Oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible coming to SMU
Photo: Courtesy of Sotheby’s
The Codex Sassoon (late ninth to early 10th century)

By Etgar Lefkovits

(JNS) The oldest near-complete edition of the Hebrew Bible, a manuscript from a millennium ago, will be on display April 18-20 at SMU’s Bridwell Library. The exhibition marks the first public appearance of the Bible in the United States, following recent exhibitions in London and Tel Aviv.

The Codex Sassoon — which was shown to the public only once before, four decades ago — will then be displayed in 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 It is expected to fetch an estimated $30 million to $50 million, making it potentially the most expensive book or historical document ever to be sold at auction.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 U.S. 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 and ANU–Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv before coming to Dallas.

The Codex Sassoon will be on exhibit from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 18, and from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, April 19, and Thursday, April 20, at Bridwell Library, 6005 Bishop Blvd. on the SMU campus. Admission is free, but tickets are required. Visit https://info.smu.edu/codex-sassoon/ for tickets, registration, parking instructions and more information about special related events.

“The reach, impact and transformative value of the Codex Sassoon make it one of the most influential artifacts in world history to emerge over the last 1,000 years,” said Anthony Elia, director of SMU’s Bridwell Library and associate dean for special collections and academic publishing. “As the only university to exhibit the Codex on its tour, SMU and Bridwell Library are honored to share this treasure with the public.”

The Hebrew Bible will be at home among the other rare religious texts at Bridwell Library, SMU’s theology and religious studies library. SMU is one of the leading theological research institutions in the United States; Bridwell’s collections include ancient Egyptian and Assyrian artifacts; a sixth-century papyrus fragment of Paul’s epistle to the Romans; more than 220 illuminated manuscripts — handwritten and illustrated religious texts — dating to 1100 CE; pages of the 1455 Gutenberg Bible; and the first Bibles printed in German, Greek and English. The collection covers the history of Christianity, including materials from early Catholicism, the Protestant Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and the history of the United Methodist Church.

“The Codex Sassoon is one of those things that tie people together,” says Roy Heller, professor of the Hebrew Bible at SMU’s Perkins School of Theology.

He added, “The Codex Sassoon reflects the long tradition of scribal activity. There were probably thousands of copies of the Hebrew Bible and yet, we don’t have them because of forces that would subject them to being destroyed or because they decayed or wore out over time.

“The Codex Sassoon is a wonderful thing — it’s a treasure that has been hidden.” 

For more information, visit https://info.smu.edu/codex-sassoon/.

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