The Most Valuable Bible in the World

Sotheby’s in New York City has announced that, in May 2023, it will be auctioning off what it asserts to be “The Earliest Most Complete Hebrew Bible.”  Some observers believe that this antique artifact might sell for as much as $50 million, which would make it the highest-priced book ever purchased. 

Before we place our bid, however, let’s take a few moments to examine the book’s significance in terms of its impact on the Western tradition – and consider the auction house’s claim.  After that, we can discuss price. 

Codex Sassoon (shown in the above photo) is the “book version” of the Hebrew Bible (although, to be accurate, both the scroll and the page-bounded-codex formats are equally considered to be books).  Most importantly, this artifact is an extraordinary example of the Masoretic Text – the classic Hebrew manuscript tradition that underlies all Hebrew Bibles and most Christian Old Testaments published today. More on this concept of the “Masoretic Text” a little later.   

For now, we can say that this offering by Sotheby’s is a magnificent Tanakh – a 24-book “Hebrew Bible,” which except for missing a number of its original chapters, is equivalent to the 39 Old Testament books in today’s Protestant scriptures.  It is among the top half-dozen of nearly 30 surviving manuscripts produced by Jewish scribes in the Near East between 900 and 1200 CE. 

NOTE:  Since we are discussing important Hebrew artifacts, let’s use the dating abbreviation “CE” for Common Era where necessary in lieu of the more familiar “AD” (in the year of Our Lord).

According to a tally provided by Harvard scholar David Stern, the examples of this important Jewish genre that have survived to today include 21 Masoretic codices with dates recorded in colophons (scribe-provided appendices), 8 or 9 codices without colophons, and hundreds of leaves orphaned from their original works.     

Here’s the main takeaway:   the Masoretic Text has served as the core foundation for virtually all Hebrew Bibles for the last 1,000 years.  Equally significant, this text tradition has provided the primary Hebrew source for translating the Tanakh into vernacular languages for Old Testaments produced by Protestants since Pentateuchs first appeared in Luther’s and Zwingli’s Bibles in the 1520s.

Luther’s Pentateuch – Book of Genesis

Based Upon the Masoretic Text

Augsburg, 1523

(Author’s Collection)

Although Luther published his first edition of the New Testament in 1522, he would translate the Pentateuch into German one year later in 1523. 

Luther would lead a small team of collaborators in completing the rest of the Old Testament in 1534, including the Apocrypha.  Confirmed as deuterocanonical by Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox faiths, these works with names such as Tobit, Bel and the Dragon, and I & II Maccabees were not in the Hebrew Canon.  As such, Luther and other Reformers would relocate them from their original placement in the Old Testament of the Latin Vulgate Bible to a separate section just before the New Testament.    

For his German Pentateuch, Luther appears to have used one the earliest Masoretic Bibles ever printed – a Tanakh produced in 1494 by the Jewish Soncino family of publishers in Brescia, near modern-day Milano, Italy. 

As Luther was working on his Bible to support the German Reformation north of the Alps, Huldrych Zwingli and his co-translator Leo Jud would advance the Reformed Movement by completing the Swiss-German translation of the entire Zurich Bible, including the Old Testament, in 1531.

Both Luther and Zwingli would take advantage of the Masoretic-based Rabbinic Bibles being produced at the dawn of the Reformation by Flemish printer Daniel Bomberg, a Christian newcomer to the Most Serene Republic of Venice — a wealthy city-state located at the northern end of the Adriatic, which had become a safe-haven for many European and Mediterranean Jews forced out of their homelands.   

In 1517, one year after Erasmus of Rotterdam published in Basel, Switzerland, his revolutionary first edition of the Greek-Latin New Testament (Novum Instrumentum Omne), Bomberg would publish his First Rabbinic Bible, called the Mikra’ot Gedolot (“Large Scriptures” – referring to the size of the folio edition and the critical apparatus on each page).  This first of many “reference/study Bibles” to emerge during in the 16th Century was edited by Felix Pratensis, a classical Jewish scholar, who had converted to Christianity and had become an Augustinian monk.

