The Sinai Argument
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The Sinai Argument
by Shlomi Tal
The question of whether the revelation of God to the ancestry of the nation of Israel took place is of great importance to the Jewish faith, comparable to the Empty Tomb debate in Christianity. As do fundamentalist Christians with the latter, Orthodox Jews base the faith on the alleged historical fact of the revelation at Mount Sinai, saying it affirms the religion and negates all objections to it. Let us critically examine the issue and evaluate the case for the historicity of the Sinai Covenant.
Argument from Unique Public Revelation
The argument for the historicity of a public revelation is put forward in Rabbi Yehuda Halevi's Kuzari, and given a recent elaboration by Rabbi Dr. Dovid Gottlieb of Ohr Somayach, an Orthodox outreach yeshiva network, in his Living Up to Truth apologetics series .
The outline of the argument is as follows:
1.The story of the revelation to the entire ancestry of the nation of Israel is without parallel in all history.
2.The reason it is without parallel is that such a story cannot be fabricated.
3.Only private revelations and miracles can be fabricated; a public revelation must actually have happened.
The main issue is whether a public event, all the more so before an entire nation, could be told without having happened. The author says the argument can be falsified by bringing just one claim of a public event which is said to have happened but known to be untrue. He argues that there is no other such claim because it is impossible to make such a claim unless the event really happened.
This is not quite right. First, it is not any public event, but only public events that would naturally be remembered. Second, I argue that there is no such claim because…there is no such claim! It is not an argument; it is an empirical fact that there are no such claims. A survey of myths, past and present, reveals not one verified case of such a claim.
He then goes on to refute the allegation that the Sinai Argument is a result of myth formation, saying that if the myth of the Sinai Covenant was formed by extrapolation of an impressive event then there ought to be parallel myths. The fact of revelation at Sinai must therefore be real, passed from generation to generation without fail, for it is impossible for a father to pass a lie onto his son.
Public Myth Formation
As an example of the principle, Rabbi Gottlieb gives a hypothetical story of gold trees growing all over Romania for a period of twenty years. He argues that if such a public miracle happened, we would not need to search for it, but would know of it already, it being so famous and being the subject of ample literature and account. This claim of copious documentation, however, is falsified by myths which left no trace except themselves. For example, the traditions of Shi'i Islam say that on the day Husain ben Ali, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was killed, the stones of the Temple Mount were drenched in blood for the whole day. That should have left some commentary from other sources, such as Christians living in Jerusalem at the time, but let us grant that the non-Muslims were not interested, and that the miracle took place only for a single day, and still we have a public miracle.
When Tal says "non-Muslims were not interested" he is giving up the claim that the Christians should have recorded the event. Then he adds "still we have a public miracle". What is supposed to follow? Not that the Christians recorded the event - he has given that up. That the memory should be preserved by the contemporary Moslems? But my criterion for belief states that only when the descendants of the original witnesses believe the public event does the story have credibility. In this case there is no record whatsoever of the identity of the witnesses, nor even that they were Moslems. Thus it would be very easy after, say, one hundred years, to invent the story and sell it to Moslem populations who could assume that the witnesses were not their ancestors. Under these conditions my criterion says that you can get people to believe in false stories. The revelation at Sinai was accepted by the entire people as an event witnessed by all their ancestors. This is utterly unlike the Moslem story.
Rabbi Gottlieb says, however, that even thousands of witnesses, as in the Feeding of the Multitudes by Jesus, are "semi-private" affairs. But the 600,000 reported adult male ancestors of the Jews who stood at Sinai are also thousands of witnesses, just more thousands than the number reported for the Christian miracle. How does Gottlieb determine the sufficient number for witnesses? How much public does a miracle need to be in order that there may be no possibility of fabrication? By arbitrarily writing off the number of witnesses to the Feeding of the Multitudes as insufficient but accepting the number of witnesses to the Sinai Covenant as sufficient, Gottlieb is assuming what he is trying to prove.
Two points need to be made here. The minor point is this. The fact that we do not have a precise cutoff between public a private events is not an objection. Almost all concepts have gray areas. All that is required is that when using the concept we stay away from the gray areas. There is no clear cutoff between a mountain and a hill. Nevertheless, Everest is a mountain, and 300 foot promontories are hills. This is the reason that I did no concern myself with providing a number. Two and one-half million is clearly enough. Five thousand is clearly not enough. If someone had produced a case with, say, a quarter of a million people, it would be in the gray area, and then I would not be able to say that it was not enough.
