So when I came across the following in the Cambridge Companion to the Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, I was taken a little by surprise:
Over the past several decades, the most important answer to this question has been offered by the brilliant contemporary scholar Jacob Neusner.[What? Was I wrong to listen to those anonymous blog commentators?]. In a series of studies of virtually every rabbinic composition of Late Antiquity, Neusner proposes that the very essence of rabbinic literary creativity is to gather intermediate units of tradition into carefully plotted compositions (documents) that use received textual material to convey fresh propositions about topics crucial to rabbinic Judaism. In short, every rabbinic document, in his view, is supervised by an organizing literary hand that shapes every line in terms of some larger rhetorical, philosophical, legal, or theological program. The important thing about Neusner's proposal is that it is almost certainly wrong. But as historians of ideas well know, one error if a brilliant mind is often more useful than thousands of correct judgements by the rest of us.
Sincere or mocking? A backhanded compliment?