In the shadows of a history dating back more than a thousand years, Jewish scholars labored over what in the 10th century were already ancient scrolls. Masorete scribes and Talmudic rabbis were beginning to realize that a standard text of the Scriptures would be a boon to theological discussion and research.
Thus in A.D. 950 — before the foundations were laid for the great cathedrals of Notre Dame, Chartres and Canterbury, before a single Crusader set out from France for the Holy Land, before the great universities of Europe at Bologna or Paris were founded, before Aristotle had replaced Plato or the Neo-Platonists in esteemed philosophical circles, and even before the Great Schism of 1054 in which the Greek and Latin rite churches split into distinct branches of Christianity that exist to this day — a magnificent codex was in the making.
The codex was a manuscript of pages rather than a scroll, with three columns per page. Now known as the Codex Sassoon (CS), the book is more than 1,000 years old, contains all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible, consists of more than 750 pages of animal skins, and weighs a hefty 26.5 pounds.
It just sold at a Sotheby’s auction for more than a cool $38 million!
Leonardo da Vinci’s Codex Leicester sold for about $30 million in 1994, and in 2021, a first edition print copy of the U.S. Constitution fetched $43.2 million at an auction, a record for any book, manuscript, historical document or printed text.
But $38 million for a Bible?
What makes the Bible, even what we Christians call the “old” half of the Bible, so valuable?
A number of factors come into play, of course. The provenance of a book might make it valuable to collectors. The CS, according to one source, “is the earliest surviving example of a single manuscript containing all 24 books of the Hebrew Bible with punctuation, vowels and accents.”
The rarity of the book might amp its value. A used, 1941 first edition copy of the Nancy Drew tale of The Mystery at the Moss-Covered Mansion will set you back $32 on eBay.
Whether an antiquity is valuable depends on the eye of the beholder. If an artifact has perceived value, it is sought by collectors and aficionados.
So, the CS goes for $38 million.
Most reasonable people would agree that the Bible has value. Since Gutenberg inked up his press in the mid-1400s, the Bible has gone on to be history’s best-selling book ever. More than 5 billion copies have been sold or distributed, far outdistancing the Harry Potter series, the Quran, The Book of Mormon or The Little Prince. No one can say that the Bible has value because of its rarity. Thus, provenance is also not relevant, except possibly in the case of a thick 19th-century family Bible with brittle, yellowed pages for family genealogies and picture pages for hoary black-and-white photographs of bearded ancestors and white-capped aunties wearing black dresses and a stern countenance. A buyer might be interested in the history of such a Bible.
But why does the Bible really matter? Is it the creation story of today’s text?
We Christians cling to our Bibles. We cannot give them up. Without the Bible, our faith disappears like smoke from a crumbling chimney. Christianity without the Bible is like an Oreo without the creamy center; like the Kansas City Chiefs without Patrick Mahomes; like a Tesla without a battery.
The Bible is our sacred book. Without it, we’re nothing. It is the written medium through which God has spoken to us and continues to speak today. In that sense, the Bible is superior to the natural world as an expression of the nature of God. The creative and majestic genius of God that we see in nature is amazing. Even the Bible acknowledges this. “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:3-4). But the Bible surpasses nature as a media tool. The Bible explains everything we need to know about the Creator God and our relationship with God better than just nature itself.
This additional knowledge is critical, as I will explain in a moment. And so, Christians have historically protected the sacred texts of the Bible so that:
- the Bible will never disappear from human experience, and
- through a comparison of ancient texts, we can be assured that the text we read is the best text possible.
It is the foundation of our faith. No Bible; no Christianity.
The Bible matters because there’s a rarity factor — its best-selling numbers notwithstanding.
While there may be nothing “as rare as a day in June,” as James Russell Lowell asserts, the Codex Sassoon comes close. Rare things have value — sometimes extravagant and exorbitant value.
Jesus understood the concept of value and rarity. He gave advice about the best places to store valuables (Matthew 6:19-21). He told stories about rare things, like the “merchant in search of fine pearls” who, after finding a “pearl of great value,” sold everything he had to possess it for himself (Matthew 13:44-45). Then there’s the report of a wealthy young man who wanted to follow Jesus, except … he could not divest himself of his financial portfolio.
But could there be something even more rare, perhaps, than treasure in a field, a pearl of great price or extensive financial holdings?
Yes. Perhaps rarest of all is the person who not only professes to follow Jesus, but actually does so!
Reports suggest that humorist Mark Twain made a shrewd observation along these lines. Evidently, a Boston businessman whose ethics were dodgy and who built his fortune on the misfortune of others confided in Twain about some of his religious aspiration. “Before I die,” he exclaimed, “I intend to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. I want to climb to the top of Mount Sinai and read the Ten Commandments aloud.”
