As I mentioned earlier, I'm reading Shlomo Sand's The Invention of the Jewish People and finding it remarkably unconvincing. Perhaps the single weirdest thing about it is that Sand is offering a revolutionary new reading of Jewish history, yet he never - not once - cites the relevant Jewish sources. If there's one thing Jews did throughout their history it's read and write books; some of the more important of them relate directly to his subject matter: say, the Talmud, for example. He seems never to have glanced at them, nor even to have any idea what's in them via the ample modern academic literature about them. I cannot stress enough how truly bizarre this is.
Admittedly, learning history from the Talmud requires some careful scholarship, since its creators were in no way recording the annals of their times, nor were they interested in what modern historians do. So what? Lots of historians spend lots of time and effort deciphering past issues from oblique sources.
An example of a matter the Talmud never actually tells us, though it would have been of major significance, is the relationship between their scholarly efforts and the broad, non-scholarly Jewish public. The rabbis haggled endlessly over the tiniest minutiae of countless matters; how did this relate to the daily life of the general public?
Today I passed an interesting hint. The topic is a convoluted discussion about which cheeses produced by pagans can be eaten by Jews, if at all, and what are the Biblical sources for the different positions. Back in Mishnaic times there had been an early discussion between Rabbi Yehoshua and Rabbi Ishmael (2nd century); it was cited by Rav Dimi when he moved from Eretz Israel to Babylonia (4th century). At one point in the original discussion Rabbi Yehoshua had admonished Rabbi Yishmael not to explain: "Yishmael my brother! Keep your lips sealed!"
The Gemara asks why Rabbi Yishmael wasn't allowed to explain his position, and answers that it was a new, recent rule. The Gemara interrupts itself and insists: so what was the reason for the proscription, and gives a technical explanation about the method of cheese production. Having clarified that, the Gemara goes back to ask what was special about new rules that it was forbidden to explain them, and cites a report from Ulla (a 3rd century rabbi who lived in the Galilee but traveled frequently to Babylonia): the rabbis in the west (=Eretz Israel) never explained their halachic rulings for 12 months, fearing that if they did the people might decide they weren't convinced and not act as instructed; after 12 months people would have gotten used to the new instruction and there would no longer be any harm in explaining it.
Avoda Zara 35a. This thread starts and is explained here.