Bomberg’s next effort would represent a vast improvement over his earlier version of the Hebrew scriptures.  It would have a similar effect on Old Testament scholarship as had Erasmus’s Greek-Latin editions on the New Testament:  Bomberg’s Second Rabbinic Bible (and its derivatives) would dominate the market for Masoretic baseline documents – especially for Christian translators of the Old Testament – up until the 20th Century.

For his Second Edition published in 1524-25, Bomberg would make good use of the editorial acumen of Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adoniyahu, a Jewish Sephardic scholar, who had emigrated from Tunisia to Venice.  Ibn Adoniyahu re-organized the format for each page by expanding the critical apparatus employed for exegesis, study, and translation of the Hebrew into vernacular European tongues.

Virtually all of the Christian-published Hebrew editions used by Reformation-era translators would be Masoretic and based upon the Flemish printer’s productions.    

Eight decades later, subsequent printings of Bomberg’s Second Rabbinic Bible, supplemented by other Masoretic-based scripture produced by Christian publishers, such as Sebastian Munster’s 1534-35 Hebraica Biblia (featuring a Latin translation), would serve as the primary Hebrew and Aramaic sources for the King James companies of translators working on the Old Testament (1604-1611). 

By the mid-Twentieth Century, a Masoretic Bible that currently resides in the Russian Federation (read on) would finally overtake Bomberg’s Second Rabbinic edition as the go-to Hebrew language source for the majority of Bibles produced for the Judeo-Christian world. 

Today, the Latin Vulgate remains authoritative for Roman Catholics – as does the Septuagint for the Greek Orthodox church – particularly when used in traditional liturgical settings.  However, even these long-established Christian faiths often consult the Masoretic Text for their translations of the Old Testament into modern languages – especially for ecumenically developed Bibles, such as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).  A slightly modified NRSV-UE (Updated Edition), factoring in several new sources (discussed below), was released in 2022.

The term “Masoretic Text” derives its name from Jewish scribes – the Masoretes – who, for over four centuries (from approximately 600 CE to 1000 CE) had been developing rather idiosyncratic methods for tracking the variations within and between the Bible manuscripts being produced by hand. 

Although the origin of the appellation “Masorete” remains debated, most scholars believe the term to be associated with the concept of “one who counts” – which is similar to the meaning behind the term sofer, used to designate a qualified Hebrew scribe today.  This makes perfect sense, as these Medieval copyists did keep count of the variations within and between manuscripts, particularly in spelling and word choice; and the Masoretes would often provide a tally of their findings. 

Indeed, one of the important requirements of a Sofer sTaM – a modern Jewish scribe who performs the sacred duty of producing by hand a Sefer Torah (the scroll form of the Pentateuch) – is to count three times the number of letters in the Torah that he has painstakingly completed.  (Today, that labor-intensive requirement for Torah proof-reading is often fulfilled by means of a computer scanning program.)     

So how many letters are there supposed to be in a Sefer Torah?  Answer:  304,805.     

Today, when a member of an Orthodox Jewish congregation takes the lead in reading from the first five books of Moses during a worship service, that individual is expected to use a Sefer Torah (the scroll form) – one that has been faithfully produced through the efforts of a sofer scribe and thoroughly checked for errors. 

Nevertheless, the printed codex (modern bounded-book) format of the Hebrew Bible is perfectly acceptable for personal study and reading in the pews. 

Often, the preferred codex version of the Hebrew Bible is the Chumash – shorthand for “five-fifths” of the Torah – or the five parts of the Torah (e.g., the Pentateuch).  However, Chumashim typically contain much more than just the five books of Moses.

The first section a modern Chumash (such as the Stone Edition of the “ArtScroll Series,” published by Mesorah Publications, Ltd., in New York City) provides the Torah passages in Hebrew; but each page also features a Targum in Aramaic – an authoritative translation recorded by First Century CE sage Onkelos.  In English-speaking countries, an English translation of the reading is provided on the same page.  Moreover, the Bible passages include extensive interpretive notes provided by eminent Jewish scholars from the past; most often, these are observations furnished by 11th Century French Rabbi “Rashi,” who Maimonides, writing about a century later, would proclaim as the “Father of Commentators.” 

A Chumash also contains selected passages from the Nevi’im (“Prophets”), which is the second division of the tripartite Hebrew scriptures (the third division being the Ketuvim or “Writings”).  The Nevi’im portion of the Chumash provides the Haftarot readings (or Haftaros) for the serviceThese are correlative passages that support the Torah readings, the highest authority of Jewish Scripture. 

