Friday, March 31, 2017

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Oral transmission

If there’s one last reason why Torah had to be transmitted orally, here it is.
This relates to an email I got from somebody in response to a review on Amazon where I said that Torah had to be transmitted orally.
The question was whether I believed Exodus 34 about the tables that Moshe carved to replace the ones he broke, and wrote the law on them.  These are also discussed in Deuteronomy 10.
I asked what happened to them?  Is there evidence in Jewish classics about what was done with them after they were written?
The answer is that they remained in the box Moshe made for them.  Jewish classics have no record that these tables were ever taken out for use in teaching the Israelites the law.
Instead, we have Exodus 34:32 which says that Moshe commanded the Israelites all that Gd told him.
In other words, Torah was transmitted orally to the people, and they had to teach it to their children orally and so on and so forth.  Rashi talks about this in his comment on Exodus 34:32.
That’s because it’s how he learned it himself.  He lived about 1100 CE, before the printing press.  All books were reproduced in manuscript.  It took a long time.  It was difficult and error-prone.  It was expensive because basically the price charged to you was the whole income of the scribe while producing that one copy.  So you might be able to study from a copy owned by your community, but only wealthy people had personal copies of things like Talmud.  To teach Talmud in a class with more than one student required oral recitations and explanations.
The flip side of this is that literacy rates were not what they are now.  High literacy rates are a product of the Industrial Revolution on top of the invention of the printing press.  One article I read estimated that by 100 CE, at most 15% of Jews could read.  If they were going to obey Jewish law, 85% of Jews had to learn it orally.  That’s nearly a millennium after the oldest known definite Hebrew writing.
It doesn’t matter what parts of Torah were written down first or when it happened.  The parts that had to do with settling fights before they turned into murder, or whom one could marry, had to be transmitted orally for centuries.  By the time that the full text of Torah was written down, it had existed orally for centuries.  Maybe for millennia, considering the age of the motifs in the Noach wine episode.
This is another example of how multiple sciences create a total picture of a situation that is probably accurate.  You can’t understand evolution in isolation from fields like thermodynamics and geology, and you can’t understand the origin or structure of Torah in isolation from archaeology (the only history we have of the times) or you paint a picture of a culture that doesn’t operate by the same processes as all the other cultures in history.  That is an extraordinary claim that requires huge amounts of reliable evidence to convince somebody else that you know what you’re talking about.

One or two more posts and then I'll hit the fallacies.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights  Reserved

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