"How can you explain a group of people who claim to be descendants of millions of people experiencing... the Revelation at Sinai? How did the first generation start believing it? A charismatic leader? A slowly evolving story? Mass hypnosis?A clever argument, but one that is deeply flawed.
Could a leader rewrite the oral history of a people and get them to believe it happened to their own ancestors? Imagine Napoleon telling the French "In the year 750, G-d [gave] your ancestors... a set of all-encompassing laws, and they passed that experience down from generation to generation." The people would say "What? Dad never told us that! Hey, Grandma, did your grandparents ever tell you about this?"
First Error: For this argument to work, we need to presume that ancient people were as deeply skeptical as we are today. But this is a mistake. Ancient people were famously gullible, and over the centuries, lot of bad ideas were widely accepted. For example, Celts believed in fairies, Irishmen believed in leprechauns, Polish peasant women believed in all manners of demons, ghosts and witches. Even today, roughly 2 billion people think Jesus is god. Consider this: Suppose 3000 years from now, some Christian-missionary of the future tells his prey that 2 billion people were once convinced of Jesus's divinity. Will that make it true?
In fact, (and this is ironic) the two authors of the Book of Kings and the Book of Nehemia show us just how credulous people once were. In both books a leader discovers a scroll which contains ideas previously unknown to the people. In Kings, Josiah tells the people about "commands, regulations and decrees;" and if, as is suggested, Josiah's book is Dueternomy, he also told them about the revelation at Sinai. In Nehemia, the people are introduced to the "book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel " and told by Ezra that God wants them to "dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month." At either time, do the people laugh out loud and accuse Josiah or Ezra of forgery? Do they say, "We're not keeping those new laws. That book can't be divine. If it were, our fathers would have mentioned it!" No! Instead, there was a great religious awakening.
Second Error:The argument supposes that the charismatic leader who introduced the Torah began by telling people that their ancestors had been present at the revelation. But is this necessarily true? Suppose he just told people that "something" happened at Sinai, and only generations later, after people had accepted this first notion, did they reach the conclusion that their own ancestors must have had been present at the revelation. Later on, with this second idea firmly in the minds of the people, the Torah was written. Is there anything, aside from the testimony of the Torah itself, which precludes this possibility? (The testimony of the Torah itself on this point can't be accepted because of the fallacy of circular reasoning. It would be akin to saying, "We know the Torah is true, because the Torah says it's true.")
Third Error: The argument assumes that all of us had different ancestors at Sinai (ie: that your great, great grandmother who was at Sinai is not the same person as my great, great grandmother who was also at Sinai.) But is this so?
In a 1999 paper titled "Recent Common Ancestors of All Present-Day Individuals," Joseph Chang, a statistician at Yale University, showed how to reconcile the potentially huge number of our ancestors with the quantities of people who actually lived in the past. He has found that 80 percent of the adult Europeans alive in 1000 are direct ancestors of every European living today. More recently, researchers determined that about 3.5 million of today Ashkenazi Jews are descended from just four women.
As impressive as the idea of millions of independent family traditions stretching back to Sinai might seem, the reality, based on this research into geneology, is that there probably aren't more than one or two: all Jews alive 1000 years after Sinai likely shared the same small handful of ancestors; all the other lines having died out over time. However unlikely it may be that millions of families became convinced of a lie at the same time, this isn't necessarily what happened.
At the begining, there might have been just a handful of people who accepted the story of the revleation. Given what we now know about the mathmetics of geneology, four or ten devout believers in the year 1200 BCE could have easily produced, within 1000 years, a large nation of descendants who all accepted the original family belief. When you recall that the absence of any kind of media made people almost entirely reliant on their families for information, the idea suggested here becomes even less unlikely.
Tomorrow: Why I, nonetheless, still believe in the revelation at Sinai.
[Related: Mind Without Borders has an additional point.]