For example, during Shabbat services for Orthodox congregations who observe Ashkenazic traditions, a Kohen (a priestly function determined by genealogy) first reads the weekly Torah selection from a scroll.  Next, a Levite (also a hereditary-honorific office) reads the corresponding Haftarah passage from a separate scroll.  This rotation between Torah and Haftarot readings may take place several times over the course of the service.  As the Kohen and Levite read from the scroll versions of the Bible, those in the congregation may follow along and participate in the oral blessings and responsive readings provided in their Chumashim.     

Scholars are uncertain as to when the practice of linking passages from the Prophets to specific teachings in the Torah first began.  According to one leading Rabbinic tradition, it started during the reign of Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the early part of the 2nd Century BCE (Before the Common Era).  The king had implemented a series of draconian laws designed to “Hellenize” his Jewish subjects. 

One such edict issued by this Greek-speaking tyrant was to ban all public readings of the Torah.  Devout Jews responded by circumventing this decree:  they read from the Prophets instead.  This quiet protest continued until Judea was liberated during the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s BCE, when Jews could again read the “teachings of Moses” without fear.  However, they would henceforth follow the Torah passages with corresponding readings from the Prophets.      

According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus began his ministry in Nazareth nearly two centuries later by reading from the book of Isaiah, which had been handed to him by the leader of the synagogue.  In this regard, Jesus was perhaps performing the function that had begun to take root by then:  the public reading on Shabbat of a corelative Haftarah passage that complemented the preceding Torah reading. 

Much later, as the Mishnah (the oral elaboration of the written Mosaic law) and other Rabbinic writings were being codified (about 200 CE), specific Haftarot readings began to be liturgically linked up with their Torah counterparts.   

No doubt, as Jesus was about to begin those Sabbath readings in that small Galilean meeting house, he would have been handed the scroll version of Isaiah. 

The codex format – for which a scribe would write on both sides of the papyrus or parchment, sew the pages together, and then add some bark or leather for a spine and cover – had just been invented by the Romans and was in its infancy in the form of small wax-covered notepads. 

As evidenced by Rylands P52 – a small papyrus fragment from the Gospel of John, which may be the oldest extant passage from the New Testament – Christians would begin transitioning from scrolls to the more user-friendly and less costly two-sided codex format roughly 100 years after Jesus’s ministry.  It would take the rest of the Greco-Roman world several more centuries to follow suit.  Jewish counterparts would adopt the codex much later, and this was most likely due to exterior cultural influences resulting from the historical reality that most Jewish scribes at the time were living in the Islamic world.  (Muslims would adopt the codex format for the Quran early on.)

Often, early Masoretic codices featuring the Torah and Haftarot included a section called the Hamisch Megillot (the “Five Megillos” or “Scrolls”).  This section consists of short books from the Ketuvim (Writings), the third division of the Tanakh (the complete Hebrew Bible). Passages from these works remain in modern Chumashim and are still read during festivals as follows:

  • Purim:  Esther  
  • Passover:  Song of Songs
  • Shavuot (Pentecost):  Ruth
  • Ninth of Av (the Destruction of the Temple):  Lamentations
  • Sukkot (Tabernacles):  Ecclesiastes

Regardless of the format – e.g., the scroll form or the two-sided page-bounded codex – today’s Hebrew Bibles and Christian Old Testaments are direct descendants of the manuscript tradition that became stabilized through the efforts of the Masoretes no later than the 10th Century CE.     

The system of notations created by these Medieval scribes is called the Masorah.  The term is in a sense a homonym for the similar-sounding Hebrew word for “tradition” (as in the song from “The Fiddler on the Roof”); however, the origins of the two terms are apparently distinct. 

Indeed, today we can consider the Masoretic Text as the “traditional” version of the Hebrew Bible.  However, to fully grasp the complexity of the process, we need to consider the etymological origins of the term “Masorah” in the context of the “counting scribes” and the system that gave birth to this enduring textual tradition.

The purposes of the Masorah can be summed up as follows:  (a) to promote the technical accuracy of the written text, and (b) to ensure the correct reading of the text.  However, the primary goal of the Masoretes was always to preserve for successive generations the most authoritative version of the written word.  

