In the second half of the first millennium, Jewish scribes began composing codices—handwritten books as opposed to more traditional scrolls—of the Hebrew Bible, complete with vowel and cantillation markings and marginal notations meant to preserve the text precisely. One such codex, which belonged to a synagogue in northeastern Syria until the 13th or 14th century, was acquired by the Bombay-born Anglo-Jewish collector David Solomon Sassoon in 1929. It is now slotted to go up for auction at Sotheby’s. Jennifer Schuessler tells its story:
Sharon Liberman Mintz, the auction house’s senior Judaica consultant . . . pointed out the two versions of the Ten Commandments, a beautifully calligraphic rendering of the Song of Deborah and, more prosaically, places where small tears had been stitched together with thread or sinew.
The Codex Sassoon, as it’s known, is being billed by Sotheby’s as the earliest example of a nearly complete codex containing all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible. (It is missing about five leaves, including the first ten chapters of Genesis.) . . . The book, which measures about twelve by fourteen inches and weighs 26 pounds, is housed in an unprepossessing early 20th-century brown leather binding.
Today, two other complete or substantially complete Hebrew Bibles from this period are known to survive. The Aleppo Codex, held in the Israel Museum, was created around 930. It’s missing almost two-fifths of its pages, including most of the Pentateuch. The Leningrad Codex, held in the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg, is fully complete, but dates from around 1008.
When Sassoon bought his codex in 1929, he dated it to the 10th century. It was believed to be more recent than the Aleppo Codex but, with only about five leaves missing, substantially more complete. Beginning in the 1960s, . . . scholars began to believe that the Sassoon Codex was created a bit earlier, around the time of the Aleppo Codex, or perhaps earlier. A recent carbon-dating by the seller—reviewed and endorsed by Sotheby’s—affirmed that, giving the Sassoon plausible bragging rights as the oldest nearly complete Hebrew Bible.