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INTRODUCTION TO THE ARAMAIC TARGUMS
Origin and History
Following the Babylonian exile, when Aramaic was the lingua franca in Palestine and in the East, Jews slowly began losing their knowledge of Hebrew. By the turn of the era, they were increasingly unable to understand the Torah and the Prophets when they were read aloud in the synagogue. Rather than create a translation that would replace the Hebrew text (as the Greek Septuagint was intended to do), the rabbis instead elected to accompany the reading of the Hebrew text with translation in Aramaic. These Aramaic translations were given the name “targum” (תרגום), a word that originally referred to a translation in any language but came to be used specifically for biblical translations in Aramaic. — Paul V. M. Flesher and Bruce Chilton, The Targums: A Critical Introduction (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2011), 7. In English, the plural of “targum” is “targums.” In Hebrew it is “targumim” (תרגומים).
The original intention and official directive were that the targum would be only oral. One reader would stand at the front of the synagogue and read the Hebrew text from the open scroll. Then a second man would translate into Aramaic. Because all translation involves interpretation of what the source text means, the translators took the opportunity to interpret the OT according to the theology and practices of rabbinic Judaism. The two different languages kept the text and the interpretation distinct and allowed the translators to be quite creative in their renderings while the original Hebrew text remained intact. Therefore, the targum functioned not only to render the linguistic meaning of the biblical text but also to provide a guide to its contemporary meaning. For many, the Aramaic translation became their scripture, for it was all that they could understand. 48 Later these translations came to be written down (or perhaps some were originally composed in written form). Targums were created for each of the books of the OT except for Ezra and Daniel. One explanation for these exceptions is that Ezra and Daniel contain significant sections of Aramaic, so perhaps they did not require translation.
Our earliest evidence of targums, albeit only fragmentary, comes from the Qumran scrolls in the Judean Desert. 4QtgLev comes from the second to first centuries BCE, and 4QtgJob and 11QtgJob come from the first century CE. We do not know when targums were first created, but Jewish tradition associates the beginnings of this process of giving an oral rendering of the Hebrew Scriptures with the time of Ezra in the postexilic community (Neh. 8:8).
Flesher and Chilton argue that the base translations of the targums are quite literal and follow the Hebrew original text closely. They write, “In the vast majority of their passages, Targums present a translation that recreates anywhere from 85– 100 percent of the original’s linguistic information— in particular, its grammatical information.” But interwoven throughout this literal translation are additions, updates, and harmonizations that reflect the theology and views of mainstream, classic rabbinic Judaism and the world of Oral Torah. The rabbis taught (and still teach) that when God gave the Written Torah to Moses at Mount Sinai, he also gave him the authoritative interpretation of the Torah, or Oral Torah, which was to be passed down through the generations.
Targums make a number of characteristic adjustments to the text. Sometimes, a targum fills in exegetical details. In Gen. 4:8 the Hebrew text says that Cain spoke to his brother Abel and then rose up to kill him. But what was his motivation? Targum Neofiti contains a lengthy expansion at this point in which Abel and Cain get into an argument about the nature of divine justice and whether there is punishment for the wicked. As the argument becomes more intense, Cain rises up and kills his brother. Targums also update the text in accordance with specific religious practices. For example, in the Hebrew MT, Exod. 34:26 commands the reader not to “boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” But Targum Neofiti translates, “you shall not boil, and you shall not eat flesh with milk, mixed together.” This rendering significantly widens the scope of the law to include all meat mixed with dairy, reflecting the rabbinic dietary rules (kashrut). Targums also update geographical references, remove anthropomorphisms in which human imagery is used of God, and attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of characters that the text casts in a bad light. If the Hebrew text is ambiguous and could mean two different things, sometimes a targum will simply translate both possibilities (i.e., a double translation). Very frequently, targums also attempt to maintain God’s transcendence by using the idea of his Memra (or word) as a mediator between himself and humanity. For example, in Hosea 7:13 where the Hebrew MT has “they rebelled against me,” Targum Jonathan translates “they rebelled against my Memra.”
The targums are divided into two groups, Palestinian and Babylonian, reflecting the regions where they were used. The Palestinian targums to the Pentateuch come from the late second and early third centuries CE. They are written in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic (JPA), which was used in northern Palestine. The Palestinian targums contain significant creative and interpretive expansions of the biblical text.
Targum Neofiti (TN). MS Vatican Neofiti is the only complete Palestinian targum of the Pentateuch. It was discovered in 1956 in a manuscript dating from 1504 or slightly later. It has probably been altered in the course of scribal copying since its original production.
Fragment Targum II, III (TF). This targum is fragmentary and does not include the entire Pentateuch, but not because some of it was lost. Rather, only selections of the Hebrew text were ever translated and then grouped in collections.
Targums from the Cairo Genizah. The oldest known manuscript remains of the Palestinian targums were discovered in the Cairo Genizah. These remnants from more than seventeen different manuscripts evidence far fewer scribal errors and emendations than Targum Neofiti.
