Codex Sassoon: The Oldest, Most Complete Hebrew Bible Goes to Auction

By Kris W. Sky | Posted March 27, 2023

More than a thousand years ago, an unidentified scribe painstakingly copied by hand onto parchment the 24 books of the Jewish Bible, what Christians know as the Old Testament. On May 16, this same Jewish Bible will be up for sale at Sotheby’s “with the highest auction estimate of any book or manuscript in the world to date”—a breathtaking $30 to $50 million.

The humble origins of this codex, a book “written on parchment and before the development of paper,” began, from what the experts can gather, by passing through the hands of several men before becoming the property of a synagogue in obscure Makisin, a bygone town once located in what is now Syria, in the 13th century. The synagogue, along with the entire town, was subsequently destroyed, but the codex was preserved—though seemingly fated to the burial grounds of undiscovered history. 

Yet half a millennium later, in 1929, “legendary collector of Jewish manuscripts” David Solomon Sassoon searched it out in Frankfurt, Germany, acquiring it for £350, a price “which at the time was more than all but four other manuscripts in his collection.”

It is from the prominent Sassoon that the coveted artifact bears its current name, yet it remained in his family only until 1978, some 30 years after Sassoon’s death. Its current owner, Jacqui Safra, purchased it for $4.19 million in 1989.

So why is this one Jewish Bible tickling the fancy of the rich and cultured of today?

Jewel in the Crown

“The earliest known writings of the Hebrew Bible are in the 230 fragments that comprise the Dead Sea Scrolls,” states an article in Barron’s. The Dead Sea Scrolls are dated from around the third century BC to the first century AD. There is then a large gap of about 700 years in our historical record of the written Hebrew Bible, with the next sources comprised of only two biblical codices dated from the ninth and tenth centuries. One of those sources is called the Aleppo Codex; the other is the Codex Sassoon.

While experts note its “pedigree and quality,” Sassoon fails to equal that of Aleppo; the former nonetheless surpasses the latter in its completeness; only “about 15 chapters are missing” from the entire 792 pages of the Codex Sassoon.

Also of significance is Codex Sassoon’s Masora, margin notes with instruction on pronunciation, punctuation, and overall recitation, even down to which vowels go with which written words. The Jewish alphabet consists of 22 letters, all consonants. So it follows that ancient Jewish writings, like the Dead Sea Scrolls, did not include any vowels whatsoever; punctuation and additional features like chapter breaks were also absent. The Jews relied on oral tradition to understand the text; that is, they read by combining the text with their meticulous memory of the words’ vowels and the sentences’ punctuation.

But beginning in the seventh century, “Jewish scholars known as Masoretes started codifying oral traditions of” the Hebrew Bible. Today, the Masoretic Text is basically used as the authoritative Hebrew Bible. And the Codex Sassoon is the most completed earliest version of it that we currently know.

For these reasons, this leather-bound 12-by-14-inch tome weighing in at 26 pounds represents the jewel in the crown of historical documents, touted by Sotheby’s as “a crucial bridge,” “one of the world’s greatest treasures,” and “foundational to civilization itself.”

The Free and Priceless Word of God

Before it goes under the hammer, the Codex Sassoon will be paraded globally in such places as Tel Aviv, where a limited number of museum-goers will be allowed to peruse the tome for a whole 10 minutes.

Doubtless, the Codex Sassoon is an exquisite specimen, but what is the reason according to the world? How many will scrabble frantically for a mere glimpse of it—while the Bible remains the best-selling least-read book 

of all time? How many millions will be poured out for it—when the Word of God is freely available, from hotel rooms to internet pages (Isaiah 55:1, 2)?

Amid the Codex Sassoon’s great fanfare, millions are perishing daily without knowing the Savior (Hosea 4:6). Tragically, ironically, does the world love what the codex represents rather than what’s actually in it?

New York City Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, in Sotheby’s promotional video for the celebrated tome, states: “The tradition explains that the will of God, the face of God, is forever beyond the grasp of humanity. The closest we can get is the text of the Torah, the Hebrew Bible.”

But read Psalm 40:8; John 7:17; Romans 12:2, for instance. God did not obscure His will from us. In fact, God gave us the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, so that we could know His will—which is our salvation (2 Peter 3:9). We do not have to grasp at straws. God has shown us His face. It is Jesus Christ, who came to Earth to walk among men and die for our salvation (2 Corinthians 4:6).

The best part is that the path of salvation is completely free of charge.

In the last days, the Bible predicts “a famine on the land … of hearing the words of the LORD” (Amos 8:11). Don’t wait until then, until it’s too late. Learn “How to Understand the Bible” now, study it for yourself with our Amazing Facts Study Guides, and get biblical insight into Determining the Will of God.

The Word of God is the greatest treasure that you have already been given—and it is priceless.

Kris W. Sky
Kris W. Sky is a writer and editor for Amazing Facts International and other online and print publications.

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