The earliest known stone inscription of the Ten Commandments sold for $850,000 — and a stipulation the owner must put the tablet on public display.
Described as a “national treasure” of Israel, the stone was first uncovered in 1913 during excavations for a railroad station near Yavneh in Israel and is the only intact tablet version of the Commandments thought to exist.
“The tablet’s significance is testament to the deep roots and enduring power of the Commandments that still form the basis of three of the world’s great religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam,” said David Michaels, director of ancient coins for Heritage Auctions.
“Its surface is worn, battered and encrusted in places, but running a gloved finger over it does produce, in some people, a particular thrill of touching a piece of Bible history.”
Buried for centuries
The two-foot-square (0.18 square meter), 115-pound (52 kg) marble slab is inscribed in an early Hebrew script called Samaritan and most likely adorned a Samaritan synagogue or home in the ancient town of Jabneel, Palestine, which is now Yavneh in modern Israel, according to Michaels.
It lists nine of the 10 commonly known Biblical Commandments from the Book of Exodus, with an additional Commandment to worship on the sacred mountain of Mount Gerizim, near Nablus, which is a now a city in the West Bank.
“You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in Vain” was deliberately left off the list to keep the total number of Commandments to 10, according to scholars.
Michaels said the the tablet’s home was either destroyed by the Romans between 400 and 600 AD, or by the Crusaders in the 11th century, and that the stone had lain buried in the rubble of the ruins for centuries before its discovery near Yavneh.
“The workmen who found it did not recognize its importance and either sold or gave it to a local Arab man, who set the stone into the threshold of a room leading to his inner courtyard, with the inscription facing up,” Michaels said.
“Some of the letters of the central part of the inscription are blurred — but still readable under proper lighting — either from the conditions of its burial or foot traffic while it was resting in the courtyard.”
Thirty years later, in 1943, the man’s son sold the stone to Y. Kaplan, a municipal archaeologist.
“He immediately recognized its importance as an extremely rare ‘Samaritan Decalogue,’ one of five such known stone inscriptions that date to the late Roman-Byzantine era (300-640 CE) or just after the Muslim invasion of the seventh century CE,” added Michaels.
CE is a term used in academic texts and refers to “Common Era”, which is more commonly known as AD.
After recognizing its importance, Kaplan asked a noted archaeologist — Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who would go on to become Israel’s second-longest serving president — to help him investigate its provenance. They published an academic paper that recounts the story of the stone’s discovery and provides background information about its historical context.
Kaplan eventually sold the stone to an American, Rabbi Saul Deutsch, who took it to the US and put it on display at his Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, New York.
Described as a “National Treasure” by Israel, its export was approved under a special permit issued in 2005 by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA).
“It is significant in that it is the only such piece that has secure provenance, a 70-year history of study and scholarship by renowned specialists such as Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, and can now be legally obtained and kept outside of Israel, provided it is placed on public display as per the IAA’s requirements,” Michaels said.
The IAA stipulated that the stone can be sold to a third party, but only on condition that it be placed on public display “where all can view it and enjoy.”
Rabbi Deutsch put the stone up for sale, along with more than 50 other “Bible-related historical artifacts” he owns, to fund an expansion of his Living Torah Museum, according to Michaels.