Here is a random passage from Mar Samuel (courtesy of the Internet archive and Google translate - I take no responsibilty for it's accuracy)
page 43 -
Between the heads of the universities of Sura and Nehardea reigned unity and brotherly love. They worked in beautiful harmony together for the glorification and dissemination of the teaching of God, as well as to improve the morals and refinement of the people. Rab often came to visit Samuel in Nehardea, and he returned the visits several times to Rab's town Sura (Note:
Epist. Scher, p. 15: ולפרקים הוה מתחזינן רב ושמואל אהדדי cf. Erubin 94a,Pesachim 30a, Chullin 53b.) These frequent meetings between them helped forge increasingly close ties of friendship and also their uniform interplay of influence [!] (this sentence didn't translate)..
It took the eager and energetic efforts of these two great men, to reform the intellectual and moral conditions of the Babylonian communities and enforce the strict observance of Jewish law. Because public education had been long neglected in Babylon, even in the cities where the sciences were studied...."
This will have to suffice to give an idea of the nature of the work. A full translation remains a scholarly desideratum.
A brief history of the Rabbinic Biography
The first to attempt a biography of Talmudic figures was Heinrich Graetz. In his "History of the Jews" he attempted to reconstruct the personality of the Rabbis based on their statements. R' Samson Raphael Hirsch conducted a campaign against his former student in his periodical Jeschurun (later translated in Collected Writings V. 5) . The basis of Hirsch's critique was ideological. Hirsch believed that the Talmud consisted almost entirely of statements that were passed down at Sinai or derived from exegesis such that to say the personal thoughts of a Rabbi influenced his talmudic statements was considered heretical. Setting aside the ideological issue, Hirsch also demonstrated many important methodological flaws with Graetz's work. Graetz isolated several Rabbinic statements to derive his biography and ignored the fact that there were many other statements by the same Rabbi that could contradict this view.
During the period of Haskalah many such biographies were written. Most were merely in the nature of an anthology of statements and storied without containing any real research. R' Hoffman's work was groundbreaking in that it was the first full-length biography and also in the use he made of general historical material. (N.B. Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote a biography of R' Yochanan Ben Zakkai in German but it has never been translated.)
One of the best biographies of a Rabbinic figure that I have read is that of Reuvein Kimelman's extensive dissertation on R' Yochanan ben Nafcha of Tiberias. I believe this really should be the model for all such biographies.
Jacob Neusner (who himself had written a biography of R' Eliezer ben Hyrkanus. A new Hebrew biography of Eliezer has recently been published but I haven''t had a chance to see it.) threw somewhat of a bombshell in to the field by contending (and here I would like to thank Biblicalia for permitting me to quote his excellent summary of Neusner's position from a private email. The summary is based on Neusner's recent work including - In Quest of the Historical Pharisees[Baylor Univ Press, 2007]):
"I think in this case, many of the concerns you note are inextricably tied up with Neusner's work on determining how much of the sources are historical. For instance, what does it say about historicity when certain sayings or phrases are put in the mouths of several different rabbis throughout the course of the Rabbinic literature's composition, or even within a given document?
From what I recall, this was the first thing that led to Neusner's questions about historicity. The statements/quotations simply can't be taken at face value anymore, if only because of the editing and systematization that has occurred in fitting them into the structure of the Mishnah and the Talmudim particularly, but with multiple attribution, how is one to tell which, if any, is the correct attribution? So much of that information if taken at face value becomes unreliable for reconstruction of history. On the other hand, as Neusner has demonstrated, there is a way to make historical use of these materials in that the varied attributions for sayings do roughly belong to the same generations, so that a time-line of roughly chronological usage can be established.
Overall, I think, that is The Biggest Problem that most people have with Neusner's historical work, in all fields, that he's saying that the history is by no means as easy to reconstruct as we have thought up to the present (and as many still think), and that we certainly can't pin precise names to sayings as confidently as we would like and as we used to. But the discovery of this generational clustering of sayings, etc, is very helpful for issues of historicity."
