Oldest Near-Complete Hebrew Bible To Be Displayed at Tel Aviv Museum

Thousand-year-old Codex Sassoon manuscript is expected to fetch up to $50 million at Sotheby’s.

By Etgar Lefkovits | | Topics: Bible
The Codex Sassoon (late ninth to early 10th century). Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's.
The Codex Sassoon (late ninth to early 10th century). Credit: Courtesy of Sotheby's.

The oldest near-complete edition of the Hebrew Bible, a manuscript from a millennium ago, will be on display on March 23-29 at the ANU—Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, the museum announced on Sunday.

The Codex Sassoon—which was shown to the public only once before, four decades ago—will then be displayed in Dallas, Los Angeles and New York before being auctioned at Sotheby’s in New York on May 16. It is expected to fetch an estimated $30 million-$50 million, making it potentially the most expensive book or historical document ever to be sold at auction.

In 2021, the auction house sold a first printing of the US Constitution for $43 million, setting a record for that category.

Dating from the late ninth to early 10th century CE, the Codex Sassoon—named after a former owner, British collector David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942)—is the earliest, most complete known copy of the Hebrew Bible. The only similarly ancient manuscript ever discovered is the Aleppo Codex, which dates from 930 CE but is missing roughly 40% of its pages.

The Codex Sassoon, which comes from around that same period, is more complete, with all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible present. Fifteen leaves are missing and many more are partially missing.

Carbon dating arranged by the current owner confirmed the Codex Sassoon is of a similar age to that of the Aleppo Codex but “significantly more complete,” according to the auction house. The manuscript, which measures about 12 by 14 inches and weighs 26 pounds, is housed in an early 20th-century nondescript brown leather binding.

The earliest known Hebrew biblical manuscripts are the Dead Sea Scrolls—which were discovered in caves between 1946 and 1956, and date from the third century BCE to the first century CE

Over the next seven centuries, the Hebrew Bible is believed to have been preserved and transmitted orally, with only fragments of texts ever uncovered from that period.

The Codex Sassoon text is identical to the Hebrew Bible read and studied around the world today.

It uses the Masoretic text, the authoritative and traditional text of the Hebrew Bible, named after the Masoretes, a group of scholar-scribes who lived primarily in the Land of Israel (Tiberias and Jerusalem) as well as in Babylonia (Iraq) from about the fifth to the 10th centuries and developed a meticulous system of annotation—known as nikkud—to ensure that the text would be read and pronounced properly.


Lost for six centuries

The manuscript changed hands many times, since shortly after its creation, and was considered lost for more than 600 years until it resurfaced in 1929, when Sassoon, a collector of Judaica from a prominent family that made its fortune in the 18th century in India and China, bought it. It was subsequently acquired by its current owner, Swiss financier and investor Jacqui Safra.

Ahead of the auction, the Codex Sassoon was exhibited at Sotheby’s in London, before coming to Tel Aviv.

Online registration is required for the viewing at ANU—Museum of the Jewish People (formerly the Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, or Beit Hatfutsot), with admission free of charge, the museum, which is located on the campus of Tel Aviv University, said.


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