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Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai? (Part II)

Sunday, January 4, 2015 @ 02:01 PM
posted by Roger Price
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The idea that 3300 years ago, at Sinai, God gave Moses a Torah identical to the Torah we have today is a powerful concept, one that still resonates. But is it probable, even plausible?

Previously, to explore this idea, we have taken the text of the Torah as we have it today and looked at issues of content, language and script. We have already found that the Torah we have not only makes no claim as to its original content, but that internal evidence from the Tanakh strongly suggests that whatever Moses may have written and conveyed at the end of his life was limited in scope. Moreover, external evidence from archeological and other sources indicates that Moses’s sefer haTorah was not written in either the language or the script that a contemporary Torah is. In this post, we look at the transmission of a presumed original Torah, focusing on security for the object and textual variations.

Securing the transmission of the originally inscribed text

Let’s start with the medium of Moses’s inscription of the sefer haTorah that our Torah says Moses wrote just before he died (see Deut. 31:9, 24-26) and the security afforded the resulting work. Our Torah does not say precisely whether Moses chiseled the words into stone, wrote them with a stylus in wet clay or used a quill on parchment or papyrus.  If the entire Torah as we know it was inscribed on stone or clay tablets, there must have been many of them to include almost 80,000 words containing over 300,000 letters. If one or more scrolls were used, the material involved must have been sizable as well. In any event, it is certainly hard to imagine the 120 year old Moses chiseling, pressing or writing that much text as he was about to die. 

Professor Rachel Dulin has noted that the word sefer is used in the Hebrew Bible over 185 times and with meanings that change depending on the context of the usage, but that include “letter” and “legal document.” While the material on which Moses wrote was not bound on a side edge like the books of our day, as the binding of paper into books did not begin much before the beginning of the Common Era, the word sefer seems more suggestive of writing on parchment, or similar material, than it is of chiseling in stone or impressing in clay. In other words, sefer haTorah here appears to indicate a scroll.

That conclusion is buttressed by a consideration of how the sefer haTorah was to be handled for the journey into Canaan. Our Torah states that Moses directed the Levites to take the sefer haTorah and place it by the Ark of the Covenant, there to remain as a witness. (See Deut. 31:26.)  Later commentators speculated about this placement.  Each assumed that the item consisted of a single scroll. Under Rabbi Judah’s theory, that scroll was placed near the outside wall of the Ark on a shelf or ledge projecting from and attached to the Ark, while Rabbi Meir thought that it was placed inside the Ark between the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments and the inner wall of the Ark. (See Talmud Bava Batra 14b.) Both explanations are problematical and even the great commentator Rashi had difficulty with them. For present purposes, though, the main point is the general consensus among early rabbis that the sefer haTorah was a scroll. Contemporary biblical scholar Prof. Richard Elliott Friedman agrees and translates sefer haTorah as a “scroll of instruction” in his translation of the Torah. (See Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (Harper 2001), at 664.)

Whether the sefer haTorah was, in fact, a scroll or not, its subsequent history is quite mysterious. As the Hebrew Bible relates, after Moses’s death, the Ark, with the scroll presumably either inside or on a protruding ledge, was taken on a long and difficult journey. Taking the story as true for present purposes, over the course of over two hundred years, the Ark was, among other things, carried across the Jordan River, paraded around Jericho, set in a tabernacle in Shiloh, brought into the field during battles with the Philistines, captured by the Philistines and taken to various cities, returned to the Israelites, moved by King David to a private house and later put in a tabernacle and, then, placed by King Solomon in the Temple in Jerusalem. There is no further mention of the Ark in the historical narrative of the Hebrew Bible, except for a report in Chronicles that several hundred years after Solomon, King Josiah ordered the Levites to place the Ark back in the Temple. (See 2 Chron. 35:1-3.)This report is not corroborated by any similar statement in the story of Josiah as told in 2 Kings, but if given credence certainly raises the question of when the Ark had been removed from the Temple and where it was in the interim.

