The “Herr Professor” who passes his opinion without fearing any public laughter will tell us, “This certainly has the ring of truth,” but he rarely goes so far as to say how he knows and, more important, why we should know too. A commonplace sentiment in German and Israeli scholarship in this area, submissive as it is to authority and politics, confirms the professor’s certainty of the historical facticity of the opinion he formed that morning. The “Herr Professors” tend to make things up as they go along and call the result eternal truth, from of old. So they pronounce judgment. They posit “oral tradition” without identifying institutional evidence (e.g., schools for professional memorizers, a class of memorizers, a status assigned to what was memorized) pertinent to the first century; there is ample evidence for the third and fourth centuries that should serve as a model. The work of picking and choosing what to believe is “very early” and “even back to the time of Jesus” out of the mass of allegations that the whole goes back anyhow to Moses (so why not also to Jesus?) rarely is systematic. Usually it is anecdotal, episodic, and therefore capricious. If subjective opinion makes its way as fact, it is because of the political power of a given professor, not because of the power of persuasion of reasoned and systematic arguments, beginning with hypotheses on the character of the evidence in hand – the documents and how their authors know what they tell us.
When people suppose that these writings served as historical sources to tell us how things really were, not in the early third century, as with the Mishnah, or the early seventh century, as with the Talmud of Babylonia, but in the first century B.C.E., when Hillel lived, or the first century C.E., when Yohanan ben Zakkai flourished, it is equally natural to fall silent: “I’m not entirely sure; I have to work on it.” There are other routine and (to the believers) self-evidently valid responses, which would have provided a more satisfying answer than mine. After all, “would our holy rabbis lie?” as an Israeli historian asked! Is it not the fact that “the burden of proof is on the one who doubts the source,” as the regnant dean of scholars pleased to call themselves “the Jerusalem school” opined?
Jacob Neusner, Rabbinic Literature & The New Testament: What We Cannot Show, We Do Not Know (Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press, International, 1994), 7-8.