One of the World’s Oldest Surviving Books Is for Sale

The rare early Christian text was written in a monastery in Egypt between 250 and 350 C.E.

The Crosby-Schøyen Codex is part of the Schøyen collection, one of the largest private manuscript collections in the world. Christie's Images LTD. 2024

Some 1,700 years ago, a scribe living at a monastery in Egypt wrote out two complete books of the Bible over a 40-year period. Today, the rare liturgical text is known as the Crosby-Schøyen Codex, one of the world’s oldest books.

The 104 pages of papyrus illustrate the early spread of Christianity—and this summer, they are expected to sell for between $2.6 million and $3.8 million.

The codex features Coptic script, an Egyptian language written in the Greek alphabet primarily used by Christians. It has survived the centuries in fragments: Pages are preserved in individual panes of plexiglass, all of which fit in two lockable wooden boxes, reports CNN’s Lianne Kolirin.

According to Christie’s, which will auction the work in June, the codex is the earliest known surviving Christian liturgical book. Created in Upper Egypt between the third and fourth centuries C.E., it features the New Testament’s first epistle of Peter and the Old Testament’s Book of Jonah.

“The Crosby-Schøyen is one of the earliest witnesses to a development in cultural and textual transmission,” Eugenio Donadoni, senior specialist for books and manuscripts at Christie’s in London, tells CNN. “It’s unlikely anything like this will ever come to auction again.”

One of the oldest books in existence up for auction * FRANCE 24 English

Discovered in the 1950s, the text is part of a collection known as the Bodmer Papyri—a trove of ancient Christian writings, biblical manuscripts and pagan works found in Egypt and purchased by Swiss collector Martin Bodmer. The codex made its way to the University of Mississippi, where it resided until 1981, before it was acquired by the Norwegian manuscript collector Martin Schøyen in 1988.

The upcoming sale will feature a number of texts from Schøyen’s collection, which is “one of the largest private manuscript collections in the world,” per Reuters’ Christine Kiernan. The Crosby-Schøyen Codex is billed as the oldest known book that’s privately owned.

The historic text is a valuable “witness to the earliest spread of Christianity around the Mediterranean,” Donadoni tells CNN. “The earliest monks in Upper Egypt in the earliest Christian monastery were using this very book to celebrate the earliest Easter celebrations, only a few hundred years after Christ and only a hundred or so years after the last Gospel was written.”

The text also sheds light on a pivotal moment in the history of bookmaking. For millennia, ancient Egyptians wrote and read literature on rolled papyrus scrolls. But in the first few centuries C.E., the codex design—stacks of pages bound together—became increasingly popular, ultimately replacing scrolls as the dominant medium. Donadoni tells Reuters that the Crosby-Schøyen Codex was made during that transitional period.

Researchers think the book survived due to Egypt’s arid climate. Few other texts from the third and fourth centuries exist today, as Donadoni tells Reuters, adding: “All the major finds of Christian manuscripts that we had in the 20th century and at the end of the 19th century are all concentrated in Egypt for those very precise climactic conditions.”

After going on view in Paris in late April, the Crosby-Schøyen Codex will travel to London, where it will be sold on June 11.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.