In any event, biblical history as related in Kings (and Chronicles) is rather clear in its description of what the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar took as his army destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem around  586 BCE.  The Hebrew Bible relates that the Babylonians carried off valuables that they did not otherwise destroy or burn. (See 2 Kings 24:8-13, 2 Chron. 36:18-19.) There is, however, no specific mention of the Ark being confiscated. Nor is there any claim or even hint expressed that the royal family or any priest or anyone either took with them into exile or hid or otherwise protected or preserved the safer haTorah that was, at Moses’s direction, to be located by the side of the Ark. This does not mean that those transported to Babylon did not take any documents or records, merely that a specific ancient treasure was not specified in the national record, as one might have expected it to be had the object actually been (1) extant and (2) moved.

Is it reasonable to believe that throughout all this time, almost seven hundred years, a scroll exposed to the enemy in battle and to the elements in peace could have survived intact? Given its importance as a sacred writing by Moses himself, the fact that the historical sections of the Hebrew Bible after the Book of Joshua, with one exception, do not mention the sefer haTorah is telling. And that exception, the story of King Josiah’s surprise at a newly discovered scroll by the priest Hilkiah, seems to confirm at the very least that control over and protection of sacred scrolls was not well managed. (See 2 Kings 22:3-20.)

Further, as an object, the existence of the scroll on which Moses wrote God’s words seems to have been of no concern to the authors of the Prophets (the Nevi’im) and the Writings (the K’tuvim), not to mention the editors of the Tanakh. The sounds of silence here, as Sherlock Holmes later observed in the short story “Silver Blaze,” may well be evidentiary.

Versions and changes from transcription

Given the many problems inherent in the claim of an unsullied transmission of the sefer haTorah  authored by Moses, we should not be surprised to learn from Hebrew Bible scholar Professor Marc Zvi Brettler that in the Second Temple period (c 538 BCE – 70 CE) there were a number of versions of the Torah extant. (See Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (Oxford 2007) at 22.) The evidence comes, in part, in the form of pre-Common Era texts like the Samaritan Pentateuch, the Greek Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, among others, which contain different wording than we find in the Torah we have today.

Rabbi Gil Student argues that, for various reasons, these other documents are not indisputable proof, or even good witnesses, against the assumption that the “text that is agreed upon by the Jewish community – the textus receptus  that is claimed to be the Masoretic text – is correct.” (SeeOn the Text of the Torah,” at 1/21.) Student is certainly persuasive when discussing a translation like the Septuagint. (See Id. at 7-13/21.) The philosophy, principles and methodology at play in any translation can be quite complex. For instance, did the first translation attempt to be true to the literal nature of the subject text word by word. Did it seek to convey the meaning of that text thought by thought? Did it seek to balance those two approaches? Did it seek to mimic the sound and cadence of the original language or to appeal to certain linguistic or philosophical sensibilities of the readers by using, for instance, colloquial or gender neutral expressions? And was the first translation consistent? The same questions, and more, would apply to any effort to translate the first translation back independently in order to determine an original text. In short, reverse engineering a translated text compounds the inherent complexity of the translation exercise.

Rabbi Student is on considerably less solid ground with variants, like the Samaritan Pentateuch. (See Id., at 2-3/21.) By one count, the Samaritan Pentateuch contains not only over 3,000 differences in spelling when compared to a contemporary Torah, it also contains over 3,000 words and phrases which clarify or change the meaning of the story found in current text.

Sometimes the changes are small, but even those small changes can be important, as when dialogue is added in the Samaritan version of the familiar story of Cain and Abel. The story in Genesis reports that Cain said something to Abel before they went into a field where Cain killed Abel, but it does not disclose what Cain said. (See Gen. 4:8.) The Samaritan version supplies dialog, which indicates that Cain enticed his brother to accompany him and, therefore, supports a determination that Cain’s murder of his brother was premeditated.

