Saturday, July 05, 2008

Book Review: the Limits of Orthodox Theology, Chapter Seven, Revelation of the Torah

"The Eighth Principle teaches that the Torah was divinely revealed and that the Torah in our hands is exactly the same as the Torah that Moses presented to the Children of Israel. In addition, there is no difference in holiness between any parts of the the Pentateuch. The Principle also declares that the Oral Law is likewise of divine origin."

In my previous ignorance, I was unaware that Orthodox Jews held to this position. That was until I ran into this article on There, it is claimed that there are only 9 spelling variants in all of the Torah manuscripts.

There are two chapters in the Limits of Orthodox Theology which are worth their weight in gold. This is one of them.

This principle can not only be shown to have differing views within historic Orthodoxy, it can conclusively be shown to be false.

Furthermore, Shapiro makes the case that Maimonides lied regarding this Principle.

Now, I for one, am not going to argue against divine inspiration for the text of the Torah. Even with its textual variants, Jesus was willing to affirm that. Many hold the belief that if there are any textual variants a text cannot be inspired. Bart Ehrman has popularized this view, but it is also held by Muslims and many King James Only advocates.

Back to the book. Keeping in mind that there has never been a dispute about the divine inspiration of the Written and Oral Laws (although I would definitely argue from a Christian perspective against inspiration of the Oral Law), Shapiro quotes J. David Bleich as saying "this principle is, in effect, an affirmation of the authenticity of the Masoretic text." Shapiro states that this goes beyond that and the text "establed by Aaron ben Moses ben Ahser is (tenth century) is, in its entirety, of Mosaic authorship." Therefore, there is no such thing as a history of the text of the Torah and one expresses doubt in that is a heretic with no share in the world to come.

This principle relies on an absolutely uniform text and that reading had to have been the one revealed to Moses. And as we previously mentioned, this Principle is taken to affirm the Masoretic text. But there is no such thing as the Masoretic text. There are a set of texts established by many Masoretic scholars.

Shapiro writes that when we speak of the Masoretic text we are referring to an edition of the Bible edited by Jacob ben Hayim (before he became a Messianic Jew) and the work of a few others.

Here is one of the more interesting quotes "As early as talmudic times, it was understood that the Babylonian rabbis were no longer aware of the proper defective and plene spellings." I'm not nearly an expert on this material like Shapiro (hence, I'm reading his book), this seems like this would invalidate the claims regarding Oral Law being preserved. Regardless, this goes to the heart of this Principle's claim, since Masoretic texts have a good deal of variety in regards to defective and plene spellings.

"Similarly, it was recognized long ago that a number of quotations from the biblical text, including the Pentateuch, found in the Talmud and Midrashim differ from the accepted (Masoretic) text."

This is simply fascinating to me. As one who embraces the work of textual criticism, it is great that quotes in the Talmud and Midrashim can shed light about variations within the Torah text. However, for people who hold to the Eighth Principle, evidence of variations is evidence on invalidity of this principle. Given their authority within Jewish traditions, the Talmud and Midrashim are sources of a different quality vis a vis this issue. Shapiro notes that the differences in the Talmud and Midrashim go beyond spellings and go to actual words. "There are numerous examples of this and one of them is even found in the Ten Commandments".

R. Samuel David Luzzatto doubts there were diffences in medieval scrolls but admits that variations occurred prior to that time period. "Scholars have also called attention to textual variations in the Dead Sea Scrolls, Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Peshitta, and Targumim." In other words, all non-Masoretic sources.

At this point, I feel like I would be piling on, but I think I have an idea of an Orthodox response. All those different sources were in error. Now, the work of textual criticism is to sort out all those sources. But if the only way to hold, based on the evidence, the Eighth Principle is to assume it in the first place, the Eighth Principle has major problems.

Shapiro notes that the text "of Exodus and Numbers preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls" were paralleled in the Samaritan version. This shows that there were two editions (textual traditions?) in Second Temple times.

If you place authority solely in Ben Asher's Masoretic text, you make the sages of the Talmud, Midrash, and the Babylonian Masoretes heretics. Shaprio states that it is impossible to speak about the Torah "found in our hands today".

Shapiro continues. "[I]t should not be surprising that R. Jacob Kamenetzky (1891-1986) argued that perhaps Maimonides' text of the Pentateuch differed from the one in use today." We see that Maimonides' text was the Yemenite text, which differs from the Masoretic texts. In other words, if we take the Eighth Principle to refer to the Masoretic text, Maimonides is a heretic. But, as we previously mentioned, if it is not the Masoretic text, we have a lot of other prominent heretics. It's a big mess.

It gets worse for this Principle.