The Babylonian targums were written in Jewish Literary Aramaic (JLA), a dialect used in Palestine between 200 BCE and 200 CE. 59 The two most important of these translations, Targum Onqelos and Targum Jonathan, have relatively fewer expansions and additional material in comparison with the Palestinian targums. They were originally composed in Palestine and were then edited and used in Babylonia.
Targum Onqelos (TO). Targum Onqelos is a complete translation of the entire Pentateuch and was the official targum of Babylonia. It was created in the first, third, or fifth century CE. It follows the plain sense of the Hebrew text but has many exegetical elements in poetic sections. Unlike the Palestinian targums, Onqelos was copied and transmitted in a way analogous to how the Masoretes transmitted the MT, with absolute precision even in the preservation of unusual readings.
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (TPs-J). This is a complete manuscript of the Pentateuch that integrated elements from Targum Onqelos. It was originally, incorrectly, identified as Targum Jonathan. When this was corrected in the eighteenth century, its name was changed to Pseudo-Jonathan.
Targum Jonathan (TJ). This targum is ascribed to Jonathan ben ʿUzziel, a pupil of Hillel the Elder. It was created at the end of the first century CE in Palestine and revised in the fourth century in Babylonia. It generally resembles Onqelos and contains the text of the Former and Latter Prophets. The Writings, or third part of the Jewish biblical canon, do not neatly fall into the Palestinian or Babylonian categories. They are written in a third, recently recognized dialect of Aramaic called Late Jewish Literary Aramaic (LJLA). These targums were composed at different times and by different people and vary greatly in their character. Table 4.1 contains a summary of the major targums.
Table 4.1: Significant Targums of the Old Testament
Targum Onqelos (Official)
Codex Neofiti I (Palestinian)
Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (Palestinian)
Fragments of Palestinian Targum in Cairo Geniza
Targum Jonathan (Official)
Various unofficial Targums available except for Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah
Evaluation of Usefulness
The use of the targums for textual criticism is complex because of their paraphrastic and interpretive character. Although the basic translation might be quite literal, the many expansions and harmonizations make it difficult to reconstruct the Hebrew source text. In order to do this, we must evaluate the translation character of each targum and learn to distinguish between readings that are present in the underlying Hebrew and those that have been inserted by the translator in the service of his interpretive and theological agenda.
However, Tov argues that all of the targums reflect the medieval form of the MT anyway. As we mentioned above, by this time the MT was highly standardized. This means that even aside from the challenges of their expansive nature, the targums typically do not contain significant variant readings distinct from the MT.
The standard edition of the Babylonian targums is the four-volume work by Alexander Sperber, which was reprinted in one volume in 2004.67 It contains Targum Onqelos (Pentateuch) and Targum Jonathan (Former and Latter Prophets), but the Writings are not included in the one-volume edition. Textual variants are presented in two apparatuses. The upper apparatus contains only variants in vocalization. The lower apparatus lists all textual deviations from the manuscripts upon which the edition is based. Sperber has been criticized for his selection of manuscripts and the critical apparatus. Würthwein, for example, states that the edition “can no longer be recommended without reservation” for these reasons. However, in the preface to the edition, Gordon writes that Sperber has represented the consonantal text accurately, and most of the errors concern vocalization.
Other Targum Editions
Other significant editions of Babylonian and Palestinian targums include the following: Clarke, Ernest G., ed. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan of the Pentateuch: Text and Concordance. Hoboken, NJ: Ktav, 1984. Díez Macho, Alejandro, ed. Neophyti 1: Targum Palestinense Ms. de la Biblioteca Vaticana. 6 vols. Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, 1968– 79. Klein, Michael L. The Fragment-Targums of the Pentateuch according to Their Extant Sources. 2 vols. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute Press, 1980. ———. Genizah Manuscripts of Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College, 1986. McNamara, Martin J., ed. The Aramaic Bible: The Targums. 22 vols. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1987– 2007. The multivolume Aramaic Bible is a helpful English translation, providing notes on the text and the rationale for certain renderings. – Brotzman, Ellis R.; Tully, Eric J. Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction (pp. 77-82). Baker Publishing Group.
A DEEPER LOOK INTO THE TARGUMS
A targum (Aramaic: תרגום ‘interpretation, translation, version’) was an originally spoken translation of the Hebrew Bible (also called the Tanakh) that a professional translator (מְתוּרגְמָן mǝturgǝmān) would give in the common language of the listeners when that was not Hebrew. This had become necessary near the end of the first century BCE (BC), as the common language was Aramaic and Hebrew was used for little more than schooling and worship. The translator frequently expanded his translation with paraphrases, explanations, and examples, so it became a kind of sermon.
Writing down the targum was initially prohibited; nevertheless, some targumitic writings appeared as early as the middle of the first century CE (AD). They were not then recognized as authoritative by the religious leaders. Some subsequent Jewish traditions (beginning with the Babylonian Jews) accepted the written targumim as authoritative translations of the Hebrew scriptures into Aramaic. Today, the common meaning of targum is a written Aramaic translation of the Bible. Only Yemenite Jews continue to use the targumim liturgically.
