Babylonian Talmud, Book 10: History of the Talmud, tr. by Michael L. Rodkinson, , at sacred-texts.com
THE DEVELOPMENT OF THE TALMUD DURING THE LAST CENTURY OF THE SECOND TEMPLE'S EXISTENCE (i.e. THE FIRST A.C.) SHEMAIA--ABTALIAN--HILLEL--SHAMMAI--THE PRINCES (NASIS) OF ISRAEL--R. JOHANAN B. ZAKKAI--SANHEDRIN OF JAMNIA--THE JEWISH CHRISTIANS.
After the triumph of Simon b. Shetah over the Sadducees, when he had finally cleared the Sanhedrin of them, and only the Pharisees remained there, the development of the Talmud progressed rapidly, for the number of the sages, the adherents, reverers, sanctifiers of the Talmud, increased greatly in the colleges of the Ashkaloth (Duumviri) who succeeded to ben Shetah: Shemaia and Abtalian, and, after them, Hillel and Shammai. And although at that time new enemies arose, in the Boethuseans, Essenes, and many other sects who were opposed to its particular doctrines, yet those had not the power to check its progress or to weaken its influence--not only on all Israelites, wherever they dwelt, but also on many Gentiles: for at that time we see that prominent persons of other nations (App. No. 5) come to the chief men of Israel and express their wish to
adopt Judaism. Hillel the Elder received them with open arms. Helen the Queen, and her son, Isotis, also accepted the creed of the Talmud. All this was due to the fact that its morality came at this time to be before the world. The Polytheists began to perceive the great difference between the teaching of their priests in the names of the gods, and the Torah as explained by its sages. From all places of the world came persons to learn the doctrines and the morality of the Talmud. This period of good fortune, however, was only of short duration, as the time of the destruction of the Temple was nigh, and with it the victims of the sword and of hunger were many. Among these were the great sages who bore the banner of the Talmud, and their wisdom died with them. The Sanhedrin had been forced, while the Temple was still in existence, to transfer their meeting places from the "marble hall" to the "shops." Rabban Gamaliel the Elder, the son of Hillel the Prince (Nasi) was persecuted by them, and his son Simeon was slain, together with many sages. Thus, if R. Johanan b. Zakkai had not, risking his life, petitioned Vespasian to spare the Sanhedrin, who had been compelled during the tumults at Jerusalem to move with their college to Jamnia, there would have remained no vestige of the Talmud, since most of those who cherished it had passed away by the sword, by hunger and by the plague. Besides, the disciples of Jesus (see App. No. 6), who then believed in his Messiahship, but not in his divinity, began secretly to undermine the Talmud, which laid more stress on external ceremonies than they deemed necessary, and endeavored with all their might to weaken its influence among the populace, but R. Jehanan b. Zakkai and the Sanhedrin in Jamnia, with Rabban Gamaliel, the son of the slain Simeon, at their head, restored the Talmud to its prestige, and took pains to raise up others in the places of the murdered sages.
Thus the study of the Talmud flourished after the destruction of the Temple, although beset with great difficulties and desperate struggles. All his days, R. Johanan b. Zakkai was obliged to dispute with Sadducees and Bathueians and, no doubt, with the Messiahists also; for although these last were Pharisees, they differed in many points from the teaching of the Talmud after their master, Jesus, had broken with the Pharisees
and their doctrines in public. So R. Johanan b. Zakkai was obliged to introduce many reforms; and Rabban Gamaliel of Jamnia, notwithstanding his office of Nasi, and his lofty bearing towards his colleagues and adversaries, was compelled to go many times to Rome to ask for mercy for his college and the Pharisaic sages. And this first Nasi, after the Temple's destruction, also had to witness the evil consequences of quarrels in the midst of his own nation, added to the calamities from without.
As the interpretations of every letter and vowel point of the written law had multiplied, and liberty had been given to every learned man to construe biblical texts at his pleasure, the differences of opinion multiplied, and the disciples of Shammai and Hillel, whose master's characters differed to the utmost, split into two factions and studied in separate colleges. Thus the teaching of the Talmud was differently interpreted by two parties, and what the one permitted, the other forbade. This circumstance was of more danger to the Talmud than any external foe, for when there is no internal union, the whole fabric will go to pieces, and its influence will, of course, diminish. Therefore the sages of Jamnia, with R. Gamaliel at their head, strove not only to decide the law according to the school of Hillel, but also to decree that the words of Shammai's school in the place of Hillel's had no value at all. And what a world of difficulty the sages had to surmount before they succeeded! .R. Simeon ben Gamaliel rightly says "If we proceeded to record all the troubles and calamities we had endured, time would not suffice."
But in the long run they did succeed in widening and increasing the sphere of influence of the Talmud, for both the internal dissensions and external opposition only tended to sink more deeply into the hearts of the people its doctrines (Halakhas), legends (Hagadas) and morals. At the end of the first century it was to them a substitute for their destroyed Temple; it was their stronghold, their entertainment by day and by night. It was only when they were occupied with it that they forgot all the calamities past and present; it was the sole bond which kept together the scattered colonies of Israelites, which strengthened them to bear the yoke of the Romans, to hope for brighter days, to be patient unto the end.