But all this misses the major point. In addition to the number being large enough, it must include the ancestry of the nation that accepts the story. The reason is the same as the previous comment. We need to prevent inventing the story later and selling it to an audience on the grounds that their ancestors were not present [and that is why they have not heard of it.] The problem with the Christian miracles is that the number of witnesses is a tiny percentage of the local population. Thus one can invent the story fifty years later and tell the audience that their particular ancestors need not have been present.
If the Feeding of the Multitudes can be regarded as a myth, and the drenching of stones in blood too, and so too the statewide decree of King Shahrayar in the Arabian Nights to bring a single virgin girl of Persia to him each night, to be killed the next day (not a miracle, but still a public event of statewide influence),...
There are several problems with this example. First, as pointed out to me by a professor of classics, not every story recorded in books of ancient myths was believed, even by the population who retold the stories. One historian writes that the myths of ancient Rome were treasured because they illustrated public virtues, even though everyone understood that they were not literally true. Aesop's fables had that status in the ancient world, as do the stores of Santa Claus in our world. So the fact that books of Arabic fables record this story does not prove that anyone ever really believed it.
Second, even if it was believed, we have no evidence that the descendants of the original population believed it. We need to know when and where in the vast Moslem empire the belief first arose. Otherwise we again have the possibility that the first believers were not the descendent of those who supposedly witnessed the event.
Third, I wonder whether this event really possessed statewide significance. After all, the ruler of such a kingdom will raise armies to fight wars, conscript workers for forced labor, execute competitors for power and generally treat the kingdom as his private property to do with as he pleases. Will the appropriation of virgins be regarded as of striking significance is such a context? And how long does this go on? How many virgins are actually executed? If only a few hundred, this could easily be forgotten in the context of a generally brutal regime. If not memory of the event is expected, then again the story can easily be invented later.
...and Gottlieb does not take any one of them to be true, then why should the revelation at Sinai be given preferential treatment?
I agree that within a space of one or two generations it is impossible to fabricate a public event. However, when time is distant (say ten generations) it is perfectly possible to make a myth regarding the ancestors.
This point is crucial. Tal is imagining how easy it would be to make up a story about the ancestors of the nation if enough time is put between the time of invention and the dating of the story. I agree that it is easy to imagine such a thing. But I claim that in this case our imaginations are out of touch with reality. [Unless the time difference is so vast that no records at all survive from the date of the story. Then indeed myths can be created. But that does not fit the Sinai case – see below.] And it is reality with which we are concerned.
For, if it really is possible, if it really is within human psychology that such stories be invented when enough time is inserted between the invention and the dating of the story, then there ought to be many such stories. Any phenomenon that can be produced by normal conditions ought to happen often. And then there ought to be many such phenomena in the historical record. But in fact there is not one verified case. Thus the appeal to imagination has no relevance here. Only real cases will do. That is why it is important to see that the cases Tal mentions do not fit the conditions of the Kuzari Principle.
This point is so important I will repeat it. Consider a parallel. A geneticist claims to have found a chicken gene that is subject to mutation due to heat above 20 degrees centigrade. This mutation produces a third wing on the newly hatched chicken. His claim will be rejected for a very simple reason – we have never seen a newly hatched chicken with three wings, in spite of the fact that millions of chicken live at temperatures higher than 20 degrees centigrade. Thus the process he claims to have discovered – a process that would regularly produce the third wing – must be a mistake. Our case is parallel. Tal claims to have found a process that will naturally produce violations of the Kuzari Principle – claims of public experiences [that would have been remembered] that are in fact false. If he is right, then there ought to be many such claims. In fact, there is not one verified case. Thus his claimed process must be a mistake.
Greek mythology has it that Prometheus gave fire to the first humans, and afterwards the Greek gods gave Pandora's box of diseases to humanity. Those gifts, for good or bad, were given to the first humans, which are supposedly the ancestors of us all, of the humanity of all the world. "Your ancestors were witnesses to the fact that Prometheus gave them fire", it could be so phrased. Would Rabbi Gottlieb find it strange?
This too was considered in my original text. If a story places the event so far in the past that no records whatsoever survive from that time, then indeed one can make up stories about one's ancestors. There re many such stories - that humans spoke with animals, for example. But the revelation at Sinai was accepted at a time when many records existed reaching back even far before the revelation. So these stories do not meet the conditions of the Kuzari Principle.
It is no more strange than his own saying, "your ancestors were witnesses
to the fact that God gave them the Torah".
There is as much justification in believing the Prometheus myth, but an Orthodox Jew has already taken it for granted that Greek mythology must be false.
