Neusner was a rabbinic historian. He can be credited with reinventing rabbinic historiography in the modern period. Prior rabbinic historians were either completely naïve in accepting traditional histories or, if they were critically-oriented, prioritized the production of a coherent story over the messy contradictions that emerge from the data of primary sources. Neusner taught the field to be skeptical, to require contemporaneous evidence for a historical claim, and to distrust the internal historiography within the rabbinic texts themselves (i.e., the attributions to named rabbis). Neusner’s skepticism was a major force in the reimagining of rabbinic literature as a literary rather than as an historical project. Well into the 1980s, it was common among Israeli scholars and American seminarians to write biographies of rabbinic figures based on the data mined from all of the sources of rabbinic literature. Neusner ended this practice by highlighting the gaps in age, culture, and authorial provenance in the diverse works of classical rabbinic literature. Attempts to produce such biographies today transpire under an explicitly literary rather than historical banner.
One of Neusner’s core interventions was his insistence on the use of external materials as a check on the claims of rabbinic sources. While prior scholars had used such materials in their comparative work, Neusner prioritized the import of cross-cultural and archeological information to the point of distrusting rabbinic sources unless they were buttressed by external data. Neusner’s History of the Jews in Babylonia was an ambitious attempt to both mine the Babylonian Talmud and search everywhere for sources of information about the Jewish experience in the Babylonian diaspora.
Barry Wimpfheimer, “A Biography or a Hagiography?” a review of Aaron Hughes’ Jacob Neusner: An American Jewish Iconoclast, Religious Studies Review, vol. 44, no. 1 (March 2018), 75.