“I have a better idea,” suggested Twain. “Why don’t you stay home in Boston and keep them?”
What is rarer than a Christian who patterns his life on the template of Jesus himself, who practices what Jesus preaches, who loves as Jesus loves, who is as selfless as Jesus?
Critics outside the church often are not thrilled with Christians. Say you’re at the office, and word comes down about a new hire: “I hear that she’s a Christian!” Or worse, “I hear that he’s a born-again Christian!!” You’d think your co-workers were talking about a new variant of Covid.
The general unease in our culture with professing Christians is something we’ve brought upon ourselves. We have two choices: Walk the talk or shut up about it. If we cannot match our walk with our talk, then it might be best to opt out, and do as Peter once did. “Oh, no, I don’t know anything about Jesus at all. Never heard of him.”
The Indian reformer Mahatma Gandhi is often misquoted as saying, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” Although it cannot be confirmed that he actually spoke those words, it is likely he said something similar. In The Christ of the Indian Road by E. Stanley Jones, the Methodist, theologian, and author asked Gandhi (with whom he had become a close friend) how to better introduce Christianity into India. Gandhi replied in part: “I would suggest first of all that all of you Christians, missionaries and all begin to live more like Jesus Christ.”
Gandhi might also have read the Hindu Indian philosopher, Bara Dada, who, in the mid-1920s, said that “Jesus is ideal and wonderful, but you Christians, you are not like him.”
Bottom line: We are walking codices. People read us. But do they keep us as one would keep and treasure a rare book? Or are we tossed into the used book bin like a trashy novel?
The Bible matters because of its wisdom.
Wisdom is where it’s at. And Americans know exactly where to get it: the self-help section of major bookstores, live events and seminars, motivational speakers, personal life coaches, audiobooks, weight-loss programs and holistic institutes.
Add this up and the self-help industry is an $11 billion juggernaut. But in the Bible, we have everything we need to live lives that are healthy, circumspect, meaningful, and actualized. We can live our entire lives as good citizens, no arrests and rap sheets, no delinquencies, no addictions and be joyful and happy about it.
And when misfortune befalls us like disease, an accident or some kind of loss, it will not be trouble we brought on ourselves. And this gives us a 95% chance of getting through life as a successful person, spouse, parent, or citizen.
Of course, all of this depends upon our willingness to make the right choices. And, alas, sometimes we don’t. Even the apostle Paul understood this from personal experience (see Romans 7). But the gospel gives us second and third chances.
The Bible is good for us. It offers wisdom, and as a reference guide, it’s really handy.
Clearly, the Bible matters. It is valuable. So, why do we live as though the Bible doesn’t exist?
Maybe we’ve never taken the “Christ Challenge” pledge. Usually when someone is challenged to run a marathon, they begin training. When one signs up for a weight loss program, one abides by the rules of the program. When one decides to live sober, AA meetings might be a part of the plan. Could you be a Jesus person? Can you go one day without being a smart mouth, without being ungracious and impatient, negative, snide, or rude?
Great! Now practice Jesus living for two days.
Maybe we haven’t read the manual for a while. The Bible is the manual. Be honest. When is the last time you read the Bible at home or outside of the church? The last time you studied the Bible? Perhaps, like Twain, it “ain’t the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand.” The Bible can be demanding and challenging, often asking for more than we’re willing to give. Yet, the Scriptures are sacred words for Jesus people. We don’t know the cost until we read the catalogue. We are called People of the Book. So, let’s read the book!
Maybe we haven’t been too regular at church. Understandable. Lots of calls and tugs on our time these days. And it’s true that going to church won’t convert anybody. It’s like Keith Green, Christian musician and evangelist said at his concerts: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonalds makes you a hamburger.”
Point taken. But, without a strong connection with local believers, we get weak and flabby (almost as fast as eating Mickey D’s every day).
Runners meet with runners, doctors with doctors, teachers with teachers, lawyers with lawyers.
Think of church as a weekly workshop that enhance your Jesus skills, helping you to succeed at the Christ Challenge. The challenge calls us to live authentically. To stop the hypocrisy. To end the disconnect between the walk and the talk.
There are thousands of books that collectors today call “rare books.” The Codex Sassoon is in a stratosphere of its own. At $38 million, the codex is beyond rare. It beggars all description. Thirty-eight million is a ton of denarii.
But remember: the Codex Sassoon is a manuscript of part of … the Bible.
And the case can be made that there is no other book than the Bible — ever — that has been more influential and changed the lives of countless millions for the better.
The Bible is valuable and important to others, for perhaps the wrong reasons. May it be valuable and important to us for the right ones. Amen.