Codex Sassoon, possibly the earliest near-complete copy of the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) known to exist, sold for more than $38 million at auction on Wednesday.
The medieval codex contains all 24 books of the canonical Hebrew Bible, which are the same 39 books in the English Old Testament. With only a few pages completely missing and many others partially missing, Codex Sassoon is possibly the oldest known near-complete copy of the Hebrew Bible.
Sotheby’s announced Wednesday that the American Friends of ANU — Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv had won the auction. Thanks to a donation from Alfred H. Moses, the museum acquired Codex Sassoon for $38.1 million. It will be housed at the museum.
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“The Hebrew Bible is the most influential in history and constitutes the bedrock of Western Civilization,” Moses said in a statement. “I rejoice in knowing that it belongs to the Jewish people. It was my mission, realizing the historic significance of Codex Sassoon, to see it resides in a place with global access to all people.”
Before the auction, Sotheby’s estimated Codex Sassoon would go for between $30 million and $50 million, which could have made it the most expensive document ever to hit the auction block.
That honor currently goes to a first printing of the U.S. Constitution, which investor Ken Griffin acquired in 2021 for a modest $43.2 million.
What is the significance of Codex Sassoon?
Manuscript fragments notwithstanding, the earliest known copy of the Hebrew Bible is the Aleppo Codex, which scholars date to 930 AD. But significant portions of the Aleppo Codex are now missing, including most of the Pentateuch, or the first five books of the Old Testament.
Carbon-dating suggests Codex Sassoon is from the late 9th or early 10th century, making it a contemporary of the Aleppo Codex — or even earlier.
Moreover, the same scribal tradition responsible for the Aleppo Codex — the Masoretic tradition — is behind Codex Sassoon, and its masora magna, scribal notes in margins of the manuscript, refer to Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, a 10th-century scribe who added vowels and accent marks to the Aleppo Codex based on a tradition of vocalization and cantillation preserved from antiquity.
The authoritative Hebrew Bible, which scholars use for translations, is based on the Leningrad Codex, the earliest complete Hebrew Bible manuscript dated to 1008 AD.
All that to say, Codex Sassoon is an invaluable manuscript witness for Hebrew Bible scholars.
“Codex Sassoon is a really important manuscript,” wrote Hebrew Bible scholar Kim Phillips. “It would definitely be one of my three desert-island Hebrew Bibles.”
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