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.

LIST-6-things-you-may-not-know-about-the-dead-sea-scrollsSome 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.

Earliest known carving of the Ten Commandments. (Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com)
Earliest known carving of the Ten Commandments. (Courtesy Heritage Auctions, HA.com)

Earliest known carving of the Ten Commandments. (Credit: Heritage Auctions)[/caption]

The white marble slab, which measured some two feet square, weighs in at around 200 pounds. On it are inscribed 20 lines of characters in Samaritan script, which was derived from both Hebrew and Aramaic. Nine out of the 10 Commandments commonly known from the Book of Exodus appear on the tablet, but it omits “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.” Instead, the text contains a Samaritan commandment about how worshipers should “raise up a temple” on Mount Gerizim, the holy mountain for the Samaritans, which was located near the West Bank city of Nablus.

After the railroad workers first uncovered the tablet back in 1913, it was used as flooring in a privately owned courtyard, where foot traffic rubbed out portions of the writing. A man named Y. Kaplan, who acquired the slab in 1943, submitted it to scholars for study, and introduced it to the wider world in an article he co-wrote in 1947 with Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, an archaeologist specializing in ancient texts who would go on to become president of Israel (1952-63).

In the 1990s, antiquities dealer Robert Deutsch bought the stone slab, which was designated a “National Treasure” of Israel. Despite that distinction, in 2005 the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) approved its export to the United States, where it was entrusted to the care of Rabbi Saul Deutsch, of the Living Torah Museum.

At the upcoming auction, the tablet will be included among a number of other historically valuable objects from biblical times, including a nine-spouted ceramic oil lamp dating to the first century A.D. Some experts believe the lamp is the earliest known Hanukkah menorah.

The opening bid for the 10 Commandments tablet is $250,000, though experts think it will go for much more. Because of its “National Treasure” status, the buyer of the tablet must agree to display it in public, as a condition of ownership. As Michaels put it, “We seek either an institutional buyer or a private one who will agree to exhibit the 10 Commandments Stone so that all can see, enjoy and learn from it.” Proceeds from the auction will go to expand and upgrade the Living Torah Museum’s facilities in Brooklyn, New York, including the construction of a full-scale replica of the original Tabernacle in Solomon’s temple.