Gospel of John Study Index

What is the Mishna?

The following is derived from Wikipedia, a condensed version of a quick public article regarding the Mishna. The perspectives seem to be balanced equally on both sides, and I have cut out a lot of the information that threatens to overwhelm a new reader.

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The Mishnah or Mishna, translated literally, means "repetition."… The Mishna is the first major written redaction of the Jewish oral traditions called the "Oral Torah" and the first major work of Rabbinic Judaism.[2] It was redacted c. 220 CE by Judah haNasi when, according to the Talmud, the persecution of the Jews and the passage of time raised the possibility that the details of the oral traditions dating from Pharisaic times (536 BCE – 70 CE) would be forgotten. In Rabbinic Judaism, the Mishna is thus the one written authority second to the Tanakh as a basis for the passing of judgment, a source and a tool for creating laws. … Rabbinic commentaries on the Mishnah over the next three centuries were redacted as the Gemara, which, coupled with the Mishnah, comprise the Talmud.

The Mishnah reflects debates between 70-200 CE by the group of rabbinic sages known as the Tannaim. The Mishnah teaches the oral traditions by example, presenting actual cases being brought to judgment, usually along with the debate on the matter and the judgment that was given by a wise and notable rabbi based on the halakha, Mitzvot, and spirit of the Torah that guided his sentencing, demonstrating a vision of pragmatic exercise of the Biblical laws, which was much needed at the time when the Second Temple was destroyed (70 CE). The Mishnah does not claim to be the development of new laws, but rather the collection of existing traditions.

Oral law

Before the publication of the Mishnah, Jewish scholarship was predominantly oral. Rabbis expounded on and debated the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, without the benefit of written works (other than the Biblical books themselves), though some may have made private notes (megillot setarim), for example of court decisions. The oral traditions were far from monolithic, and varied among various schools, the most famous of which were the House of Shammai and the House of Hillel.

The end of the Jewish commonwealth in the year 70 CE resulted in an upheaval of Jewish social and legal norms. The Rabbis were faced with the new reality of Judaism without a Temple (to serve as the center of teaching and study) and Judea without autonomy. It is during this period that Rabbinic discourse began to be recorded in writing.[7][8] The earliest recorded oral law may have been presented as exegetical commentary on the Torah. But an alternative form, organized by subject matter instead of by biblical verse, became dominant by about the year 220 CE, when Rebbi Judah haNasi redacted the Mishnah. In general, all opinions, even the non-normative ones, were recorded in the Mishnah and subsequently the Talmud.

Relationship with the Hebrew Bible

Rabbinic Judaism holds that the oral tradition was received by Moses at Mount Sinai in parallel with the Five Books of Moses, the Torah, and that these together have always been the basis of Jewish law. … According to the Rabbinic view, the Oral Law was also given to Moses at Sinai, and is the exposition of the Written Law as relayed by the scholarly and other religious leaders of each generation. This Oral Law is authoritative in practical terms, as the traditions of the Oral Law are considered as the necessary basis for the interpretation, and often for the reading, of the Written Law… Notably, the Mishnah does not cite a written scriptural basis for its laws: since it is said that the Oral Law was given simultaneously with the Written Law, the Oral Law codified in the Mishnah does not derive directly from the Written Law of the Torah.

By 220 CE, much of the Oral Law was edited together into the Mishnah, and published by Rabbi Judah haNasi. Over the next four centuries this material underwent analysis and debate... These debates eventually came to be edited together into compilations known as the Talmud.

As a Historical Source

Many modern historical scholars have focused on the timing and the formation of the Mishnah. A vital question is whether it is composed of sources which date from its editor's lifetime, and to what extent is it composed of earlier, or later sources. Are Mishnaic disputes distinguishable along theological or communal lines, and in what ways do different sections derive from different schools of thought within early Judaism? Can these early sources be identified, and if so, how? In response to these questions, modern scholars have adopted a number of different approaches.

Some scholars hold that there has been extensive editorial reshaping of the stories and statements within the Mishnah (and later, in the Talmud.) Lacking outside confirming texts, they hold that we cannot confirm the origin or date of most statements and laws, and that we can say little for certain about their authorship. In this view, the questions above are impossible to answer. See, for example, the works of Louis Jacobs, Baruch M. Bokser, Shaye J. D. Cohen, Steven D. Fraade.

Some scholars hold that the Mishnah and Talmud have been extensively shaped by later editorial redaction, but that it contains sources which we can identify and describe with some level of reliability. In this view, sources can be identified to some extent because each era of history and each distinct geographical region has its own unique feature, which one can trace and analyze. Thus, the questions above may be analyzed. See, for example, the works of Goodblatt, Lee Levine, David C. Kraemer and Robert Goldenberg.
Some scholars hold that many or most of the statements and events described in the Mishnah and Talmud usually occurred more or less as described, and that they can be used as serious sources of historical study. In this view, historians do their best to tease out later editorial additions (itself a very difficult task) and skeptically view accounts of miracles, leaving behind a reliable historical text. See, for example, the works of Saul Lieberman, David Weiss Halivni, Avraham Goldberg and Dov Zlotnick."