Weird History

Archaeologists Found The Oldest-Known Stone Tablet Of The Ten Commandments – And Sold It For $850K  

Beth Elias
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Like most religious artifacts, it's highly unlikely that someone would ever find the actual Ten Commandments tablet. In 1913, a team of workers found the closest alternative when excavating a construction site in Israel. A tablet unearthed at the site turned out to be the oldest known stone carving of the Biblical Ten Commandments. The tablet was likely carved between 300 and 500 CE. While not as earth-shattering as evidence of the parting of the Red Sea, the discovery is a valuable artifact to religious scholars and anyone searching for physical proof of the Bible.

How valuable was it? This same stone set of Ten Commandments sold at auction for $850,000 in November 2016. The tablet was sold legally through an agreement with the Israeli government despite its designation as a "national treasure." The weathered carving went through many hands on its way to the auction house, but it will live on in the public eye due to stipulations that went along with the sale.

The Winning Bidder Didn't Get To Keep The Commandments
The Winning Bidder Didn't ... is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list Archaeologists Found The Oldest-Known Stone Tablet Of The Ten Commandments – And Sold It For $850K
Photo:  Heritage Auctions/Fair Use

At a starting bid of $250,000, the stone of the Ten Commandments was bound to be pricey—but imagine spending $850,000 and not being allowed to actually take your purchase home. That's exactly what happened with the rare antiquity. A stipulation on the purchase required that the tablet must remain on public display. Any buyer hoping to display the Ten Commandments in their living room was out of luck. The stipulation was a result of an agreement with the Israel Antiquities Authority, the governing body that protects historical artifacts in Israel. 

The Stone Has An Alternate Commandment

One would think that for $850,000, you'd get a little bit more than the same old "Thou shalt not steal" and "Thou shalt not covet" from every other version of the Ten Commandments. This stone packs some special features for the high price tag - it has an alternate commandment. Instead of telling followers to not take the Lord's name in vain, this tablet commands the faithful to "raise up a temple" on Mount Gerizim, a holy place for the Samaritans near the present-day West Bank. Scholars suspect that this was an edit made by the Samaritan practitioners who established the temple where the tablet was placed.

It May Be The Oldest Remaining Stone Version Of The Ten Commandments
It May Be The Oldest Remaining... is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list Archaeologists Found The Oldest-Known Stone Tablet Of The Ten Commandments – And Sold It For $850K
Photo: Providence Lithograph Company/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Some experts suspect that this stone is the oldest and maybe the only intact tablet version of the Commandments that still exists. There have been plenty of carvings made in the centuries since, but this carving is the closest we may come to seeing the original Ten Commandments.

How long the tablet was buried in rubble is up for debate. The Romans could have left the stone among rocks while they were plundering cities between 400–600 CE, and the Crusaders could have done the same sometime around the 11th century CE. Either way, it's easy to see why a rare artifact like this demands such a high asking price.

Samaritans Carved The Commandments Into This Tablet

Though you might expect a stone found in Israel to be carved in Hebrew, the language carved into this version of the Ten Commandments is actually Samaritan, which is a combination of both Hebrew and Aramaic. The Samaritan people inspired the "Good Samaritan" parable, and they occupied an area in Israel that is north of Jerusalem today. It's likely that the stone decorated a Samaritan synagogue that was later destroyed by Romans some time between 400 and 600 CE.

The Samaritans created the earliest known stone depictions of biblical law, which experts call the "Samaritan Decalogues." That is technically what's on the stone in question. Only three other versions of the Decalogues exist, but they are nowhere near as complete as this version that was auctioned off in 2016.