Then, too, sometimes the changes are substantial. For example, the Samaritan text, in addition to the well-known Ten Commandments, includes an additional commandment to establish an altar on Mt. Gerizim.

Student acknowledges the obvious, which is that there are “many differences” between the Samaritan Torah and the textus receptus we have, but concludes that these differences “can be due to the free hand the Samaritan scribes exhibited in developing their Torah.” Consequently, for him, “the Samaritan Torah fails our test of being a reliable witness.” (See Student, above, at 2/21.)

The differences, however, individually and collectively, are more probative than Rabbi Student allows. In his argument, Student concedes that he is departing from the approach of modern scholars and admits that he is assuming that today’s standard text, his textus receptus, is “correct,” unless “categorically disproven” otherwise. (See Id. at 1/21.) But giving something a Latin label does not make it sacrosanct, and placing a thumb on the scale of evidence imposes a burden of proof that will always skew the analysis and never lead to an accurate reading of that evidence. Why, for instance, assert that Samaritan scribes “developed” their holy text with a “free hand” and not allow for the possibility that Judahite scribes did so similarly?

If we want to evaluate the totality of circumstances objectively, as opposed to proving a point, we cannot proceed under any, much less unwarranted, assumptions. More specifically, given what we know today, “we cannot,” according to Prof. Brettler, “assume that the text . . . as we now have it is the same as the text . . . when it was originally written.” (See Brettler, above, at 22.)

In addition, if there were, once, one text written by Moses, or even one redacted by Ezra, surely that text was modified over the centuries. As another Hebrew Bible scholar Emeritus Professor Jeffrey H. Tigay has discussed, albeit in the context of his analysis of Bible codes from a textual perspective, the ideal of an unchanged Torah text “was not achieved in practice as far back as manuscripts and other evidence enable us to see.” (See Textual Perspective, at 5/27.)

According to Prof. Tigay, the “manual copying of texts naturally created variants . . . .” (Id. at 6/27.) In addition, other changes to ancient texts involved the spelling system for those texts, including, specifically, the use or non-use of vowels. Tigay has looked at the limestone tablet known as the Gezer Calendar, discussed here, and noted that the letters which were inscribed on the tablet only represented consonants.  At some time in or after the tenth century BCE, Hebrew began to use a limited number of consonants as vowels. The current system of marks placed above and below letters to indicate vowels was not adopted until sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries of the Common Era. (See Textual Perspective, above, at 5-6, 19-20/27.)

Scholars today can trace the changes in biblical manuscripts through the ages.  They can identify the sources available and used by different scribes, as well as the editorial choices they made. They can see how a particular manuscript once considered to be definitive was corrected later and supplanted. This was true prior to the advent of machine printing in the fifteenth century of the Common Era and also true after. (See generally, Pentkower, “The Development of the Masoretic Text,” in Jewish Study Bible (Oxford 2004), at 2077-84.)

The end result of this textual history is inconsistency in the manuscripts we have and use today. Contemporary Hebrew Bibles are based primarily on thousand year old manuscripts known as the Aleppo Codex (c. 930 CE) and the Leningrad Codex (c. 1010 CE), the latter being the oldest complete Tanakh existing today. Both are part of the Masoretic Text tradition, but agreement among modern works is still lacking. For instance, the well regarded Koren Jerusalem Bible, first published in 1962, is based on the Leningrad Codex, but the text of the Torah contained in it has forty-five (45) more letters than does the Michigan-Claremont Westminster computerized text of the Leningrad codex which is used by most scholars. (See Tigay, above, at 5, 19/27.) Similarly, a text provided to Israeli soldiers is also based on the Leningrad Codex, but reportedly it, too, contains spellings different than those in the Koren. (See “A List of Some Problematic Issues,” at 2-5/68.)

