The Oldest-Known Carving of the 10 Commandments Is Going up for Auction

But the buyer won’t be able to take it home

10 commandments
One of the world's oldest-known carvings of the Ten Commandments will soon go up for auction. Heritage Auctions

In the great tradition of construction workers stumbling across archaeological wonders, in 1913, workers building a railroad station near the present-day city of Yavneh, now in western Israel, made a surprising discovery. They found a stone slab with ancient writings carved into its face. As it turns out, this humble-seeming tablet is actually the oldest inscription of the Biblical 10 Commandments known to exist. Now, it’s going up for auction—with one little catch, Sarah Pruitt writes for the tablet has to be put on public display.

Known as the “Samaritan Decalogues,” the tablet was likely carved in the late Roman or Byzantine era sometime between 300 and 500 A.D. and may have graced the entryway to a long-crumbled synagogue. While not quite as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls, which date back to the first century B.C., this tablet is the oldest-known carving of the moral code shared by Judaism, Christianity and Islam alike.

"There is nothing more fundamental to our shared heritage than the 10 Commandments," David Michaels, director of antiquities for Heritage Auctions, which is handling the tablet’s sale, says in a statement.

However, the tablet didn’t end up in a museum right away. It was presumably taken home by one of the construction workers and ended up in his courtyard. There it sat over the next 20 years or so, until it was acquired in 1943 by an archaeologist, Marice Richter reports for Reuters. The tablet went into his private collection until his death in 2000, after which Shaul Deutsch, a rabbi and founder of the Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, New York, purchased it.

The tablet is an interesting piece of history not only for what was written on it, but who carved it in the first place. Most people probably know of the Samaritans as they relate to the Bible’s iconic parable about the so-called Good one, but fewer may be aware that these people played an interesting role in the history of the region, Benyamim Tsedaka writes in The Israelite Samaritan Version of the Torah. An offshoot of Judaism, the Samaritans claim their religious practices are closer to those of the earliest Jews, as their ancestors stayed in their homeland. According to their beliefs, those who follow traditional, rabbinical Judaism practice a form of the religion altered by their ancestors’ exile from the region, as told in Exodus.

"Their sect has endured through the centuries alongside traditional Jews, Pagans, Christians, and Muslims, so the 10 Commandments Stone is uniquely important to many different faiths and cultures," Michaels says in a statement.

The tablet is certainly a rare find, though it does come with a pretty big stipulation for prospective buyers. Under the original agreement with the term stipulated by the Israel Antiquities Authority allowing the two-foot tall, 200-pound slab to leave Israel in the first place, it has to be put on public display, Eileen Kinsella reports for artnet News. While the hefty opening bid of $250,000 might be a turn-off for buyers who want it for the prestige, the fact that the tablet will have to stay in the public eye is a boon for Biblical scholars and history-lovers alike.

Proceeds from the auction, which includes other items from the collection of the Living Torah Museum, will go towards expanding and upgrading the museum's facilities, including the addition of a full-scale reconstruction of the Tabernacle of Solomon's Temple. The auction will be held on November 16.

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