Sotheby’s, which touts itself as the “most trusted and dynamic marketplace for art and luxury,” has made waves with its announcement that it will be auctioning off the Codex Sassoon, the world’s oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, this May. The Bible is being sold by Jacui Safra, a Swiss investor and collector. “The Bible is one of the world’s greatest treasures and holds powerful resonance for the three monotheistic religions and their billions of adherents. For thousands of years, its sacred words have been closely studied, analyzed, and meditated on,” the announcement noted. “Codex Sassoon created circa 900,” it added, “is the earliest surviving example of a single codex containing all the books of the Hebrew Bible with their punctuation, vowels, and accents.”

Called the Codex Sassoon after its former modern owner, David Solomon Sassoon, the book dates to the late 9th century and early 10th century. Safra had the Codex carbon dated, which confirmed these dates. It contains all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, with only 15 chapters missing, 10 of which are from Genesis. The earliest fully complete Hebrew Bible is called the Leningrad Codex and dates from the 11th century, nearly a century after the Codex Sassoon. Sassoon was a private collector who collected many ancient Biblical texts, purchasing the Codex in 1929 as the last piece of his books. The Codex is so named a “codex” due to being written on parchment. 

The Codex’s history before coming into Sassoon’s hands is shrouded in mystery. It can be traced to various passing hands from the 11th to 13th centuries throughout Syria before it disappeared from all knowledge from the late 1400s until a man by the name of Aron Freimann, a scholar of Hebrew manuscripts, reached out to Sassoon in 1929 about purchasing it. What Freimann knew about the Codex’s time from 1400 on is lost as his personal papers were lost when he fled Nazi Germany. 

Sotheby’s stressed the Codex’s importance to the transference of the Bible, acting as a “crucial bridge” between the Dead Sea scrolls, which contain the earliest writings of the Hebrew Bible and has been dated from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD. “It standardized and stabilized the Hebrew text of the Bible,” said Sharon Mintz, senior Judaica specialist at Sotheby’s. Because of the Codex’s age and contribution to history, the Codex could very well become the most expensive historical document ever, with some estimating it could sell for up to $50 million. Mintz stressed the uniqueness of the Codex, saying, “This is one of the world’s greatest treasures. We looked at other items that have sold recently and priced it according to how highly we value it and how highly the world will value it. This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity.”

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