The Talmud comprises two different works, one (Mishnah) redacted around the year 200 C.E. and the other (Gemara) around the year 600. The latter portion, presented as a commentary on the earlier, is arranged as a sort of dialogue among rabbis (known as amoraim) who frequently cite rabbis of earlier generations, who themselves sometimes cite even earlier opinions. Contemporary scholarship has tried to make historical sense of these various layers, often by isolating the contributions of the final generation of editors. Alan Brill and Moulie Vidas discuss the latter’s recent book, which offers a new approach to the problem. Brill writes:
The regnant approach to talmudic source criticism is that there is a pristine early amoraic layer . . . and the later layer was an addition that changed the earlier material, making the discussion more abstract, or creating dialectics and justifications. This approach is usually associated with [the scholars] Shamma Friedman and David Weiss Halivni who . . . seek to restore the earlier stratum since it represents a reliable corpus of traditions, unlike the conjectures of the later [editors].
In contrast, Vidas assumes that the entire talmudic argument . . . is one unit. . . . Vidas’s innovation is that texts that seem like earlier texts are literary devices [used] by the later [editors] to create a sense of distance from themselves and allow for a creative opening. For him, demarcating opinions as traditional “can be used to invoke discontinuity” by fossilizing them as the past. . . The Talmud [for Vidas] is no longer a conservative repository of traditions, [but] rather a literary “self-conception of its creators.” There is no earlier opinion, just a later text presenting the topic as if there were a later and earlier layer.