When David Zvi Hoffman (1843-1921) first delved into academic study of the Talmud, the field was largely the province of proponents of Reform Judaism who wished to ground their movement’s changes to Jewish religious practice on a foundation of historical scholarship. For his part, Hoffman wished to use academic scholarship to defend Orthodoxy. His efforts laid the foundation for 20th-century study of the Mishnah—the earlier stratum of the Talmud, compiled around 200 BCE and traditionally believed to be based on a divine Oral Torah given to Moses. Michael Chernick writes:
David Zvi Hoffmann worked out a distinct, Orthodox approach to critical Mishnah study that attempted to understand the historical development of the Mishnah from within itself and from rabbinic and non-rabbinic sources related to it. . . . What sets Hoffmann apart from his contemporaries is his attempt to derive the history of the development of the Mishnah not only from references to its composition scattered across other traditional texts, but by carefully examining the work itself, and by “excavating” its layers. . . .
Through their research [into traditional Jewish texts], Reformers sought to demonstrate that Jewish practices were neither uniform nor static. . . . To counter their claims, Hoffmann set out to prove that the original Oral Torah, which according to him was preserved in the Mishnah, was ancient and originally undisputed.