Back in 1913, workers were excavating for a railroad station near Yavneh, in western Israel, when they discovered the two-foot-square white stone slab bearing 20 lines of text in Samaritan, an early Hebrew script. More than a century later, that same 200-pound slab is set to go up for auction next month. The minimum opening bid is $250,000, though experts think it will likely sell for much more. Believed to have been carved between 300 and 500 A.D. to adorn an ancient synagogue, the tablet is the earliest known stone inscription of the 10 Commandments.
According to the Old Testament, God revealed the 10 Commandments, carved on two stone slabs, to Moses on Mount Sinai. As a central part of the shared Jewish and Christian heritage, the set of divine precepts—including instructions to worship only God and honor one’s parents along with prohibitions on murder, adultery, theft, blasphemy and other sins—are fundamental to both faiths.
Some Dead Sea Scrolls written in the first century A.D. on parchment or papyrus contain written versions of the 10 Commandments, but the earliest known stone inscriptions of biblical law date to several centuries later. They are the so-called “Samaritan Decalogues,” created by the Jewish sect that in biblical times lived in Samaria, a mountainous region north of Jerusalem.
Only four examples of the Samaritan Decalogues are known to exist. Three of them, all fragmentary, currently reside in museum collections or at protected sites in the Middle East. The fourth will go up for auction on November 16 in Beverly Hills, California. Presented by Heritage Auctions, the tablet is the centerpiece of the Living Torah Museum Auction, a collection of some 50 Bible-related historical artifacts. “The Living Torah example is among the earliest of these Decalogues, and certainly the most complete,” David Michaels, Director of Antiquities for Heritage Auctions, said in a statement. “It is also the only example that can be legally obtained for private ownership.”
Probably carved between 300 and 500 A.D., in the late Roman or Byzantine era, the tablet is believed to have decorated the entrance to a synagogue located near what is now the city of Yavneh. The Romans, who heavily repressed the Samaritans, may have destroyed the synagogue between A.D. 400 and 600; alternatively, it may have fallen victim to Muslims or Crusaders up to the 12th century.