Let’s take a glimpse into the inner workings of the “Masorah system” by examining the notations in the following photo of a leaf from the Aleppo Codex.

First, we’ll consider the “Masorah Parva.”  The “Parva” is the series of often single-letter abbreviations inserted between the margins used to call out a variation, perhaps in spelling or the inconsistent use of a word.  More often than not, the Parva abbreviation identifies an exception to the norm or an omission – and the notation informs the reader how many times that variation shows up in the codex. 

The Masoretes did not use Arabic numerals.  Instead they employed Aramaic “square-shaped” letters to identify the times that interesting variations appeared in the text (e.g., ב = 2 , ג = 3 , ד = 4).  As this was five-hundred years before dictionaries would make their debut in Europe – and more than a thousand years before the invention of modern spell-checkers and text editors — these “counting scribes” seemed to fixate on unique spelling, grammatical choices, and omissions.  The most common Parva symbol was the “lamed” (ל) – an abbreviation for the Aramaic word “none.”  It was polite way of noting that this was the only place in the entire codex (or book) where that unique spelling (or other variation) appears.

For example, if the Masorete checking the copyist’s work noted the same unusual variation in spelling, word choice, or tense appearing in other places, the Parva notation would call out the number of times the feature occurred. The “Masorah Magna” – the micro-script written along the top or bottom of the pages – in turn would direct the reader to those other locations. 

At times, the “Magna” notation might provide a brief elaboration regarding the issue and offer a comparison of an alternative spelling or word with a different meaning found elsewhere in the same text or even in other Bibles.  In that sense, the Magna notations functioned similar to modern footnotes.  Rarely, however, would a Magna comment offer an extensive exegetical analysis beyond the morphological or mechanical implications of the variation. 

Lastly, the “Masorah Finalis,” which was written on a separate page placed at the end of the section or book, would provide a statistical recap of some the variations.   The “Finalis” would often include interesting data, such as the total number of words in the section or book, the middle word, and the middle consonant.  At times, Masorah Magna comments too long for inclusion on the relevant page would be added to the end of a section.

The artfully affixed Masorah Parva and Magna notations seem to beautifully decorate the pages, reflecting the styles of the individual scribes.  Because the main purpose of these marginal flourishes was to moderate further variations by subsequent copyists, the Masorah is often referred to as “the Fence Around the Torah.”    

This rather gentle but complex process – that of noting variations in the manuscript without directly criticizing or correcting the scribe who first copied the biblical text –  resulted over time in the reduction of the types of mechanical deviations in the Hebrew scriptures that the Masoretes thought substantive enough to address up front. The Masoretes’ centuries-long efforts did reduce subsequent scribal errors. By contrast, Christian scribes working on Bibles in the scriptoria of Europe would continue to be plagued by compounded transcription problems through the introduction of the printing press. 

It should be noted as well that, while the Masorah notations varied from scribe-to-scribe, the end result would be the same:  the stabilization of the textual tradition of the Hebrew Bible more than four centuries before the dawn of the Reformation.    

No later than 600 CE would the first Masorete scribes begin working semi-independently in three major Jewish centers in the Islamic world – “Babylonia” (Mesopotamia), Palestine, and the Galilee.

Eventually, the family of Masoretes headed by Aaron ben Moses ben Asher, who resided in the town of Tiberias on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, would produce the codex-formatted Bibles that would set the standard moving forward. 

The suzerainty that these Tiberian Masoretes achieved in the craft of Bible transcription was facilitated in part by their refinement of one of the vocalization schemes for reading and chanting the verses.  In effect, they achieved a happy marriage between a stable written text and a distinct but colorful oral tradition.  

The Tiberian vocalization system perfected by the Ben Ashers featured vowel notations (dots and lines, called niqud), which were affixed to existing letters in order to help shape the sounds of the consonants.  These “vowel points” were provided because the Hebrew alphabet, using the Aramaic square-shaped script, possesses virtually no vowels.  The scribes placed these ingenious markings below, above, and sometimes inside the affected consonants as guides to readers.   

Next, the Ben Asher scribes offered a highly popular system of cantillation tropes (te’amim), which served as musical guides to cantors for stressing syllables and chanting the Bible passages.

