Ninth-century Codex Sassoon, critical link between Dead Sea scrolls and today’s Bible, will have estimate of $30m-$50m
Nadia Khomami Arts and culture correspondentWed 15 Feb 2023
The earliest and most complete Hebrew Bible ever discovered – a “vital touchstone of human history” that dates back more than 1,100 years – is to be sold at auction.
The ninth-century volume, referred to as the Codex Sassoon, is a critical link between the Dead Sea scrolls and the Bible of today. It is being offered by Sotheby’s with an estimate of $30m-$50m (£25m-£42m), making it the most valuable historical document or manuscript to appear at auction.
Composed of 24 books divided into three parts – the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings – the Hebrew Bible is the foundation of Judaism and other Abrahamic faiths. In Christianity, the texts are referred to as the Old Testament and are incorporated into the biblical canon. Islam also holds the stories of the Hebrew Bible in special regard, with many of them included in the Qur’an and other significant works of Islamic literature.
“The Hebrew Bible is the sacred, foundational text for peoples across the globe,” said Sharon Mintz, Sotheby’s senior Judaica specialist. “For thousands of years, the faithful have closely studied, analysed, mediated on and delved into the holy scriptures – it is the first book of the people of the Book – to acquire wisdom and attain spiritual enlightenment.
“In Codex Sassoon, a monumental transformation in the history of the Hebrew Bible is revealed, bringing to light the full story of the Hebrew Bible that had previously never been presented in book form. [It] marks a critical turning point in how we perceive the history of the divine word across thousands of years, and is a transformative witness to how the Hebrew Bible has influenced the pillars of civilisation – art, culture, law, politics – for centuries.”
Before the first codices (manuscripts in book form) of the Hebrew Bible, there existed only portions or sections of biblical texts in scroll form. Known as the Dead Sea scrolls, they date to the third century BC – but they were copied without punctuation or vocalisation and contained no verses or chapters. This meant the correct reading of the scrolls was not easily apparent; instead Jews in antiquity relied on inherited oral traditions to understand, preserve and transmit the words of the Hebrew Bible.
The Codex Sassoon is named after its prominent modern owner, David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), who assembled the most significant private collection of Jewish artefacts and Hebrew manuscripts in the world.
It comes to auction from the collection of Jacqui Safra and will be sold in New York this May. The record for the most valuable historical text and manuscript sold at auction is held by the first printing of the US constitution, which sold for $43m in November 2021.
While Codex Sassoon has been recognised for its importance by scholars for generations, it has remained virtually out of public view for centuries and will be exhibited for the first time in 40 years next week at Sotheby’s London before a worldwide tour.
The manuscript also includes annotations from several owners throughout the centuries, including an entry dating to the early 11th century referencing a sale by Khalaf ben Abraham, assumed to be a near eastern businessman active in Israel and Syria, to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar.
In the 13th century or later, the codex was dedicated to the synagogue of Makisin (present-day Markada in north-east Syria). When the town of Makisin was destroyed, perhaps by the Mongols in the 13th century or by Tamerlane’s troops in 1400, the codex was entrusted to the care of a community member, Salama bin Abi al-Fakhr. Sassoon ultimately acquired the codex in 1929.
Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts, said Codex Sassoon was “undeniably one of the most important and singular texts in human history”.
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