May 23 2011
Evidence: Can we trust traditional texts to be reliable? [Excerpts]
It really depends on how much care has been taken to preserve them.
Recently, Barry Arrington posted on how we can be sure of something (for example, that bin Laden is dead). The burden of proof is on any who might claim otherwise.
For some, the question has arisen whether the oral transmission of the Torah (the books of Moses in Jewish tradition) could be reliable. What about memory lapses, deliberate alterations, etc., especially during the time when oral memory and transmission were normal, alongside scrolls (which were expensive and time-consuming to produce).
Well, I asked Moshe Averick, author of "Nonsense of a High Order: The confused and illusory world of the atheist," how do you know that the Torah goes back to the time of Moses? Here is what he says,
There are many safeguards in Jewish law and practice to preserve the integrity of the Torah scroll. However, the simplest and most obvious evidence of how well the system works, is that after the founding of the State of Israel, Jews from every corner of the world brought their own Torah Scrolls and the ones from Yemen ( whose community was over 2000 years old) matched the ones from Poland. This, despite the fact that there are over 300,000 letters in the Torah.
The scrolls are all handwritten, it is absolutely forbidden to use a printing press to create a Torah scroll, and a new scroll can only be copied from an already existent one. The scroll is read from publicly three times a week, Monday, Thursday and Shabbat. There are no vowels or punctuation in the scroll, if the reader makes a mistake (everyone follows from a printed edition) he is immediately stopped and must repeat the word properly.
If it turns out that there is a mistake in the text, even one letter, it is forbidden to read from it publicly and is immediately put back in the ark with a distinct sign that it is invalid, until it is repaired by a qualified scribe. Unless you have actually seen how quickly the reader is jumped on by the congregation if he makes a mistake, and unless you have actually watched a Torah scroll invalidated in the middle of the service and put back in the ark, it is hard to really understand how exacting this process is.
There are 5-6 letter differences between the scroll of the Arab-Jewish communities and the eastern European Jewish communities. These are all letters that are silent in the words, and none change the meaning or pronunciation of a word or phrase. Example: Thouht and Thought , foreign and forein, etc.
Torah scrolls can easily used for up to 100 years, which means that the transmission process really only has to happen 30-40 times. This takes you back over 3000 years to the final writing of the Torah at the end of the 40 years in the desert.