The Formation of the Oral Torah

How the Talmud came to occupy its place in the canon of authoritative Jewish texts as the "Oral Torah"

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In the following article, Neusner describes his theory concerning the formation of the Mishnah and it attaining authoritative status. However, it should be noted that some scholars disagree with him and present alternative theories. Excerpted from The Talmud: A Close Encounter, with permission of the author.

Problem: How could the Mishnah gain authority?

From the formation of ancient Israelite Scripture, in the aftermath of the return to Zion and the creation of the Torah book in Ezra's time (ca. 450 BCE), coming generations routinely set their ideas into relationship with Scripture. This they did by citing proof texts alongside their own rules.

Otherwise, in the setting of Israelite culture, the new writings could find no ready hearing. Over the six hundred years from the formation of the Torah of "Moses" in the time of Ezra, from ca. 450 BCE to ca. CE 200, four conventional ways of accommodating new writings--new "tradition"--to the established canon of received Scripture had come to the fore.

First and simplest, a writer would sign a famous name to his book, attributing his ideas to Enoch, Adam, Jacob's sons, Jeremiah, Baruch, and any number of others, down to Ezra. But the Mishnah bore no such attribution, for example, to Moses. Implicitly, to be sure, the statement of Mishnah Avot 1:  "Moses received Torah from Sinai (and handed it on to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets.  And the prophets handed it on to the men of the great assembly…)" carried the further notion that sayings of people on the list of authorities from Moses to nearly their own day derived from God's revelation at Sinai. But no one made that premise explicit before the time of the Talmud of the Land of Israel.

Second, an authorship might also imitate the style of biblical Hebrew and so try to creep into the canon by adopting the cloak of Scripture. But the Mishnah's authorship ignores biblical syntax and style.

Third, an author would surely claim that his work was inspired by God, a new revelation for an open canon. But, as we realize, that claim makes no explicit impact on the Mishnah.

Fourth, at the very least, someone would link his opinions to biblical verses through the exegesis of the latter in line with the former, so Scripture would validate his views. The authorship of the Mishnah did so only occasionally, but far more commonly stated on its own authority whatever rules it proposed to lay down.

The Hebrew of the Mishnah complicated the problem, because it is totally different from the Hebrew of the Hebrew Scriptures. Its verb, for instance, makes provision for more than completed or continuing action, for which the biblical Hebrew verb allows, but also for past and future times, subjunctive and indicative voices, and much else.

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Jacob Neusner

Professor Jacob Neusner is the senior fellow of the Institute of Advanced Theology and a full-time professor at Bard College. He has published more than 800 books and innumerable articles. His publications range from the scholarly and academic to the popular and journalistic.