The illusive nature of the original Torah has not deterred researchers from seeking to find it. Currently, for instance, there are at least two academic efforts aimed at producing a scholarly edition of the Tanakh, one known as the Hebrew University Bible Project and the other as the Hebrew Bible Critical Edition  Project, formerly known as the Oxford Bible Project. Yet, even as one may anxiously wait to read of new developments, perhaps Prof. Brettler is correct in concluding that “(i)t is naïve to believe that we may recover the Bible’s original text (what scholars call the ‘Urtext’), namely the text as penned by its original authors. “ (See Brettler, above, at 22.)


The traditional claim that the Torah we have today is identical to a text authored in the thirteenth century BCE strains credulity. Regardless of whether the author was divine or human, for the traditional view to be valid, not one but a series of improbable events would have had to occur in the creation and multiple transmissions of that text over well more than one hundred generations.  The evidence, internal in the Tanakh and external on hard stone and clay and soft manuscripts, says those events did not occur. Analyzing the content, language, script, security and transcription of a proposed original Torah demonstrates why such a document, if it ever existed, must have been different, perhaps considerably so, from the Torah we have today.

There is no reason to stress or strain over either the evidence or the result of our inquiry. The Torah we have might not have come from Moses, and certainly it has not arrived unimpaired from some original manuscript, but it remains a very special document, one that holds appeal to a wide variety of individuals.

Implicitly conceding the lack of historicity for an original thirteenth century BCE Torah from Moses, at least for the purpose of making a greater point, philosophy Prof. Samuel Fleischacker, himself Orthodox, has argued that what is important is the authority rather than the authorship of the Torah, whether the Torah “represents a supremely good (“divine’) way for us to live . . . .” It is an interesting and significant argument, one that (perhaps ironically) parallels positions taken by less ritually observant individuals.

Putting aside the problematic issue of “authority,” we can agree that the Torah plays and deserves a unique role in the Jewish civilization. Those who appreciate miracles (whether supernatural or not) can marvel at the Torah’s continued existence and power. We still have it, and we continue to read and study and even wrestle with it. And atheists like Israeli writer Amoz Oz and his daughter Fania Oz-Sulzberger also can recognize that honor is due the Torah as literature that “transcends scientific dissection and devotional reading.” In their words, “no other work of literature so effectively carved a legal codex, so convincingly laid out a social ethic.” (See Jews and Words (Yale 2012), at 5-6.)

With its depth, its breadth and its reach, the Torah may well have been intended initially as a vehicle to hold and share the sometimes inconsistent stories, codes and customs of the residents of ancient Judah, perhaps before but certainly after their exile from and return to their homeland. In this light, its role was to bind the people together with a common created history and collective purpose.  The Torah that we have today serves a similar function, as trans-national, trans-generational glue for the Jewish People. Against all historical odds, it remains, in words from Proverbs, an etz hayim, a tree of life to those who hold fast to it. (See Proverbs 3:18.)

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One Response to “Is This Really the Torah God Gave Moses at Sinai? (Part II)”

  1. Jerry Blaz says:

    What we may believe as truth in religion is not subject to be treated as “truth” in a scientifically testable method. For those who step beyond “religious truth” this kind of truth is mythological. To call it mythological is not to call it false, because this religious truth his some unspoken, taken-for-granted purposes in the cohesion of a person’s personality, a community’s centripetal force, a nation’s elan.
    However, in the very bracketing of religious truth, we are admiting to other venues of truth and truth-seeking. While as a Jew, I may celebrate the epiphany of Mount Sinai, as a human being — that is a homo sapiens and not only a homo religiousus — I know that the numbers of Israelites and the number of years of wandering stated in the myth would have meant that the Sinai was not a desert, but a verdant plain with plentiful water, etc. and that the Children of Israel were meticulous campers who cleaned every sign of their encampments so that there are no signs of such a large body spending 40 years wandering the Sinai.
    So we have two truths: one religious truth that must remain unassailable, and a non-religious truth that only raises addtional questions, And soon it becomes clear that these different truths serve different purposes, but both make us more complete humans, and in the case of people like me, a more complete Jew.

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