The traditional "back story" of the Talmud is put forth in the 10th-century "Epistle" of the great Babylonian scholar Sherira Gaon. It is an invaluable source for reconstructing the generations of sages and students, and the chains of transmission, that yielded the Mishnah and Gemara, which in turn, and together, make up the Talmud. Yet many questions are left unanswered by Sherira. When and how were the Mishnah and Gemara, both of which were Oral Torah, written down? What exactly was the role of the post-talmudic Savoraim, the "explainers" who, Sherira says, "rendered interpretations akin to judgments"?
Epstein and others (including Abraham Weiss and Hyman Klein) gained purchase on these questions by investigating the relationship among the three basic historical layers of which the Talmud is composed: sources associated with the sages known as Tannaim, dating from before and up to the composition of the Mishnah at the turn of the 3rd century; the many statements and discussions attributed by name to the Amoraim, sages coming after the Mishnah; and the anonymous editorial voice known as "the stam" (literally, "plain voice") in which the first two layers are embedded and which surrounds, organizes, and discusses them.
The finished Talmud weaves all of these fragmentary traditions and texts into coherent dialogues among sages living miles and centuries apart, regularly transposing and reformulating sources while adding a sophisticated apparatus of explanation. The result is a work that not only is intellectually compelling but regularly achieves powerful literary effects. To Epstein and the others, what became increasingly clear was that strong editorial hands had been at play in the process.
This portrait of rabbinic culture begets, in turn, a powerful challenge. Modern intellectual integrity having yielded a restless scenario of fragmentary ancient texts being worked and reworked into the sources we have today, can we somehow put the pieces back together into a coherent and compelling story? And will that story reflect not only the work of the rabbinic interpreters but also the original texts and traditions, by now lost to us, that they were trying, through their editing, to maintain?
The answer is yes, but it will be a different story, in ways both stranger and more familiar: a story of internal ferment and spiritual survival in the face of profound uncertainty.