Sotheby’s Unveils Codex Sassoon: The Earliest, Most Complete Hebrew Bible Ever Discovered.
Throughout thousands of years of human history, spanning ancient civilizations to today, few surviving artefacts have endured communicating the historical and cultural significance that have made them singular touchstones of the human experience, leaving an indelible imprint for all time.
From the cave paintings at Lascaux to the Pyramids of Giza to Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man, among a small handful of others, these monuments of humanity are unique treasures of history, each imparting a vast influence on the development of world culture.
Among this rarified group is Codex Sassoon: the earliest, most complete Hebrew Bible extant dating to the late ninth to the early tenth century, which has long been a foundational cornerstone to civilizations and communities around the globe and is arguably the most influential book in human history.
Composed of 24 books divided into three parts—the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings—the Hebrew Bible makes up the foundation for Judaism as well as the other Abrahamic faiths: Christianity, in which these texts are referred to as the Old Testament, and are incorporated into the biblical canon by the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant sects, among others; as well as Islam, which 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.
In the centuries prior to the very first codices, or manuscripts in book form, of the Hebrew Bible, of which Codex Sassoon is the earliest and most complete copy extant, there existed only portions or sections of biblical texts in scroll form. These manuscripts, known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, date as far back as the third century B.C.E. and were produced through the first century C.E.
However, these early biblical texts were copied in scroll format without punctuation or vocalization and contained no verses or chapters. The correct reading and comprehension of the biblical text found in the corpus of the Dead Sea Scrolls were not easily apparent. Instead, Jews in antiquity relied on inherited oral traditions, passed down from one generation to the next, to understand, preserve, and transmit the sacred words of the Hebrew Bible.
The codex is named for its prominent modern owner, David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), who assembled the most significant private collection of Judaica and Hebraica manuscripts in the world. Sassoon had a special affinity for Bibles in particular, and some of the most valuable and important items in his library belonged to this genre of Hebrew literature.
His collection catalogue, Ohel Dawid, begins and ends with biblical material, and Sassoon 1053 is its very last entry, giving pride of place to this monument of medieval Jewish civilization.
The Codex now comes to auction from the renowned collector Jacqui Safra, whose decades-long stewardship of the text produced the definitive scientific evidence, through authoritative carbon dating, which originates the text to the late ninth to the early tenth century, confirming scholars’ earlier research and making it of similar age to the Aleppo Codex, though the Codex Sassoon is significantly more complete.
Coming to auction for the first time in more than 30 years with an estimate of $30/50 million, Codex Sassoon will be the most valuable printed manuscript or historical document by estimate ever offered at auction. The auction will take place in New York this May, alongside Sotheby’s marquee sales of Contemporary and Modern Art, one of the most high-profile and anticipated moments of the annual auction calendar.
Sotheby’s recently established a new benchmark for historical text and manuscripts at auction with the sale of the first printing of the U.S. Constitution in November 2021 for $43 million, a record price.
While Codex Sassoon has been recognized 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. A worldwide exhibition tour will follow, including an exhibition at ANU Museum of the Jewish People in Israel in March.
“The Hebrew Bible is the sacred, foundational text for peoples across the globe. For thousands of years, the faithful have closely studied, analyzed, 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.Sharon Mintz, Sotheby’s Senior Judaica Specialist, Books & Manuscripts
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. Codex Sassoon 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.”