Often, one scribe would first perform the transcription of scripture using a vorlage (an authorized text placed “before the hand” and used as an example).  Then a second Masorete would add the vocalization and cantillation markings, and perhaps the punctuation.  According to colophons affixed at the end of some of the codices, scholars have determined that a third hand at times – in effect a “master Masorete” – would conduct the final review of the Bible and then painstakingly provide the critical and numerous Parva, Magna, and Finalis notations.

In summary, the centuries-long project of the Masoretes resolved three basic issues:  (a) it eliminated inconsistencies and produced a reasonably fixed written version of the Hebrew Bible; (b) it preserved for readers one of the primary oral traditions for pronouncing the words while reading out-loud; and (c) it offered successive generations clues as to how the verses of the Bible might be chanted.

According to David Stern, the popularity of the Ben Asher clan’s Bibles was furthered by the visual aspects of each page of their products – and the practicality of providing notations addressing all three of these issues on each page.

It is important to note that, although the text of today’s Sefer Torah is indeed “Masoretic” and thus largely unchanged over the centuries, the Masorah and the Tiberian vocalization notations remain absent from this scroll version of the Torah.  This was a requirement established much earlier by Rabbinic tradition.  By comparison, a modern Chumash retains the vocalization markings but excludes the Masorah notations that were present in the earlier codices produced during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.  Lastly, the commentaries in a modern Chumash tend to be far less concerned than the Masoretic notations about technical variations in the text and focus instead on exegetical analysis.

Let’s return briefly to the final stage of the age of the Masoretes.  The revered Jewish philosopher “Maimonides,” who had emigrated from Spain to Cairo in the 12th Century CE and created the famous treatise, the Mishnah Torah, declared one such Masoretic Bible produced by the Ben Asher family to be the most perfect representation of Scripture that he had ever seen.  Subsequent Masoretic Bibles would trace their lineage to that earlier ideal. 

Copied by hand onto parchment circa 930 CE, that important Bible is known today as “The Crown of Aleppo” – or simply “The Aleppo Codex.”  This extraordinary manuscript experienced considerable adventure traveling around the Near East before its surviving pages made their way to the “Shrine of the Book” at the Israel Museum in modern day Jerusalem.     

Unfortunately, only about 60 percent of the Aleppo Codex survives today; and most of the Torah is missing.  The official explanation for this tragic loss is that the codex, which had been safeguarded by Jews living in the Syrian city of Aleppo for over five centuries, suffered the ravages of a fire in 1947 resulting from Muslim riots protesting the United Nations’ recognition of the modern state of Israel. 

However, investigative reporter Matti Friedman, in his 2012 book, The Aleppo Codex, presents a convincing alternative case – that after having been smuggled out of Syria in the late 1950s almost entirely intact, the famed Bible was judicially confiscated from the Aleppo Jews by the secular Israeli government, which sought to preserve the new nation’s cultural legacy. 

In the course of the transfer of the Aleppo Codex, the pages mysteriously went missing while under the stewardship of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem (named for Yitzhak Ben-Ziv, the President of Israel at the time, who had founded the academic institution years before).  A well-respected scholar named Meir Benayahu was the managing director of the Ben-Zvi Institute while its founder was serving as Head of State. 

In negotiating his way through sealed court records and partially destroyed documents, author Matti Friedman discovered that Benayahu had been quietly dismissed from the Institute in 1970 for having peddled a number of artifacts and manuscripts under his organization’s care to outside collectors – perhaps as religious talismans.

Friedman’s theory, which no one has vigorously challenged, is that much earlier, Benayahu had sadly sold off the critical portions of what is perhaps the most significant manuscript in the entire Judeo-Christian canon to its highest bidder. 

To be frank, we may never know what exactly happened to the missing portions of the Aleppo Codex – undoubtedly the most influential Hebrew Bible of all time.  

Of the remaining Masoretic Bibles that have survived, the most authoritative example of Hebrew scripture next to the Aleppo Codex is the Leningrad Codex – known by manuscript specialists as Firkovich MS. Hebrew I B19a. 

