It really depends on how much care has been taken to preserve them.
Recently, Barry Arrington posted on how we can be sure of something (for example, that bin Laden is dead). The burden of proof is on any who might claim otherwise.
For some, the question has arisen whether the oral transmission of the Torah (the books of Moses in Jewish tradition) could be reliable. What about memory lapses, deliberate alterations, etc., especially during the time when oral memory and transmission were normal, alongside scrolls (which were expensive and time-consuming to produce).
Well, I asked the ID community reb, Moshe Averick, author of Nonsense of a High Order: The confused and illusory world of the atheist, how do you know that the Torah goes back to the time of Moses? Here is what he says,
There are many safeguards in Jewish law and practice to preserve the integrity of the Torah scroll. However, the simplest and most obvious evidence of how well the system works, is that after the founding of the State of Israel, Jews from every corner of the world brought their own Torah Scrolls and the ones from Yemen ( whose community was over 2000 years old) matched the ones from Poland. This, despite the fact that there are over 300,000 letters in the Torah.
The scrolls are all handwritten, it is absolutely forbidden to use a printing press to create a Torah scroll, and a new scroll can only be copied from an already existent one. The scroll is read from publicly three times a week, Monday, Thursday and Shabbat. There are no vowels or punctuation in the scroll, if the reader makes a mistake (everyone follows from a printed edition) he is immediately stopped and must repeat the word properly.
If it turns out that there is a mistake in the text, even one letter, it is forbidden to read from it publicly and is immediately put back in the ark with a distinct sign that it is invalid, until it is repaired by a qualified scribe. Unless you have actually seen how quickly the reader is jumped on by the congregation if he makes a mistake, and unless you have actually watched a Torah scroll invalidated in the middle of the service and put back in the ark, it is hard to really understand how exacting this process is.
It is also important to understand the reverence that the community has for the Torah scroll. I’m not talking about orthodox communities, that goes without saying, I’m even talking about the most Reform, liberal congregations. They might eat on Yom Kippur, but no one, and I mean no one messes with a Torah scroll. It would be unthinkable (this is something that can only be known from experience) for the most liberal Reform congregation to write their own version of a Torah scroll, and this is despite the fact that they claim to believe that the whole thing is a bunch of man made myths.
There are 5-6 letter differences between the scroll of the Arab-Jewish communities and the eastern European Jewish communities. These are all letters that are silent in the words, and none change the meaning or pronunciation of a word or phrase. Example: Thouht and Thought , foreign and forein, etc.
Torah scrolls can easily used for up to 100 years, which means that the transmission process really only has to happen 30-40 times. This takes you back over 3000 years to the final writing of the Torah at the end of the 40 years in the desert.
It is a good example of the use of an oral tradition to correct a written tradition as well as the durability of a written tradition – if anyone cares about it. Oral traditions are not necessarily so subject to corruption as the original commenter seemed to think. He is confusing situations where no one cares much with ones where they do and must care.Ancient Greek myths of the gods were examples of situations where no one cared much. There were many variant accounts of the soap opera lives of the pagan gods, and the only bottom to the confusion is that a good editor would sometimes fashion an account that – being a good story – would simply get told more often until it became the standard story. Somewhat like one soap opera being way more popular than others, but it was all just nonsense. Think Homer. That was a Darwinian system! – the story was shaped for fitness, not for truth. Of course, after a while, people got tired of truth-optional religion, which is why you and I are where we are today and the Greek gods are just garden statues somewhere.
Readers, you decide.
Update: Re Dead Sea Scrolls, he also notes: “I is important to know that none of the Dead Sea Scrolls were of the type that are used in a synagogue. In other words they are unauthorized texts written by unknown scribes. It is obvious that in texts like these there will be quite a bit of variation. ”
See also “Detecting authenticity in lack of design. (Note: There, we are talking about authenticity, not conciseness = how inconcision can be a marker for authenticity.)