Oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, Codex Sassoon, auctioned by Sotheby’s
The Codex Sassoon — named after its former owner, British collector David Solomon Sassoon — is thought to date from the late 9th or early 10th century.
It is one of only two surviving codices from that period of history that comprise “almost the entire Hebrew Bible,” Sotheby’s says. The other, known as the Aleppo Codex, dates from 930 but is missing roughly 40 percent of its pages. Carbon dating arranged by the current owner confirmed the Codex Sassoon is of a similar age, but “significantly more complete,” Sotheby’s said. The auction house believes that the Codex Sassoon is almost a century older than the earliest complete Hebrew Bible, the Leningrad Codex.
“Codex Sassoon has long held a revered and fabled place in the pantheon of surviving historic documents and is undeniably one of the most important and singular texts in human history,” Richard Austin, Sotheby’s global head of books and manuscripts, said in a news release on Wednesday announcing the auction.
Because the Codex Sassoon has survived through the ages in near-complete form — containing all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, with only about 15 pages of biblical text missing — it provides “critical insight into the development and spread of Abrahamic religions as well as the broader transition from oral to literary traditions,” Sotheby’s said.
It also gives a window into “the history of the Levant in the Middle Ages,” with inscriptions and markings that trace its ownership and travels through time.
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According to Sotheby’s, the Codex Sassoon was created during a period in which Jewish scholar-scribes known as Masoretes worked to codify and standardize the text of the Hebrew Bible to ensure it could be transmitted down accurately through generations. Their markings, which indicate punctuation and vowels, among other things, made it possible to pronounce and interpret early biblical texts, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written on scrolls and were difficult to parse through.
The manuscript is known to have changed hands many times, beginning shortly after its creation, when it was sold by businessman Khalaf ben Abraham to Isaac ben Ezekiel al-Attar, who then passed it onto his sons.
In the 13th century, the Codex Sassoon was dedicated to the synagogue in the city of Makisin, in northeast Syria, which is located near Syria’s modern-day border with Iraq. After Makisin was destroyed in the 13th or 14th century, “the Codex was entrusted for safekeeping to Salama ibn Abi al-Fakhr, who was required to return it once the synagogue was rebuilt,” Sotheby’s said.
But the synagogue was never rebuilt, and “the Codex’s odyssey continued” — until Sassoon, a collector of Judaica from a prominent family that made its fortune in the 18th century in India and China, bought it in 1929. It was eventually acquired by its current owner, Swiss investor Jacqui Safra.
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The modern-day auction of the document is noteworthy because “the Hebrew Bible is the sacred, foundational text for peoples across the globe,” Sharon Liberman Mintz, a senior Judaica specialist at Sotheby’s, said in a news release.
Sotheby’s said that, while religious scholars have known about the historical significance of the codex for over 60 years, the document “has remained largely out of public view for centuries,” last appearing in public 40 years ago.
That is now set to change: Ahead of the auction in May, the Codex Sassoon will be exhibited in London, Tel Aviv, Dallas, Los Angeles and New York in a “global tour” the auction house likely hopes will increase interest in the historic sale.
“In Codex Sassoon, a monumental transformation in the history of the Hebrew Bible is revealed,” Mintz said. “The biblical text in book format 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 civilization — art, culture, law, politics — for centuries.”