Unlike the Aleppo Codex, the Leningrad Codex is virtually complete.  Coupled with the fact that the Aleppo Codex had never been thoroughly examined by modern scholars before it was smuggled out of Syria and 40 percent of its pages had been lost, the Leningrad Codex has served since the early 20th Century as the primary source for most modern versions of the Hebrew Bible and recent translations of Christian Old Testaments. 

Christian Bible translations produced in the 20th and 21st Centuries and their updates, such as the NRSV-UE, have undergone minor changes in response to Dead Sea Scroll finds published since the 1990s – modifications based in part on the few pre-Septuagint (LXX) fragments judged to be relevant.  However, even these partial scraps of parchment do not dislodge the Masoretic Text exemplified in the Leningrad Codex from its position as the most influential source for scholars seeking to refine modern versions of the Tanakh and the Christian Old Testament. 

The Leningrad Codex, which was produced in Cairo in 1008 CE, made its way to Ukraine in the 19th Century; and it eventually ended up in hands of the Russian National Library in St. Peterburg, where it resides today.  Buttressing its authority as the most definitive and complete of the Masoretic Bibles is the conclusion held by many scholars that the scribe who created the Leningrad Codex over 1,000 years ago used the Aleppo Codex as his vorlage (template).  To be sure, the surviving parts of the older Aleppo Codex are consulted in the rare instances where the Leningrad and Aleppo manuscripts diverge.     

The Museum of the Bible (MOTB) in Washington, D.C., owns two of the finest examples of Medieval Masoretic Texts produced during that same era.  To help conserve the artifacts, they are rotated from public viewing every few months.   

The Washington Pentateuch, the first of two exquisite Masoretic codices under MOTB’s care is one of the oldest, nearly complete Hebrew Bibles.  It features a Torah produced around 1000 CE, perhaps in Egypt.

During its initial sojourn in the Near East, a number of folios from the Washington Pentateuch were lost; but they were replaced in 1141 CE by a later scribe.  Because of its Tiberian vocalization notations, modern scholars believe that most of the Washington Pentateuch can be associated with the same scribes who produced the Aleppo and Leningrad Codices. 

The other beautiful Masoretic Bible at MOTB is the Codex Valmadonna I, which was completed in 1189 CE by Jews living in England during a perilous era of anti-Semitic persecution.  This extraordinary artifact is currently on display on the 4th Floor of the Museum, located near a colorful video projection of Maimonides describing his philosophy and legacy.

“Codex Valmadonna I” (named after the trust that once owned it) is an early example of an annotated Bible with Masoretic notations.  The codex features most of the Torah and the Haftorah readings from the Prophets, including Targum translations in Aramaic.  It also contains the Targumim for Ruth and Esther, both books of the “Five Scrolls” from the Ketuvim/WritingsThis beautifully crafted codex is an early forerunner of the modern Chumash used by Jews today.   

The term “holocaust” was first introduced into the Western lexicon by chroniclers  describing the murder of 150 Jews trapped inside “Clifford’s Tower” in the northern city of York in 1190 CE.  Following a series of pogroms throughout England about the time of Richard the Lionheart’s coronation, the ink on the Codex Valmadonna I had barely dried before this horrible event took place. 

One-hundred years later in 1290 CE, the Jews of England, who had been living in ever mounting fear – although supposedly protected as “wards of the Crown” – were expelled from Britain by King Edward I. 

Thanks to the Mel Gibson film Braveheart, Edward “Longshanks” (Edward I) is recalled in popular culture as “The Hammer of the Scots.”  What is less known is that, as Longshanks was finishing his hammering of both the Welsh and the Scots, this notorious Plantagenet villain stripped the Jews of England of their wealth and property, canceled the repayment of all loans owed to them (or made the balances payable to him), and crowded them onto boats (some derelict) for the perilous voyage across the choppy channel to the Continent.  According to Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), one English ship captain transporting expelled Jews to France via the Thames Estuary convinced his passengers to walk with him along the sandbank during low tide.  After reaching some distance from the boat, the captain suddenly ran back to his vessel as the tide was advancing, turned his ship back to London with the Jews’ possessions on board, and left his bewildered human cargo stuck in the mudflats to drown in the rising waters. 

After an absence of more than three-and-a-half centuries, in the 1650s, Jews began returning to the British Isles in relative safety.  This was the result of a propitious convergence of interests shared by Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell and scholar-publisher Menasseh Ben Israel (a Portuguese-born Rabbi living in Amsterdam).

