In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the basis of all Scripture: The Hebrew Tanakh. We compared the different textual traditions, from the Dead Sea Scroll fragments, to the Samaritan Torah, to the Masoretic Text, even to the Biblia Hebraica Quinta of today's scholars. In Part 2 we examined the three primary early translations of the Tanakh, from Hebrew. They are the Greek Septuagint (LXX), the Syriac Peshitta, and the Latin Vulgate. In this part, we will be examining the Aramaic Targumim.
What Does it Mean?
The word "targum" (technically pronounced tar-goom, though usually simplified to tar-gum) is Hebrew, and it means "translation." The plural form of Targum is Targumim. The Targumim are loose translations of the Hebrew Tanakh (usually one book at a time) into Aramaic. Though various dialects of Aramaic were used, the most common Late Jewish Literary Aramaic, and what is commonly called "Jewish Palestinian Aramaic."
Why Were They Written?
The reasons for these Aramaic translations were two-fold. The first being the most obvious: they needed a translation. After returning from Babylon in the time of Ezra, many Jews did not know Hebrew. They knew Aramaic, which was the Imperial Language of both Babylon and Persia (though slightly different dialects). This is best described in the book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 13:4 - As for their children, half spoke in the language of Ashdod, and none of them was able to speak the language of Judah, but the language of his own people.
So this became a problem. Ezra went through the process of reading the Torah to the people, but the problem was, most of them couldn't understand it. While Aramaic and Hebrew are closely related, they are in no way identical. This meant Ezra could not simply READ the Torah to them, but also had to EXPLAIN what it was saying.
Nehemiah 8:8 - They read in the book, in the Torah of Elohim, distinctly; and they gave the sense, so that they understood the reading.
They had to "give the sense" or, more likely, translate it while reading, so that the commoners could understand it. To help accommodate this, the Targumim were written, to fulfill this need. This is the first purpose of the Targumim. The second purpose, was to teach specific interpretation. Many times when explaining what the Targumim are, people will call them "paraphrases." This is, in some cases, true. And indeed, in many of them, much liberty was taken in the translation process, so as not to leave it up to the reader what the text intended. This can easily be seen in the Targum of Isaiah by Jonathan ben Uzziel. Which brings us to the next point.
Who Wrote Them?
While there have been a great number of different authors of Targumim, there are two that are generally regarded as the greatest. They are Jonathan ben Uzziel, whose work is mostly recognized in the Prophets, and a man named Onqelos (usually spelled Onkelos). Sometime between 35 and 120 CE, a man named Onqelos converted to Judaism, and created a Targum of the Torah that has been so highly revered, even the Babylonian Talmud lists it as the OFFICIAL codified Targum of the Torah. It is believed by many scholars today that Onqelos was actually the same as Aquila of Sinope. I him mentioned in Part 2 as having created a Greek translation of the Tanakh, which was so good it was incorporated into Origen's Hexapla. It is generally believed that the Hebraic spelling of his name, Akulas, became corrupted to Onqelos. The reasons for believing that Onqelos and Aquila are the same man, are fairly compelling. First, they lived during the exact same time. Next, both are known to have been Romans that converted to Judaism (again, at the same time). Then BOTH created a highly scholarly translation of the Tanakh, that in fact are actually in agreement in some variant places. Bishop Epiphianus recorded a little of a man known as Aquila, who was the nephew of Roman Emperor Hadrian. 18th Century Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna also stated that Aquila was the nephew of Hadrian. The Midrash Rabba even records what it states is a conversation between Aquila and Hadrian, when Aquila informed Hadrian that he was going to convert.
All of this in mind, it is fair to assume that Aquila is the same as Onqelos. While Targum Onqelos is praised for being a more literal translation, the writings of Jonathan ben Uzziel are much more free in form. This is seen, as mentioned above, in the Targum of Isaiah, particularly in chapter 53.
Isaiah 53:6 - All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but YHWH has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.
We all know this verse, and indeed most believe it to be about Messiah Yeshua. But here is how it reads in the Targum:
All we like sheep have been scattered every one of us has turned to his own way; it pleased YWY to forgive the sins of all of us for His sake.
(We'll address the YWY in a few moments)
Note that this says nothing of WHERE the iniquity was placed, but rather that it was simply forgiven. And it gets worse.
Is. 53:10 - But YHWH was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, and the good pleasure of YHWH will prosper in His hand.
Again, the Targum:
And it was the pleasure of YWY to refine and to purify the remnant of His people, in order to cleanse their souls from sin, that they might see the kingdom of their Messiah, that their sons and daughters might multiply, and prolong their days, and those that do the law of YWY shall prosper through His pleasure.
Note that the interpretation given is that reference is not about Messiah being crushed, but about the remnant of Israel being purified. Not only does this not fit with other Scriptures, it does not even fit with the context and syntax of Isaiah 53. But, I digress.
