A conservative Israeli university that seeks to connect ancient Torah traditions with modern technology and research  sponsored a symposium on recovering the Torah last week, according to the Jerusalem Post. The article, sadly, reads more as a promotional piece for the university than as a news article. Even so, the issues raised are intriguing.

The main question had to do with whether an original, or “ur-text” of the Torah (Genesis – Deuteronomy) can be recovered from the multiplicity of variant manuscripts that exist. If it could, questions of how the restored text might impact rabbinic interpretations of the law would also come into play.

Bar-Ilan University, the second largest in Israel, sponsored the discussion, bringing together students of the Bible, Jewish law, and computer sciences. The discussion began with an awareness that we have no original text of the Bible, what conservative Protestants like to call the “autographs.”

An early rabbinic work called Soferim preserved a tradition that there had been three Torah scrolls in the temple (presumably, the Second Temple, built by returning exiles in the fifth century, renovated and expanded by Herod the Great just before the time of Christ, then destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D.).  None of the three scrolls were identical: if one diverged from the other two, the majority reading was preferred.

Despite heroic efforts to prevent the incorporation or transmission of errors when copying the text by hand over hundreds of years, it was patently obvious that discrepancies had crept in. To keep up with them, specially trained scribes made extensive notes, called the masora, to indicate variant readings, correct pronunciations, and so forth. Through the years, efforts ranging from Ben Asher’s monumental 10th century Aleppo Codex (above) to the complex critical editions used today have sought to help scholars make their best guesses as to the original readings.

At the Bar-Ilan conference, rabbis and computer scientists discussed what strikes me as a far-fetched idea: whether the precedent of cycles in nature (the solar system, sound waves, weather fluctuations) could be used to predict cycles or patterns in the introduction of copyists’ errors. Some seemed to believe it could be possible. Others appeared to question the wisdom of the project, arguing that the Torah we have “is not necessarily what Moses received at Sinai, but it is what God wants us to use, as it represents the best available version.”

While it’s intriguing to fantasize about finding or recovering the original text of the Torah, any effort that ignores the past 150 years of critical scholarship and begins with the premise that the full Torah was given to Moses at Sinai is doomed to failure.  The Bible is a living book, and its origins are patently far more complex than singular events of divine dictation. We can and should labor to understand the growth and development of the Bible, but our faith does not depend on discovering — or recovering — an original version of the text. 

[The image, from The Aleppo Codex online, is the text of 1 Samuel 2:33-3:21.]

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