One of the world’s oldest books is being put up for auction. Called the Sassoon Codex after one of its prior owners, the book is one of the earliest and most complete copies of the Hebrew Bible–including the Pentateuch, the Prophets, and the Writings. The book, pictured above, is thought to be about 1,100 years old. And, because it dates to a time centuries before the development of the printing press, the book was painstakingly handwritten by a careful scrivener, line by line.
Books contain history, but they also can become history. The Sassoon Codex includes some notations that reflect its personal history, including its sale in the 11th century, its dedication to a synagogue in a community in northeast Syria, and its entrustment to a member of the community when that community was attacked by invading troops long before Columbus sailed the Atlantic. And reading the book now (assuming you speak Hebrew) or simply turning the pages to admire the craftsmanship of the drafter would provide that sense you get whenever you touch an old object, or walk in an ancient place, of feeling physically connected to those who have been there long ago.
The sale of the Sassoon Codex made me wonder about where it ranks on the list of the oldest known books, as opposed to scrolls or tablets. One article listing 10 of the oldest known books (a list that does not include the Sassoon Codex, by the way) identifies the oldest known book as the Etruscan Gold Book, a six-page book made entirely of 24-carat gold that dates back to 660 B.C.–or more than 2,600 years ago. By way of comparison, the Gutenberg Bible, the world’s first book produced by a printing press, was produced in the 1450s, more than 2,000 years later.
Books that literate people can carry, treasure, and enjoy have been around for a long time.