All this to say, these Targumim were also meant to "give the sense" of the Scriptures. That is, to aid in interpretation.
The Targumim are also included in a text called the Mikraot Gedalot, or "the Great Writing." This is also referred to as the Rabbinic Bible [pictured above]. It is a collection of the entire Tanakh with the Masoretic text, all Targumim, and Rashi's commentary. This will be discussed more in a later article.
I noted above that the Targumim uses YWY instead of YHWH. Why is that? Well as most know, YHWH stands for יהוה (yod-hey-vav-hey). In Aramaic, the Name of Elohim is never written. In some texts, such as the Peshitta, or the Aramaic fragments of Enoch, the word Mar-ya is used, written as מריא in Ashuri script. This is a placeholder for the name, YHWH. In the Targumim, they use a different placeholder: יוי (yod-vav-yod). In all instances, this was done out of reverence to never write His Name in a different language. Perhaps misguided, perhaps misplaced, perhaps even superstitious (we all have our opinions) but that was their practice and their choice nonetheless.
According to the Talmud in Berakhot 8a, "one should always complete the reading of one's weekly Torah portion with the congregation, twice from the mikra (i.e. Torah) and once from the Targum." It is believed that the Targum referenced here is Targum Onqelos.
The Targumim also contain noteworthy differences, due in part to their difference of geographic origin. These differences are usually classified as Eastern and Western. Just as there are two Talmuds: the Palestinian or Jerusalem Talmud, (written in Jerusalem) and the much larger and more authoritative Babylonian Talmud (written in, you guessed it, Babylon). After the Jews were almost entirely removed from Jerusalem and the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, many Jews retuned to Babylon, which was a city in the Persian kingdom still. The Persians were mostly of Zoroastrian religion, and thus were not as hostile towards the Jews as were the Romans. This allowed the Jews to compile the Babylonian Talmud (to be discussed in a later article) in relative peace. Meanwhile Jews that remained near Jerusalem attempted to compile a Talmud as well, though with far greater difficulty and persecution, they were forced to make it smaller, and thus by the time both Talmudic "canons" were closed, the Jerusalem was about 1/3 the size of the Babylonian.
Targum Onqelos is noted as an Eastern or "Babylonian" Targum, while Targum Jonathan is noted as a Western or "Palestinian" Targum.
Other Noteworthy Targumim
While Targum Onqelos and Targum Jonathan are by far the most well-known, and indeed the most well-supported, they are not by any means the only Targumim available. There are two others that have quite a large level of support in Rabbinic writings, and are also well-attested in manuscript evidence. These are Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, and Targum Neofiti.
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan is so named because it was mistakenly believed for many years to have been written by Jonathan ben Uzziel. In medieval times it was known as Targum Yerushalmi, or "the Jerusalem Targum." Its date of completion is debated, though many believe it to be after 1200 CE. When it was printed, the title of Jerusalem Targum was mistaken for Jonathan Targum, though it cannot possibly have been written by Jonathan ben Uzziel. Thus the more common name for it is Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. It is considered the largest and most paraphrased of the Targumim on the Torah. It includes massive amounts of extra oral tradition in addition to the translation itself.
Targum Neofiti is one of the lesser known Targumim, though is quite expansive, being substantially larger than Targum Onqelos, and including the entire Torah (though still smaller than Pseudo-Jonathan).
There is a colophon ("Preface" of sorts) at the beginning of Targum Neofiti that dates the copy to the early 16th Century in Rome. However, given the language and material, scholars have dated the original between the early 1st and mid 4th centuries CE. It is closer to the Western (Palestinian) style of Targum Jonathan than to the Eastern (Babylonian) style of Targum Onqelos.
While the Hebrew Tanakh is still the basis of our English Bibles, and the early translations (Septuagint, Peshitta, Vulgate) have in some cases influenced our texts, the Targumim nonetheless have an important place in Old Testament scholarship. They provide us with a view into the mind of Jews who understood the Scriptures of their day. In the case of Onqelos, we see how a first century Jewish convert and scholar viewed the Scriptures. In many of the Targumim, we actually find oral traditions and stories that have been handed down that corroborate information found in apocryphal and pseudepigraphal texts such as Jasher and Jubilees. Overall, they give an interesting account and interpretation that should certainly be considered when learning to interpret the Scriptures themselves. Indeed, there is evidence to support the idea that John, the author of our 4th Gospel, was himself not only familiar with the Aramaic Targumim, but was actually making a reference to them in his Gospel. This will be discussed in a different article. For now, bear in mind that these Aramaic "Paraphrases" were part of daily life for a Jew in the first centuries BCE and CE.
In the next article, we'll begin our examination of the Greek New Testament.
Be Berean. Shalom.