"Rabbinic sources speak of tikunei soferim, that is textual changes introduces by the Scribes, some of which concern the Torah." Scribes changed texts they considered offensive to God or grossly anthropomorphic. A famous example is Genesis 18:22, which was changed to say "Abraham stood before the Lord" instead of "God stood yet before Abraham."

Moving on, Shapiro also takes aim at the part of the Eighth Principle, which claims that the whole Torah was received by Moses. That view has not been unamimously accepted. For instance, there is a Talmudic passage (BT Makot 11a) which claims the last eight verses of the Torah which deal with the death of Moses were written by Joshua. This view has support in other Orthodox sources, such as Ibn Ezra.

There are also certain phrases in the Torah which have caused Jewish sources to believe in non-Mosaic authorship for some portions of the Torah. For example, using the phrase "beyond the Jordan" in the Torah, when that phrase refers to a post-exile point of view, shows a post-Mosaic authorship.

Was Maimonides lying?

Shapiro goes on to argue that, given a Talmudic opinion about Joshua writing the last part of the Torah, "for Maimonides to declare a talmudic opinion heretical is extremely unlikely." Regarding textual variations Shapiro writes "taking into account all the pre-Maimonidean sources cites in this chapter, and in particular, the discussion regarding the text of the Pentateuch, it is impossible to believe that Maimonides should be taken at his word."

So, yes. Maimonides is lying.

Shapiro relates the view of Arthur Hyman. Maimonides knew there were elements in this Principle which weren't true. But the truth of the matter would raise doubts among the masses. And Jews were interacting with Muslims who believed that the Jews purposely corrupted their texts in order to remove references to Muhammad.

As can be seen from the case of Bart Ehrman (whose Christian faith was thrown in disarray once he learned about textual variants), withholding this information can backfire. It seems that such an attitude about this book is developing as well:
What I find most interesting in the Orthodox discussions of Dr. Marc B. Shapiro’s book is the widespread belief that readership of the book should be restricted. Not because there are significant mistakes in the book, but because the book will shake people’s faith and lead them off the derech.

So how to make sense of textual variants? I would simply say "don't panic." Jesus affirmed the authority, divine inspiration, and Mosaic authorship of the Torah, even though there were textual variants. If we feel the need to reject the inspiration of the Bible due to textual variants, we are using a different standard.

A quote I used earlier in this post from the Limits of Orthodox Theology used an appropriate phrase. "Exodus and Numbers preserved in the Dead Sea Scrolls..." The different manuscript traditions preserve the text of the books of the Bible. Between the Septuagint, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Targums, the Samaritan Torah, and the Masoretic texts, the Torah has been preserved.

Let me use a thought experiment I'm going to blatantly steal from Dr. James White.

Unless God were to strike scribes dead when they make an error, there will be textual variants. Now, to eliminate this, we would have to have one controlling scribal authority. And if we had that, the claim would most likely be that the one controlling authority manipulated the text towards their own ends (think Da Vinci Code). And that claim would be much more plausible under such a scenario.

So, how can we claim to have and know the Word of God given the reality of textual variants? I posed that question to Timothy Paul Jones here.

I'll end on his response:
You're correct about the epistemological framework---and you're working toward the real crux of the issue.

First off, I think it's important to note that the internal reliability of the text (which I deal with in the first half of Misquoting Truth) is a completely different issue from the external validity of the claims (which I deal with in the second half of Misquoting Truth). In other words, simply because the original text is recoverable doesn't mean that the claims of the text are true. Likewise, even supposing that the original text isn't recoverable, the claims of the text might still be true. I'm not claiming that you (or Ehrman, for that matter) is confusing these two, but it's important to note the distinction. I say this primarily because I was once on a radio program in which the Christian host said---in essence---"We have more than 5,000 copies of the New Testament, and they agree more than 99% of the time, therefore they must be true." This is, of course, a false line of reasoning.

I can't build a complete framework here, but here's a starter: What we mean when we refer to Scripture as "God's Word" is that we possess an unerring record of God's self-revelatory dealings with humanity, supremely of God's consummate dealing with humanity in Jesus Christ. This "Word" was inspired in human minds and written down. These human authors wrote in their own words---using descriptive language and rhetorical features from their culture---their words were kept from historical or factual error. (Of course, "historical or factual error" does not include having made estimates, having used language of appearances, having adapted or combined historical accounts, or having worded these accounts in ways that allowed the meaning of an event to be more readily applied to the original hearers' historical circumstances.) Although these words were not copied perfectly through the centuries, their words were copied with sufficient accuracy that it is possible to know and to experience the original "Word" which bears unerring witness to the Word of God who is Jesus Christ.

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