels in the text helps resolve some ambiguities about vocabulary and meaning while the marginal notations offer insight. It’s important to note that Biblical Hebrew does not use vowels traditionally.

This manuscript was scribed by Masoretes and punctuated by Aaron ben Asher. Masoretes is a general term that refers to Jewish scribes who were involved in what’s now known as the Masoretic Text, which is considered the authoritative text of the Hebrew Bible. They were in a school of thought that believed it’s imperative to try and reconstruct an authoritative version of the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretic text aligns quite well with the Dead Seas Scrolls, although there are some variants.

Scribes used manuscripts available to them and oral tradition to create this text. Oral tradition was critically important in ancient cultures, as production of texts was expensive and literacy rates were lower. The Hebrew Bible was transmitted orally as well.

In comparison to the Aleppo Codex, the Codex Sassoon was dated slightly later, originally to the 10th century, according to The New York Times. Carbon dating was done recently that confirmed the possibility of the Codex Sassoon actually being earlier than the Aleppo Codex and possibly the earliest extant manuscript. It’s also possible that the Codex Sassoon was written at around the same time as the Aleppo Codex.

What is the Leningrad Codex?

The Leningrad Codex was written around 1010 A.D. (it’s sometimes dated a couple years earlier), according to the West Semitic Research Project. This manuscript is also one of the texts that is considered part of the Masoretic texts.

One of the most authoritative Hebrew Bible editions “Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia” uses the Leningrad Codex as the basis. Previously, the Leningrad Codex was the oldest, extant manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. CBS News said that the Codex Sassoon is now considered older than the Leningrad Codex.

As mentioned earlier, carbon dating led to this determination of the text being slightly older than the Leningrad Codex (older by a century). While carbon dating is generally reliable, its accuracy typically is understood to be in terms of decades. It doesn’t provide an exact date, instead providing a date range, which is how the Codex Sassoon was determined to be slightly older than the Leningrad Codex.

Why should we care about the Codex Sassoon?

As the oldest extant (minus a couple leaves) manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, the Codex Sassoon holds an important place in our history and culture.

It’s important to remember that for hundreds of years, people couldn’t read the text themselves. Oral tradition was many people’s main way of accessing the text and it is because of that oral tradition along with smaller manuscripts that the Hebrew Bible exists in extant form today.

While we can pull out our phones and have access to dozens of translations of the Hebrew Bible in a whole slew of languages, this modern democratization of the text is only possible due to its preservation.