|Illustration by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld of Josiah hearing Deuteronomy read.|
I am waaaay busy these days with work, dissertation, and teaching obligations, but I want to release some of the material I had already developed to answer the request of good Dovid Kornreich. Per this request, I agreed to provide greater detail about how the Sinai story began and developed.
This post will build on the last one and start to clarify the picture of Sinai. As a reminder: Sinai is not the whole of what the so-called Kuzari Principle is about. Rather, Sinai often serves as a representative example for Kuzari proponents, who apply Kuzari to argue that Jewish belief is trustworthy. Thus, they argue that Sinai must be true because such an event--a single divine revelation (theophany) before a nation of millions--could not be faked or invented. Whereas other religions claim private or semi-public revelations, thereby being open to fraud or error, Judaism claims that the entire nation of former Hebrew slaves witnessed God directly. At any time in the history of Jewish belief and tradition, the Kuzari proponent says, people could have discovered whether the story was false. A Jew could have asked her mother about the revelation. If the story were not true, the mother would have said "My mother and father never told me such a thing!"
The logical challenges to the Kuzari claim are many, as I have previously discussed at length. We have no good case at all for either divinities in general or divine-based explanations of actual phenomena. Kuzari-proponents offer no examples of either miracles or historically-verified events that are, like Sinai, too massive to have been false or mistakes. However, my biggest peeves with Kuzari and Sinai--and arguments involving them--involve imprecise terminology. I can be as guilty as anyone in using vague words; it's a common sin. But that's why we ask questions, and when we ask what Sinai is or what the Sinai story actually is, we get some interesting answers.
In this post, I am going to clarify what makes up the Sinai story and what doesn't. At the outset, I want to make sure we are distinguishing between the Sinai story, the report of a divine mass revelation, and the Sinai event, the historical phenomenon allegedly experienced by the nation of Israel immediately after their miraculous liberation from Egypt. My main concern is with the story, but the event is never far behind. Incidentally, we are not certain when the Sinai event could actually have occurred. Often, the date depends on the person telling you: I have seen dates (some with arguments) of 1313 BCE, 1250 BCE, 1446 BCE, and 2200 BCE. This range will have some importance a bit later.
Another caution, this time concerning the Sinai story itself. We need to be careful about identifying that which actually is the Sinai story and that which comments on and interprets the story. For this reason, I want to look at verses in Deuteronomy 4:9-40, where reference is made to the Sinai revelation. Here, we have a case where we are not--not, I say--given the Sinai story itself but are rather given commentary and interpretation on the story.
9. But beware and watch yourself very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, and lest these things depart from your heart, all the days of your life, and you shall make them known to your children and to your children's children,Because this section does not tell the Sinai story but rather comments on it, what we are reading is a later interpretation. What is more, in this interpretation the Sinai story plainly serves as the ground for behavioral prescriptions and prohibitions such as those that fill the Torah from Exodus through Deuteronomy. Do this and don’t do that because of what you saw at Horeb/Sinai (note: Horeb is the name used exclusively in D, while Sinai is used exclusively in the J and E sources. Traditional religious commentators remark that the names signify different spiritual aspects of the place.).
10. the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when the Lord said to me, "Assemble the people for Me, and I will let them hear My words, that they may learn to fear Me all the days that they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.”
11. And you approached and stood at the foot of the mountain, and the mountain burned with fire up to the midst of the heavens, with darkness, a cloud, and opaque darkness.
12. The Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire; you heard the sound of the words, but saw no image, just a voice.
13. And He told you His covenant, which He commanded you to do, the Ten Commandments, and He inscribed them on two stone tablets.
* * *
32. For ask now regarding the early days that were before you, since the day that God created man upon the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end of the heavens, whether there was anything like this great thing, or was the likes of it heard?
33. Did ever a people hear God's voice speaking out of the midst of the fire as you have heard, and live?
34. Or has any god performed miracles to come and take him a nation from the midst of a[nother] nation, with trials, with signs, and with wonders, and with war and with a strong hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great awesome deeds, as all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes?
