On Wednesday, the oldest near-complete Tanakh was purchased by a group of American philanthropists from Sotheby’s for $38.1 million. They plan to donate it to the Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv. Jennifer Schuessler writes:
The volume, known as the Codex Sassoon, includes all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, minus about eight leaves, including the first ten chapters of Genesis. Researchers have dated it to the late 9th or early 10th century, making it the oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible known to exist. Since 1989, it has been owned by the Swiss financier and collector Jacqui Safra, and has been seen by few scholars.
The price tag of $38.1 million, including buyer’s fees, may seem like a relative pittance compared with the stratospheric prices reached regularly at high-profile art auctions. But such figures are obtained only rarely for books and historical documents. . . . Even in its own time, the book was an expensive object, requiring the skins of easily more than 100 animals to create its roughly 400 parchment leaves. The text was written by a single scribe.
The Bible—one of only two complete or substantially complete Hebrew Bibles of the period known to survive—was made in present-day Israel or Syria. It contains what is known as the Masoretic text, after the Masoretes, a lineage of scholar-scribes who lived in Palestine and Babylonia from roughly the 6th to the 9th centuries, and who created systems of annotation to make sure the text would be read and transmitted properly.
The book also includes several inscriptions tracing changes in ownership across the centuries. The earliest is a deed of sale from around 1000 CE, indicating that it was sold by Khalaf ben Abraham, a businessman who worked in Palestine and Syria, to Isaac ben Ezekiel el-Attar, who ultimately gave it to his sons.