An important critique of this view of Neusner's was penned by J. Elman in the JQR, 89 361-386. He writes:
Neusner turned his full attention to the question in a brief work entitled In Search of Talmudic Biography: The Problem of the Attributed Saying (Chico, CA, 1984). He sums up the results of his research as follows: We find ourselves, therefore, in the position of Judah b. Batyra (M. Neg. 9:3, 11:7). Our conclusion is that Eliezer really did carry on the tradition of his master. And in substance, if not in fact, his master was really Yohanan b. Zakkai.... Nothing in Eliezer's message goes beyond what had already been stated by Yohanan. Nothing in Yohanan's message has been omitted. And behind Eliezer and Yohanan stands Hillel .... The path from Hillel through Yohanan to Eliezer may, therefore, have been discovered only in much later times. But the late- second-century and third-century masters who posited such a single, straight line from Eliezer to Yohanan to Hillel. .... from our perspective were absolutely right. [italics mine]
This nuanced, carefully articulated judgment thus constitutes the core of the Neusnerian position. Around this, unfortunately, has grown a vastly inflated polemic which attempts to pin the label of gullibility upon anyone who attempts to study any rabbinic attributions within any rabbinic compilation, even though there is nothing in the contemporary literature on the classical rabbinic corpus to substantiate anything approximating this extreme skepticism. It has simply become an article of faith on the part of some, who misleadingly assert that this is the "recognized standard" of critical research.
In fact, rabbinic literature provides much evidence that the Rabbis and the redactors took great care in attributing statements to the proper authorities. For example, there is the well-known dictum that "one who says something in the name of the one who stated it brings redemption to the world." There is also the dictum that if one repeats a teaching in the name of the one who "said it," the latter's "lips murmur in the grave." This is not mere rhetoric, for both the Bavli and the Yerushalmi practice what they preach, and cite alternative tradents for a particular statement when there is uncertainty. Thus, when Neusner concludes that we may not employ attributions in historical study ("We have been unable to identify principles by which they will have chosen one name [Eliezer's] in preference to some other. We do not even know why they thought it important to use names at all."), his conclusions apply primarily to tannaitic literature, where alternative chains of tradition are not cited. However, as we shall see, his own conclusions regarding the ahistoricity of tannaitic traditions refers primarily to anecdotal material rather than halakhic dicta. The conclusions of Neusner's study of traditions regarding the tanna R. Eliezer b. Hyracanus cannot of course be applied to all rabbinic literature without distinction, and even less to the Bavli. But there are indications of concern for such matters on the part of the redactors. While both Talmuds register variant attributions, the Bavli (its tradents and redactors alike, it would seem) created a terminology for such variations.
Indeed variations of attribution are recorded in the same way as halakhic variants-indicating that variants regarding attributions were considered as important as other variants regarding halakhic detail. This is precisely what we might have expected, since the authority of a tradition or statement may often have rested with the amora to whom it was attributed. This would also explain why most variants are recorded in connection with major authorities and their associates, since their authority was greater. Thus, the ideology behind this recording of variants applied to attributions as it did to halakhic matters, and the variants in all these matters (attributions, facts of the case, and halakha) may most often be attributed to aural confusion, or to errors of association. Indeed, these variants may teach us some rather interesting things about the ways in which the tradents' mem- ories and mental associations worked; I hope to devote a study to this matter on another occasion...."
(See there for the continuation of the argument.)
An extremely important methodological breakthrough was made by Alyssa Grey. In her "A Talmud in Exile: The influence of PT Avodah Zarah on the formation of BT Avodah Zarah", pg. 71 in discussing a difference of attribution between BT and PT. She shows that BT generally refers to a Palestinian statement by the head of the academy (in this case Reish Lakish) as opposed to a minor member of the academy (in the case under discussion R' Isaac Bar Nachman). Other scholars (notably Richard Kalmin) have succeded in resolving this vexing problem in a variety of ways but undoubtedly the writing of "rabbinic biography" is more complicated then was once thought. (WP has a decent summary of the major positions on the subject here)
(N.B. Although Prof. Grey's work comparing the Bavli to Yerushalmi is a definite breakthrough, I feel her study is fundamentally flawed. I do not think she gives the position that she refer to as the "Yerushalmi of the Bavli" the proper attention. To put it briefly, I think given that any transmission of the Yerushalmi to the Babylonians would have been by way of the Nechutai (see the recent Milllin Chavivin), it is reasonalble to assume that they may have given over summaries of the lectures, which might have similar structure and content to that of our Yerushalmi and still differ in siginificant aspects with it, as is the nature of any lecture that is retold orally. The matter reqires further study.)
[Update: Menachem Mendel sends us to the following important reference - Alyssa Grey's review of Alon Goshen-Gottenstein's book on Elisha Ben Abuya: "Is Critical Rabbinic Biography Possible?" Review, Prooftexts 23:3 (Fall 2003): 376-382.]