You are sitting in shul at a Shabbat morning service. The ark opens. You and your family rise, kiss the Torah and your child asks you, “Dad, Mom, where does the Torah come from?”
You say “Well, God gave it to Moses and Moses wrote it and passed it on to the Jewish people. Generation after generation until today.” Good – I say. Then you go home and wonder about it. Is the “original” Torah somewhere? You should know that all “original” copies of the individual biblical writings have eluded the excavators and us. Books of the Torah were probably written on papyrus made from the sliced stem of a plant, nowhere to be found. We are usually unaware that there is no original manuscript available. That most of the writings were done in a script that resembles the present writing. It was probably Old Hebrew or Phoenician script which was also shared by Canaanities and Phoenicians. After the first exile 586 B.C.E., the Aramaic script influenced the writing of the Hebrew language in the direction of the Square Script as we know it today.
We are also unaware that the oldest parchment scroll of the Torah dates from about 900 C.E., which is probably more than 1,300 years later than the likely time of the composition of the Torah. It is not too speculative to say that probably much has happened to the text in term of its oral and written form.
The “version” we use in our synagogues is the Masoretic version. The Masoretes were scholars who, over the centuries, attempted to preserve the “best text.” One of the versions was produced in Tiberias, Israel in the tenth century C.E, and from that scroll we have made copies.
Someone once wrote: “The birth of a text is like the birth of a human being. The umbilical cord connects the text with its producers and with the time in which it was produced. When the cord is severed, its existence has become a fact; the text is now going to live its own life…”