Thursday, October 22, 2009

Majority Report, Historical Connection

1. Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2001) 32-33.

Tov quotes Jerusalem Talmud Taanit 4.68a, which says there were three versions of the Torah in the temple. Here is Neusner’s translation:

Three scrolls did they find in the Temple courtyard. These were the Maon-scroll ["Dwelling"], the Zaatuti-scroll ["Little ones"], and the He-scroll. In one of these scrolls they found it written, “The eternal God is your dwelling place (maon)” (Deut. 33:27…). And in two of the scrolls it was written, “The eternal God is your dwelling place” (meonah[, which is in the MT]). They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the others. In one of them they found written, “They sent the little ones of the people of Israel” (Ex. 24:5…). And in two it was written, “They sent young men…” [(MT)]. They confirmed the two and abrogated the other. In one of them they found written, “He [he written in the feminine spelling] nine times, and in two, they found it written that way eleven times.” They confirmed the reading found in the two and abrogated the other.

This stood out to me because of the Letter of Aristeas’ statement that there was a Hebrew book of the Torah in the temple, which the LXX translators used to produce their Greek Torah text. I wondered if Judaism tried to reconcile the presence of an authoritative scroll in the temple with the existence of different manuscripts and versions. It turns out that at least one tradition thought that there were three different versions of the Torah in the temple. Scribes would look at the three manuscripts and go with the majority reading as the authoritative one. Our Talmud passage does not suggest that one of the manuscripts is perfect, however, for a version could conceivably be in the majority for one reading, and in the minority for another.

This reminds me of the movie Minority Report, in which three psychics foresaw crimes that people were about to commit. They did not all see the same thing all of the time, but at least two of them would have the same vision.

But back to the three Torah versions in the temple. The majority reading usually turned out to be the one in the Masoretic Text, which shows the popularity and authority of this version by the time of the Jerusalem Talmud (fourth century C.E.). In the letter of Aristeas (second century B.C.E.), the Torah scroll in the temple was assumed to match the Septuagint. The MT and the LXX diverge in a number of areas, so both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Letter of Aristeas probably assumed that the authoritative version in the temple was the one that they believed in.

The differences among the three versions of the Torah in the Jerusalem Talmud’s story look rather minor, but some rabbis didn’t deem minor details in the Torah to be unimportant. Tov quotes R. Ishmael, who says in Babylonian Talmud Sotah 20a, “should you omit (even) one letter or add (even) one letter [in transmitting Torah], the whole world would be destroyed.” Heavy!

Interestingly, Tov doesn’t agree with going with the majority version to arrive at the authoritative reading. He states the following:

The broad basis of the textual attestation of some readings as against the narrow basis of other readings is immaterial. Since a large number of manuscripts could have been copied from a single source, well-attested readings do not necessarily have more weight than singly attested readings. Therefore one should take into consideration the intrinsic value of each reading rather than the number of manuscripts in which it is attested. In this context, scholars usually quote the methodological rule formulated as manuscripta ponderantur, non numerantur, “manuscripts are to be considered according to their worth and not reckoned according to their number” (39).

For Tov, a majority reading isn’t necessarily correct, for scribes could have made lots of copies of a wrong manuscript. I’m interested to see his criteria of “worth” in evaluating different readings.

2. Gerson Cohen, “The Talmudic Age,” Great Ideas and Ages of the Jewish People, ed. Leo Schwarz (New York: Random House, 1956) 147.

Is it possible, then, to speak of a “Talmudic civilization,” a single Jewish culture pattern that includes the major motifs of life of all the Jewish communities throughout eight centuries? Our answer is yes, and is perhaps best explained by an analogy. Just as it is possible to speak of an American pattern, and to include in that category the environment and culture of such contrasting types as the Bostonian aristocrat, the sharecropper of Georgia, and the factory worker of Detriot as representing, through all their distinct differences, a distinct civilization quite different from the culture of England, so it is possible to formulate real and pertinent characterizations of the Talmudic period as a whole.

This gave me a cozy sort of feeling. Not only did it evoke the America of the 1950’s, but I liked what it had to say about the Jewish people. They may be different among one another throughout the past and in the present, but there is still something that connects them all.

Growing up as an Armstrongite, did I have that sort of historical connection? After all, we were a Protestant sect of the twentieth century, splitting off from another Protestant sect. Believe it or not, I think that I did. For one, I felt somewhat of a bond with others in the movement, since they were keeping the same strange customs that I did. And, second, I often got a feeling of coziness when I read histories about the Sabbatarians, though I now know that some of them may not have been completely accurate (e.g., the Waldensians may not have kept the Seventh-Day Sabbath).

Are there commonalities among everyone in the human race that should encourage mutual understanding and lessen our selfishness and hatred for one another? I’d like to focus on those, as hard as it may be to do so!

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