I am fortunate to have in my possession a first quarto edition of the first Masoretic Bible edited and printed by a Jewish publisher north of the Alps (below).  The creator of that unique Tanakh was none other than Rabbi Ben Israel, who had negotiated with Cromwell the revocation of the expulsion order of King Edward I.  While Ben Israel owned his own printing house in Amsterdam, many of his publications were underwritten by Henricus Laurentius, whose name appears on the title page.  This rare Hebrew Bible was brought over to England by perhaps Ben Israel himself – or certainly by someone in the first wave of the returning Children of Israel.

Menasseh Ben Israel’s Biblia Hebraica (Amsterdam, 1631/1635)

(At one point during the latter half of the 17th century, this Hebrew Bible was owned by Thomas Neale:  Groom-Porter to Charles II, James II, and William III; Member of Parliament; Master of the Mint; and first Postmaster-General of the American Colonies.)


Getting back to Codex Sassoon – which is coming up for auction in New York – the question remains:  Considering its historical importance and superb example as an early Masoretic Text, can this book nevertheless challenge the status of the Leningrad Codex as “the earliest, most complete Hebrew Bible,” as Sotheby’s is asserting? 

First of all, Codex Sassoon is missing about 15 chapters, including much of the Book of Genesis.  Second, the claim by Sotheby’s that it was produced before the Leningrad Codex is based upon handwriting analysis (often subject to opinion) and by Carbon-14 dating of the parchment (the results of which are usually presented in a plus-or-minus range of several decades or more). 

By comparison, the date of the virtually intact Leningrad Codex can be established with far more precision as 1008 CE (plus or minus one year).  This is because both the date and place of its completion were inscribed in the colophon at the end of the codex by the very hand of the Masorete who completed the job.

Therefore, after careful consideration of these relatively minor flaws in the characterization by Sotheby’s of Codex Sassoon, if anyone is still interested in partnering up and throwing a few million dollars into the mix, I suggest that we “low-ball it” and offer only $39M in our opening bid. 😉


You may be asking at this point, if not Codex Sassoon — then which is “the most valuable Bible in the world”?

The answer to that question is easy:

Whether Jew or Christian, it is the Bible that each of us is currently reading.

* * * * *


Menasseh Ben Israel, Biblia Hebraica – Printed in Elegant Typeface:  A New Edition from the Most Accurate Review of the Most Learned and Famous of Hebrews Menasseh Ben Israel.  Amsterdam:  Underwritten by Hendrick Laurensz, Amsterdam Bookseller, 1631/1635.

Marc Brettler, “The Masoretes at Work,” Bible Review 13/4, 1997.

Ellis Brotzman and Eric Tully, Old Testament Textual Criticism (Second Ed.).  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2016.

Michael D. Coogan, Ed., The Oxford History of the Biblical World.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998.

Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations:  The Origin and Development of the Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 1999.

Matti Friedman, The Aleppo Codex:  In Pursuit of One of the World’s Most Coveted, Sacred, and Mysterious Books.  Chapel Hill:  Algonquin Books, 2012.

Ben Outhwaite, “Samuel ben Jacob:  the Leningrad Codex B19a,” Fragment of the Month.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Library, January 2016.

Ben Outhwaite, “The First Owners of the Leningrad Codex,” Fragment of the Month.  Cambridge:  Cambridge University Library, November 2017.

Rabbi Nosson Scherman, The Chumash (The Stone Edition):  The Torah, Haftaros and Five Megillos with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings.  Brooklyn:  The ArtScroll Series, Mesorah Publications, Ltd., 2001.

David Stern, The Jewish Bible:  A Material History.  Seattle:  University of Washington Press, 2017.

Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Third Ed.).  Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2012.

Details about the Washington Pentateuch and Codex Valmadonna I can be found on the MOTB website:

NOTE:   The analysis and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not represent the views of Museum of the Bible.


Copyright © 2023, Bruce D. Slawter

All rights reserved.

Categories: Uncategorized | 1 Comment

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One thought on “The Most Valuable Bible in the World

  1. Annalisa Parks

    Pretty amazing manuscript!

    Sent from my iPhone

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