Dear Dr. Mason,
I know you have no wish to carry on this correspondence. I think it has just been illustrated how hard it is to have a discussion in written form. I want to be sure we are ending the correspondence on amicable terms.
That having been said, I have to correct a misconception, even at the risk of seeming to go against your wishes. What follows is not meant to lead to a discussion.
There seems to be a prevalent absence of understanding amongst historians and even in some reference works over the process of transmission of the material making up the Rabbinic texts. What you say about the codification of Rabbinic works in the 3rd c. is misleading enough to be false. (a) The Mishnah is not the model to be applied generally, because by definition it is the product of the formation of a consensus on practice. (b) The halachic midrashim are a different matter. (One from the school of Ishmael and one from the school of ‘Akiva on each of Exodus Leviticus Numbers Deuteronomy, making eight books. Ishmael and Akiva are each near the last in line of heads of each academy). These were built up in writing generation by generation. Whatever is dated by attribution to a person was in writing from that time. This is not to deny that there must have been a final selection and editing from a vast mass of written material. (c) Something similar but not the same could be said of the various products of the various academies that went into the Mishnah. I think for example of the tractate Middot, on the details of structure and dimensions of the Jerusalem Temple. This comes in whole from one known academy. (b) The same with modifications can be said of Bereshit Rabba on Genesis, Vayyikra Rabba on Leviticus, and Echah Rabba on Lamentations. Much of their content can be dated to the mid 2nd c. with some parts being dateable as older and some later. Anonymous material is admittedly often undateable. (c) Material from the time of the Tanna’im in either Talmud that is formally introduced as a baraita [Aramaic fem. definite adjective meaning external, that is, not in the Mishnah] has been transmitted orally and in written form both at once. (d) In general, there seems to be a misconception amongst some historians of the Rabbinic theory or even dogma of the need for oral transmission. A comparison with the same theory amongst the Neoplatonists will illustrate what I mean. In both cases oral transmission means the passing on of understanding from generation to generation. Data can be both memorised and written. Memorisation is better, but the written text is needed as a control. After data are memorised comes the work of understanding. The analogy with oral material about Canada is misleading. (e) Contrary to what seems to be thought by many Classicists, there are other Rabbinic documents with a definite date of written composition. The one I had in mind in my previous message is the Seder ‘Olam Rabba, written by one person between 150 and 160. This gives the dates for one Agrippa.
In short, I was not thinking of undateable anecdotes in either Talmud. As for the reliability of the process, here is one striking instance. The Tosefta, the halachic midrashim, and the Palestinian Talmud preserve enough information about the High Priest Yishma‘el ben Piyavi [Greek Phiabi) to show that he was a Sadducee, though the reader has to see the evidence and put it together. This person is always mentioned with respect as the first link in the chain of transmission of older metaphysics into the Rabbinic system!
Here is one reference. This was the first systematic study of the relationship between memorisation, living transmission of understanding, and written records as a control on the accuracy of memorisation. Except for detailed studies in Hebrew before and after, it has not been surpassed. Birger Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity. [Acta Seminarii Neotestamentici Uppsaliensis, 22]. Lund, 1961 and slightly enlarged 1964.
When I used the word “science” before, I was influenced by the corresponding word in many European languages and in Arabic and Hebrew, as you would have gathered. I was not thinking of the narrower meaning in English. I will rephrase by saying that what has just been typed had to be said for the sake of sound investigative method.
Dear Dr. Mason,