Is the Earliest, Most Complete Hebrew Bible Going on Auction? The sale of Codex Sassoon raises questions about what’s real and what’s hype about this important manuscript. Kim PhillipsUsually, those of us who work on mediaeval Hebrew Bible manuscripts sit quietly in our libraries and try not to get under anyone’s feet. However, once in a blue moon we get our moment in the sun (if you’ll forgive the mixed metaphor), and one of our treasured manuscripts captures the public’s attention. Usually that’s because it is being sold. Such is the case with the recent flurry of interest in the Sassoon Codex, due to be auctioned by Sotheby’s in May of this year. According to the estimates, it is possible that the codex will sell for $50 million, and thereby become the most valuable historical document ever auctioned. Sadly, looking at anything through the lens of a dollar sign can distort one’s vision of reality. Perhaps that is happening here. At any rate, what is certain is that a veritable dust cloud of exaggerations and half-truths are flying around in the press coverage of the imminent sale of Codex Sa$$oon. I would like to try and clear the air a little. What is the Sassoon Codex? The Sassoon Codex is a Hebrew Bible. Christians refer to the same text as the Old Testament. Many early mediaeval Hebrew Bible manuscripts only contain part of the scriptures: perhaps the Pentateuch only, or the prophetic books, or the Psalms. Relatively few early Hebrew Bible manuscripts contain the entire Hebrew Bible. Codex Sassoon is one of them. That turns out to be rather important later on. Codex Sassoon or Sassoon 1053 The word “codex” basically means: book, that is, something with pages connected to a spine that you can turn to quickly find your place. This is different to a scroll. If you want to read the last chapter of a story written in a scroll, you have no option but to laboriously unroll the entire thing until you get to the final part. So, codices have some significant advantages over scrolls, particularly if you want a quick peek at the end to see if he marries the girl, or if it really was the butler, in the drawing room, with the candlestick. Nonetheless, the scroll (rather than the codex) occupies a very special role in Jewish liturgy, and Jewish communities were rather slow to adopt the codex alongside the scroll, for writing the biblical text. In fact, it wasn’t until towards the end of the first millennium AD that Hebrew Bibles began to appear in codex form. So, this manuscript is part of the early shift to codex form. We’ll come back to that point in a bit. For a long time, this particular Hebrew Bible Codex was part of the massive Judaica collection belonging to David Sassoon, whence the name “Sassoon codex” (or Sassoon 1053, for those who like an extra slice of nerd with their nomenclature). Finally, it is important to explain that the Sassoon Codex—together with every other Hebrew Bible Codex from about AD 800 onwards—is a Masoretic Bible Codex. This simply means that it contains the Masoretic Text. Related The opening of Numbers in the Yonah Pentateuch (14th c.), showing its ornate micrography. BL Add MS 21160. Public domain The Extraordinary Hebrew Text behind Your English BibleThe Masoretic Text is the fruit of the genius of Jewish textual scholars who codified the pronunciation of the Hebrew text. Kim Phillips Now we are in a better position to address some of the exaggerations and half-truths in the media coverage of the Sassoon Codex. Half-truth 1 “It wasn’t until the early Middle Ages that scholars known as Masoretes … standardized the text of the Hebrew Bible, which had remained in flux since antiquity.” Sotheby’s To be frank, this is nonsense. Pure mashed potato. The consonantal text of what we now call the Hebrew Bible was fixed well before the birth of Christ, and there is a great deal of evidence that a firm tradition regarding the correct reading of that consonantal text was also fixed by that time. The genius of the Masoretes (Jewish scholars, roughly AD 600–900, particularly interested in the text of the Hebrew Bible) was not that they “standardized” the text of the Hebrew Bible, but that they (1) found ways to accurately represent in writing what had previously been preserved orally regarding the correct reading of the consonantal Hebrew text; (2) consolidated and developed a massive, intricate network of textual notes designed to prevent inadvertent changes to the text of the Hebrew Bible in the future. Get new articles and updates in your inbox. Leave this field empty if you're human: Half-truth 2 Between AD 100 and AD 800 the Hebrew Bible was only transmitted orally, rather than in writing. NY Times It is true that, today, very few traces survive of Hebrew Bible manuscripts written between about AD 100 to AD 800. Exceptions include the extraordinary Ein Gedi Leviticus Scroll, and—possibly—some of the scroll fragments currently housed in Cambridge University Library. However, this so-called “silent period” does not imply that the Hebrew Bible was transmitted only orally between those dates. On the contrary: stringent Jewish regulations stipulate that the biblical text must be read from a scroll in synagogue services—not recited from memory. These regulations were codified in around AD 600—right in the middle of the “silent period”! So where did all these Bible manuscripts go? Put simply: some went up in smoke, and some went down into the ground. The burning of synagogues in key Jewish centres (such as Jerusalem and Old Cairo) in the high Middle Ages is to be blamed for the loss of many Hebrew Bible manuscripts. Other Bible manuscripts, having been used to the point of being worn out beyond repair, were buried—according to Jewish custom. Half-truth 3 “In Codex Sassoon, a monumental transformation in the history of the Hebrew Bible is revealed, bringing