The Worldwide Miracle of Joshua 10
At this point the apologist for Orthodox Judaism will request that I should stop giving such seemingly fabulous examples as the Prometheus myth or the statewide decree of the Persian king Shahrayar and present a real example of a very public miracle which is reported to have happened but did not actually take place. I do not think any example could satisfy a person who has already subscribed to a doctrine, but no matter, I have an example from none other than the Hebrew Bible (the TaNaKh, which the Christians call the Old Testament) itself. Joshua 10:13 says that the sun stood in the half (=middle) of the sky and did not hasten to set for about a whole day. Now, I should like to reflect on Joshua's miracle. It is not given the same emphasis and prominence as the Sinai Covenant, but numerically it should be. Whereas the revelation at Sinai was allegedly witnessed by only one nation, the miracle of Joshua 10 must have been witnessed by the entirety of humanity worldwide. It should be perfectly clear that if the sun stays in its place a whole day (actually the earth, but let us leave this nice piece of Bible errancy),...
Tal could have included the “errancy” of the New York Times as well, since that newspaper daily reports the times of sunrise and sunset - sun rise and sun set! It should write "time of the sun's appearance due to the rotation of the earth" and "time of the sun's disappearance due to the rotation of the earth". But of course the Times is describing how the motion of the sun appears - it is not pretending to describe the astronomical truth. The same is true of the Tanach.
then the whole world is affected. In no part of the world could this miracle have gone unnoticed. It would have been recorded everywhere, or at least in all cultures having a writing system and astronomical awareness.
In the case of this worldwide miracle, not only do we find no recording whatsoever in any book outside the Bible,
I think this is a significant objection. I have two suggestions how to reply.
(A) We can argue that even so spectacular an event as the stopping of the sun would not necessarily be recorded. Professor Jonathan Ostroff [department of computer science, York University, Toronto] puts it this way: “We need to distinguish between events that would have effected the whole history of the nation so that the event will certainly not be forgotten by the nation, e.g. the signing and acceptance of the constitution of the US. Events that have no long term significance for the nation could easily be forgotten. My own sense is that the standing still of the sun is the type of thing that may have been forgotten over the course of time unless tied to a historically significant event [in this case, it was only significant for the Jews; hence they alone remembered it].” Thus we need not expect other nations to remember this event.
(B) We can question how complete are the records that we possess from the period in which the miracle occurred. I have sent the following questions to professional historians:
I am searching for information concerning the historical records we possess for the period 1300 BCE to 1100 BCE, particularly in Babylonia and China. My questions are these:
- How complete are the records – what kinds of events do they record? What kinds of events do they omit?
- Are there substantial periods of time – say, 50 years or more – during that period for which there are no records at all?
- If the answer to 2 is yes, is the reason that those who wrote the records skipped periods, or is the reason that we are missing records?
- How reasonable would it be to suppose that an event occurred during that period even if the records we possess do not mention it? Suppose the event in question is a major war, a natural disaster like a massive earthquake or volcanic eruption or tsunami, an astronomical prodigy like an eclipse, a major technological advance like the invention of gunpowder, a major social transformation like changing the form of government or religion – in cases like these, would the absence of the event from the historical records we possess be conclusive proof that the event did not occur?
Now if the answer to question 4 is yes – the absence of the event from the records we possess is conclusive proof [or even strong evidence] that the event did not occur, then Tal has a solid objection. If the answer to 4 is no, then Tal’s objection evaporates. So far, I have received no answers. So at present we do not know the answer to 4. So at present we do not know whether Tal has an objection or not.
The underlying point here is this. We should not rely on intuition - “I think they would have recorded it”. “I think they would not have recorded it.” – we should gather evidence about actual records to see what was and was not recorded, and reflect on how (in)complete the records are. Until this is done, we cannot determine whether or not there is a real objection here.
In sum, if the objection is based on intuition, then (A) is a response via a contrasting intuition. And if we reject intuition, then (B) shows that, at least to date, no objection has been demonstrated.
...but we find evidence against the miracle. The Egyptians and the Babylonians had writing systems and astronomical reckoning, yet they left no trace of the event in their writings. Furthermore, the Egyptian pyramids are aligned with the stars exactly as though the suspension of cosmic affairs never took place .
Tal’s footnote  cites Jim Merrit’s FAQ which cites the book Science and the Paranormal. Chapter 16 of that book debunks various superstitions about the pyramids – their relevance to the miracle of Joshua is not even mentioned, nor does Merrit explain it. Tal gives no details of the argument that the pyramids are aligned as if the miracle did not take place. It is not clear how the argument should go. More than a million days have passed since then, so the stopping of the sun would cause a difference of only 1 part per million. Is that what we are measuring today?
