The Torah’s “Rediscovery” in Josiah’s Time

I have heard the claim that we believe the Torah is true because millions witnessed the Revelation at Sinai and the Jews have remembered this event ever since. It is further impossible that such a story could have been fabricated after the fact – that someone came along and invented a history and convinced an entire nation of an event which allegedly occurred to millions of its members – when they knew full well that it had not.

However, people point out the fallacy of this claim. As a matter of fact, the Torah itself attests to the fact that it was forgotten at least once during our history. II Kings 21 describes the terrible wickedness and idolatry which King Manasseh led the people to. He ruled for 55 years, followed by his son Amon for another two. Then in Chapter 22, ten years into the reign of his grandson King Josiah, the High Priest found a Torah scroll and they were not even familiar with its contents. The king repented and led the nation to a great religious revival. However, before that time, it seems the Torah was utterly forgotten. If so, our belief in our tradition actually boils down to the belief in the accuracy of a single scroll – which claims that the Jewish history we have been taught is true. But it was not as if millions of people remembered it and accepted it all through the ages.

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Thank you for your important question. Yes, the story of Josiah is a well-known counterclaim to the claim that an incident such as the national revelation at Sinai could not have been invented. In fact, the counterargument goes, the nation had been idolatrous for decades before Josiah’s time – as the Torah itself attests. They were not following any traditions from Sinai. Thus, when Josiah came along claiming to have discovered a Torah, perhaps it really was a new innovation. It was based on him, or perhaps a few individuals, that the people were led to believe their past history and the ancient story of the Revelation. But it was clearly not remembered for all time. If so, aren’t we basing our beliefs the same way other religions do – on a claim made by a few people? And perhaps those people simply invented it at the time?

This argument sounds convincing at first, but when we study the matter carefully, it is really not a serious claim.

There is a great difference between people becoming lax in their religious observance and their forgetting their history entirely. The Book of Kings does state that Manasseh led the nation to wickedness (and there were as well other times throughout our history where the people were not that observant – see e.g. Judges 2:10-13). But to say they entirely forgot their past in a couple of decades – and were willing to believe any made-up story about it, is inconceivable. Sociologically, an entire nation does not work that way, even if they are lured to the idolatries of their neighbors. There have likewise been displaced nations and minorities throughout the ages and they virtually never forget their national heritage, no matter how strongly they are influenced by their host society.

There was an Israeli university professor who went so far as to claim the Israelites were an ordinary Canaanite tribe, and King Josiah singlehandedly invented an entire past for them – the story of the Patriarchs, Joseph and his brothers, the Egyptian exile, Moses and the redemption, Joshua and the entry into Israel etc. – and the entire nation was gullible enough to believe him and accept that as their history. All I can say is that this is a perfect example of George Orwell’s remark that some ideas are so patently absurd only an intellectual could believe them.

Beyond this, it is clear that the Torah was not nearly so forgotten as it seems before Josiah’s time. It is clear from II Kings 22 that they knew full well what a Torah was when they found one (see v. 8). And they likewise knew how to begin observing it – how to observe Shabbat, how to make Tefillin, do the Temple service, etc. There were also ready prophets to teach them the significance of the Torah’s discovery and how to once again keep its statutes. Huldah the Prophetess advised Josiah about the scroll’s discovery, and the major prophet Jeremiah was her contemporary (see Talmud Megillah 14b). And even before the scroll’s discovery, the verse states that Josiah began following God’s ways and removing signs of idolatry (II Chronicles 34:3-7). He clearly had some idea of the traditions of Israel even if he had not seen a Torah.

Likewise, as wicked as Manasseh might have been, it’s inconceivable that he had wiped out all vestiges of the Torah and observance from the entire nation. He didn’t have a KGB or run a police state (nor did he rule at all in the Northern Kingdom). Observance may have been nil in the palace and perhaps in its environs, but the further from Jerusalem one went the less his influence would have been. It’s hard to believe that after only 67 years there wasn’t a single mezuzah, pair of Tefillin, or Torah scroll in the entire country.

Rather, much more plausibly, the situation at that time was more or less as it has been all throughout the ages – that the masses of Jews were not that observant (although to be sure they remembered their history and were culturally Jewish), while a steady minority was learned and observant and faithfully preserved the nation’s traditions. This truly is how our tradition has been passed all throughout the ages.

Finally, it should be pointed out that the Torah itself states that Manasseh repented later in his life (II Chronicles 33:10-19). Although his personal regret was not strong enough to halt the terrible national descent to idolatry, Judaism was in practice right there in the palace until two years before Josiah became king. And no doubt for this reason the copy of the Torah was recognized immediately when it was found.

Thus, once again, in spite of the laxity in observance leading up to Josiah’s time, it is inconceivable that the Jewish people had so utterly forgotten its history and religion to the extent that it was ready to accept newly-invented ones. Millions still remembered the Revelation and the story of the Jewish people, and no doubt tens of thousands were observing authentic Judaism in all its detail, and based on this we have our heritage today.

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