to light the full story of the Hebrew Bible that had previously never been presented in book form.” Jewish Chronicle This is hype. Let’s take things more slowly. It is true, as explained above, that Judaism was relatively slow to adopt the codex format. Hebrew Bible codices—rather than scrolls—only start appearing towards the end of the first millennium AD. But let’s be clear: before that point the Hebrew Bible was written in scroll format! Related The Extraordinary Hebrew Text behind Your English BibleKim PhillipsAppreciating the Diverse Evidence from the Dead Sea ScrollsAnthony FergusonFour Benefits of Reading Greek ManuscriptsAmy S. Anderson It is also true that the Jewish scribal experts—the “Masoretes”—found ways of writing down the traditional way to read the consonantal biblical text. Before the Masoretes, this aspect of the biblical tradition had indeed been transmitted orally. So, the appearance of the Masoretic Text towards the end of the first millennium is a really, really significant stage in the history of the Hebrew Bible. If, in this third half-truth, we were to replace the words “Codex Sassoon” with the words “The Masoretic Text,” I would be the first to sign up in agreement. The Masoretic Text is a monumental transformation in the history of the Hebrew Bible. Above all, though, this particular half-truth gives the strong impression that Codex Sassoon is the first ever Hebrew Bible in codex form. This is overwhelmingly unlikely! Let’s unpack this further. As was mentioned earlier, Masoretic Hebrew Bible codices frequently contained only part of the Hebrew Bible as a whole. Pentateuch codices were most common. Codices containing the book of Psalms were very common, and so forth. Although dating these partial codices is frequently very difficult indeed, it is highly probable that many of them predate the Sassoon Codex. In fact, it is likely that whichever part of the biblical text you were to choose, I would be able to find you a codex-format manuscript containing the Masoretic Text of that section that predates Codex Sassoon. So, if Codex Sassoon has any particular claim to glory, it must be related to the fact that in this particular codex the entire Hebrew Bible is preserved in a single volume. So let’s try this for size: Possible truth “Codex Sassoon is the earliest Masoretic Hebrew Bible containing the entire text of the Hebrew Bible in a single volume!” Maybe. However, there are various difficulties in proving this claim. First, the claim that Codex Sassoon is from the late 9th or early 10th centuries is based on the results of carbon-dating. However, carbon-dating yields a range of possible dates for whatever is being dated, not a precise point in time. And there is at least one other codex vying for the privilege of being “The Earliest Masoretic Hebrew Bible Containing the Entire Text of the Hebrew Bible in a Single Volume.” That manuscript is the famous Aleppo Codex. The Aleppo Codex is thought to date from around 930 (though this date is itself contestable), and so it may well pip the Sassoon Codex to the post. In addition, there are various aspects of the Sassoon Codex that may point to a slightly later date rather than a slightly earlier one. These all get rather technical, but one illustration may be the use of the colon sign (called sof-pasuq) to mark the end of each biblical verse. It is thought that in the earliest Masoretic codices these dots were used less frequently (technically, they are redundant, as the end-of-verse is already indicated by the silluq accent on the last word of the verse). For example, in Codex Or. 4445, a Torah manuscript currently housed in the British Library and thought to date from the 9th–10th centuries, the sof-pasuq sign only occurs irregularly. However, in Codex Sassoon it appears more regularly, just like the codices from the later 10th century onwards. A snippet from Codex Sassoon (left), showing three sof-pasuq signs, and from Or. 4445 (right) showing the absence of three sof-pasuq signs. Another problem with this claim is that even if Codex Sassoon is indeed the earliest surviving “Masoretic Hebrew Bible Containing the Entire Text of the Hebrew Bible in a Single Volume,” this in no way implies that it was the first ever “Masoretic Hebrew Bible Containing the Entire Text of the Hebrew Bible in a Single Volume.” It is entirely possible that earlier such manuscripts existed, but have not survived. In fact, given our current limited state of knowledge, it is entirely possible that earlier such manuscripts existed, and have survived, but have not yet been recognized as such. One further point that is cropping up a lot in the media coverage is that, even if the Aleppo Codex does turn out to be earlier than Codex Sassoon, the Aleppo Codex is substantially damaged: most of the Torah is no longer available, and some of the later biblical books are very damaged, too. Of course, some of Codex Sassoon is also missing or damaged beyond repair, so even this claim to superiority is relative rather than absolute. The earliest complete Masoretic Hebrew Bible manuscript that survives in its entirety is still the Leningrad Codex, from around the year 1008. The earliest complete Masoretic Hebrew Bible manuscript that survives in its entirety is still the Leningrad Codex, from around the year 1008. Conclusion Codex Sassoon is a really important manuscript. It would definitely be one of my three desert-island Hebrew Bibles. But great importance must not be confused with superlative importance. Claims like “Codex Sassoon: The Earliest Most Complete Hebrew Bible” are nonsensical (a text can be complete, or incomplete, but how on earth can it be “most complete”?!) and grossly misleading. Happily, we can be thankful for this valuable witness to the text of the Old Testament even once the exaggeration is cleared away.