But let us suppose that there is some such argument – the pyramids today are aligned as if the miracle did not occur. What should we conclude? Dr. Irvin Asher argues that we should conclude nothing:
“Consider the fact that, regarding the orientation of pyramids, etc. to astronomical bodies, the procession of the equinoxes is a major factor over 2000 year long periods (e.g., the vernal equinox moved two constellations over, much to the consternation of astrologers). In his book Dawn of Astronomy, Norman Lockyer showed (to his own satisfaction) well over 50 years ago that the Egyptians actually tore down and rebuilt the aligned entrances to temples etc. to realign them to meet changed astronomical realities, e.g. so certain stars once again rose in certain places at certain times. Georgio de Santillana has many other references in his slightly eccentric but useful book on mythology and astronomy of about 30 years ago Hamlet's Mill.”
Thus the present alignment of the pyramids may be the result of correcting “errors” – errors that reflect Joshua’s miracle.
Finally, there is a clear failure of logic in this argument, one which applies to many other cases as well. We are discussing a miracle. Why should we assume that the consequences of a miracle will be according to nature? Tal’s argument needs the assumption that the sum total of the miracle is what the Bible describes; all further consequences must be according to the “laws of nature”. But this is without foundation. The Bible describes an event that violates “nature”. It is reasonable to expect that features of the event that the Bible does not mention also violate nature. Consider this parallel. Over 800 years ago the Ramban commented that the ark was clearly too small to fit all the animals. But since the flood as a whole was a miraculous event, the natural size of the ark was no obstacle to its role in saving the animals – even though this aspect of the miracle is not mentioned explicitly in the Bible.
In sum: It is not clear what the present misalignment should be; the present accuracy of the alignment could be due to subsequent rebuilding; and it could be due to further miraculous adjustment of the motion of the sun. I think we can let the pyramids rest!
The evidence can be explained either by the implausible hypothesis (and
unsupported by scripture) that the cosmic order was later restored to what
it had been before the miracle, or by the simpler
and more likely hypothesis that it never took place. So it is that we have
a public, worldwide miracle which all of humankind
supposedly witnessed but most probably did not happen at all. Rabbi Gottlieb's
empirical challenge of producing a public story
which did not take place is thus answered, and there is no room here even for
a numerical dispute, for the miracle of Joshua 10
is the most public miracle that could ever be imagined in the world.
From the start, the Sinai Argument suffers from having a single-source witness, without corroboration from outside sources.
Students of ancient historical texts agree that their primary purpose was the glorify the rulers [who paid the scribes to write them]. Thus they never record the defeats of their own nations. Similarly, they do not record the religious history or beliefs of other peoples, especially small and insignificant peoples. Thus the absence of any mention of the exodus from egypt and the revelation art Sinai is to be expected, even if those events did occur.
Rabbi Gottlieb has tried to prove that no other witness is needed, for the public miracle is self-proving, but I have shown how it is possible for a public, even worldwide, story to be false nonetheless. The revelation at Sinai therefore stands in the same shaky position as the claims of Jesus and Muhammad (both of them solitary men coming with a message from God for humanity). Just as there is no external evidence for the virgin birth of Jesus, or for Muhammad's reception of the Qur'an from the angel, so there is no external source for the revelation at Sinai. Orthodox, Torah-literal Judaism is thus just another theistic faith without foundation. There is external evidence for some parts of the Bible, such as the siege of Sennacherib on Jerusalem, which is recorded on Assyrian tablets,
As mentioned above, here the Assyrians are recording their own history. That is to be expected. It is not expected that the revelation at Sinai [or, for that matter, the birth of the founder of Christianity] would be mentioned in Assyrian [or other nations’] sources.
but no such corroboration for the Sinai Covenant. The revelation is recorded
in a single
source, which we are supposed to believe is true because it says so. The evidence,
however, is to the contrary: the alleged
divine source is full of contradictions and errors, failing even in the
fundamental point of origins (if God created us then he
did so by means of evolution, which the Bible curiously neglects to mention ).
Is the failure to mention evolution and example of contradictions and errors? Must a book record all facts to be free of contradictions and errors? Would not all books then be full of contradictions and errors?
It is thus plausible to conclude, as with the story of the worldwide miracle of Joshua 10, that the revelation at Sinai never took place. It was formed many generations after the consolidation of the Jewish nation, at a time when no-one could know what the ancestors had seen or done.
 The chapter on the Sinai Argument can be found at http://www.ohr.edu/special/books/gott/truth-6.htm, spotted Jun 14, 2001.
 Explained in Jim Meritt's General Anti-Creationism FAQ, at http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-meritt/bible.html, spotted Jun 14, 2001.
 Don't be taken in by the NASA Proves Missing Day legend.
 See the Biblical Criticism and Biblical Errancy sections.
 See the Science and Religion section.