Talmud blatantly differs from the document upon which it comments. The formalized rhetoric of the Talmud breaks Mishnah’s carefully unfolding taxonomy, in which circumstances combining to define a hypothetical case are systematically varied, in order to generate lists of such cases requiring classification with respect to the law’s application. First, Talmud fragments the mishnaic text, eclipsing its system.’ Second, the talmudic editors freely examine excised pieces of Mishnah in relation to other sources, equally deconstructed, such as a homiletical, scriptural exegesis (aggadic midrash) or more often a datum from an extra-mishnaic legal pericope. The overall effect shifts one’s focus from Mishnah’s ideal world to the Talmud’s own process of query and analysis. That process remains the principal, sustained trait of the Talmud’s authorship, overshadowing any structured definition of the world contained in Mishnah, the Pentateuch or any other authoritative document or tradition. While the authority of the documents, everywhere cited in fragmented form, lies behind the talmudic authorship, the Talmud effectively borrows that authority for its own scholastic critique. In making passages of Mishnah to some extent one body of evidence among a larger set of materials culled from other texts, the process of critique remains enduringly holy and authoritative. If there is sacred power in the documents, only the Talmud’s rhetorical endeavours make manifest that force in this world-much as the early medieval, Roman bishops claimed that the saints’ relics work their miracles subject to episcopal authority. Insofar as persons, namely, rabbis, engaged in Talmud-like scholastic activity, their authority in a sense both subsumed and displaced that of Mishnah.

Jack N. Lightstone, “The Institutionalization of the Rabbinic Academy in Late Sassanid Babylonia and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud,” Studies in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 22 (1993), 172-173.

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