35. You have been shown, in order to know that the Lord He is God; there is none else besides Him.
36. From the heavens, He let you hear His voice to instruct you, and upon the earth He showed you His great fire, and you heard His words out of the midst of the fire,
37. and because He loved your forefathers and chose their seed after them, and He brought you out of Egypt before Him with His great strength,
38. to drive out from before you nations greater and stronger than you, to bring you and give you their land for an inheritance, as this day.
Indeed, modern biblical scholarship locates the text in the section we’ve just seen with the D source. This source appears connected to the reign of Josiah, king of Judah (640-609 BCE), a religious reformer who reads the scrolls of instruction publicly (2 Kings 23:2), demolishes idols (2 Kings 23:15, 23:6,12), and makes Jerusalem the exclusive center of sacrifice. On the possible relation between D and Josiah’s reforms, biblical scholar Richard Elliott Friedman explains:
Josiah’s reforms are connected to instructions that are found in D; the narrative of Josiah’s making those reforms is told in terms and phrases that are typically found in D; and Josiah’s reforms are traced to the promulgation of a particular scroll, which is identified by the same words as the scroll that Moses writes in D. This interlocking chain of connections led to the extremely widely held view in scholarship that that the scroll that was read in Josiah’s day was D. There have been a variety of conceptions: It may have been just the law code that appears in Deuteronomy (chapters 12-26). It may have been the law code and some of the material that precedes and follows it. It may have been written earlier and then made public and authoritative in Josiah’s time. But there is little room for doubt that D is linked in some integral way to the reign of Josiah. (The Bible with Sources Revealed, p. 26)Whatever the link between D and Josiah, the gap is anywhere from 670 to 1460 years between when Sinai is thought to have possibly occurred and when Josiah’s reign began.
Just think about the magnitude of that time gap, between 670 and 1460 years (about 24.5K days to 53.32K days). How confident are you in the accuracy of any modern report on something that allegedly happened between 670 and 1460 years ago (or, between 551 and 1341 CE)? How confident are you in the accuracy of a report that is itself dated from between the years 551 and 1341 CE?
Another thought experiment: If Josiah were your king and basically shared your religion, how comfortable would you feel telling him that your fathers never said anything to you about having stood at Sinai? How do you think he might respond to your clearing up his misconception? Josiah didn’t need the story to be factually true. He didn’t even need it to be believed. He needed it to be accepted; that is, he needed his favored reading to be accepted. I'm not saying he didn't believe it, but I am saying that he seems to have understood how to use some stories for political authority and power.
Let’s leave Josiah, then, by acknowledging that the D reference to Sinai is a later interpretation of the story: what is more, the reference does not validate the story. We thus have one data point in the development of the Sinai story. We know it was useful as a way to provide historical and religious context to Josiah and his ambitions. We still don't know how the story started or what, if anything, is true in it.
At this point, then, we are in much the same position with respect to Sinai as Kornreich is when he justifies his skepticism concerning other religious claims:
|Religious Claim||Kornriech's Response|
|Claim 1: Jesus Christ was the only begotten son of the Jewish God. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.||I need to trust the account of 12 individuals who have not demonstrated any particular credibility.|
I don't KNOW its not true, but there is insufficient evidence due to scant number of witnesses with questionable credibility.
|Claim 2: Muhammad was the messenger of God, and the Qu'ran is the eternal and uncreated speech of God.||Again, I don't KNOW its not true, but the claims give no method for verification. How do we know he is a prophet? Did he make true predictions? cause miracles?|
How do we know it is a divine text? Did only one person receive it? Does it make true predictions?
|Claim 3: Mahaguru Parthasarathy, and Indian man, proves the existence and divinity of Vishnu by being an avatar of the god.||Same as #2--the claims give no method for verification. I need to trust the claim of an individual of unknown trustworthiness.|