When analyzed in these terms, those same stories which seem so inappropriate for writing history may therefore be able to help. Admittedly, these stories have reached us as a result of a complicated process of transmission, and virtually everything in these accounts was explained as having occurred as a result of personal actions, but the fact that these stories operated in a different intellectual framework than ours is no reason to refuse to include them in the scope of historical inquiry. Our task is no different than that of historians of other periods or places, who must also utilize whatever uncongenial sources are at their disposal, including sources not written to be history, ones in which the invented or the imagined far outweighed the remembered, or which have been told and retold over the generations. Rabbinic stories are therefore worthy of our attention.
In other words, we must not yield to the arrogance of concluding that since the questions and, particularly, the answers are not in our mode of intellectual discourse these stories are of no value for history. Rabbinic stories should be read as we have learned to read ancient myth: these accounts were posing profound queries concerning the meaning of human experience within an intellectual framework different from ours. In myth, too, stories were told and retold, and interpersonal relations were the key interpretive means. Once we realize, however, what we and the mythmakers have in common, we can begin to appreciate the significance of myth. The same is true of Rabbinic tales; in addition to all their other aspects, they were often attempts to understand the past.
Albert I. Baumgarten, “Rabbinic Literature as a Source for the History of Jewish Sectarianism in the Second Temple”, Dead Sea Discoveries, Vol. 2, No. 1 (April 1995), 33-34.