As translations, the targumim largely reflect a midrashic interpretation of the Tanakh from the time they were written and are notable for favoring allegorical readings over anthropomorphisms. (Maimonides, for one, notes this often in The Guide for the Perplexed.) That is true both for those targums that are fairly literal as well as for those that contain many midrashic expansions. In 1541, Elia Levita wrote and published the Sefer Meturgeman, explaining all the Aramaic words found in the Targum.
Targumim are used today as sources in text-critical editions of the Bible (Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia refers to them with the abbreviation 𝔗).
The noun “Targum” is derived from the early Semitic quadriliteral root trgm, and the Akkadian term targummanu refers to “translator, interpreter”. It occurs in the Hebrew Bible in Ezra 4:7 “… and the writing of the letter was written in Aramaic (aramit) and interpreted (meturgam) into Aramaic.” Besides denoting the translations of the Bible, the term Targum also denote the oral rendering of Bible lections in the synagogue, while the translator of the Bible was simply called hammeturgem (he who translates). Other than the meaning “translate”, the verb Tirgem also means “to explain”. The word Targum refers to “translation” and argumentation or “explanation.”
Nehemiah 8:8 Updated American Standard Version (UASV)
8 They continued reading aloud from the book, from the Law of the God, explaining it and putting meaning into it, so that they could understand the reading.
Many have used Nehemiah 8:8 to say that the returned exiles could not perfectly understand Hebrew, so there was some Aramaic paraphrasing being done. While that might have been the case, what Nehemiah meant concerning this text is the exposition of the sense and how the Law was to be applied. (Compare Matt. 13:14, 51, 52; Lu 24:27; Ac 8:30-31) Look as you may, there is not one Scripture in all of the Bible that says the Jewish people abandoned their language, Hebrew, at any time as the tongue of their people. Yes, it is true, Nehemiah said, “In those days I also saw Jews who had married women from Ashdod, Ammon, and Moab. Half of their children spoke the language of Ashdod or the language of one of the other peoples but could not speak Hebrew.” (Neh. 13:23-27) However, looking at the context of the indignation of Nehemiah at the Jews, who were involved in these pagan marriages with non-Israelites means that such slighting of Hebrew was very much disapproved. we would expect such when we think of the value they placed on the reading of the Word of God, which was primarily in Hebrew at this time.
Two Major Targumim
The two most important targumim for liturgical purposes are:
- Targum Onkelos on the Torah (Written Law)
- Targum Jonathan on the Nevi’im (Prophets)
These two targumim are mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud as targum dilan (“our Targum”), giving them official status. In the synagogues of Talmudic times, Targum Onkelos was read alternately with the Torah, verse by verse, and Targum Jonathan was read alternately with the selection from Nevi’im (i.e., the Haftarah). This custom continues today in Yemenite Jewish synagogues. The Yemenite Jews are the only Jewish community to continue the use of Targum as liturgical text, as well as to preserve a living tradition of pronunciation for the Aramaic of the targumim (according to a Babylonian dialect).
Besides its public function in the synagogue, the Babylonian Talmud also mentions targum in the context of a personal study requirement: “A person should always review his portions of scripture along with the community, reading the scripture twice and the targum once” (Berakhot 8a–b). This too refers to Targum Onkelos on the public Torah reading and to Targum Jonathan on the haftarot from Nevi’im.
Medieval biblical manuscripts of the Tiberian mesorah sometimes contain the Hebrew text interpolated, verse-by-verse, with the targumim. This scribal practice has its roots both in the public reading of the Targum and in the private study requirement.
The two “official” targumim are considered eastern (Babylonian). Nevertheless, scholars believe they too originated in the Land of Israel because of a strong linguistic substratum of Western Aramaic. Though these targumim were later “orientalized”, the substratum belying their origins still remains.
When most Jewish communities had ceased speaking Aramaic, in the 10th century CE, the public reading of Targum along with the Torah and Haftarah was abandoned in most communities, Yemen being a well-known exception.
The private study requirement to review the Targum was never entirely relaxed, even when Jewish communities had largely ceased speaking Aramaic, and the Targum never ceased to be a major source for Jewish exegesis. For instance, it serves as a major source in the Torah commentary of Shlomo Yitzhaki, “Rashi”, and has always been the standard fare for Ashkenazi (French, central European, and German) Jews onward.
For these reasons, Jewish editions of the Tanakh which include commentaries still almost always print the Targum alongside the text, in all Jewish communities. Nevertheless, later halakhic authorities argued that the requirement to privately review the targum might also be met by reading a translation in the current vernacular in place of the official Targum, or else by studying an important commentary containing midrashic interpretation (especially that of Rashi).
The Talmud explicitly states that no official targumim were composed besides these two on Torah and Nevi’im alone, and that there is no official targum to Ketuvim (“The Writings”). The Talmud (Megilah 3a) states “The Targum of the Pentateuch was composed by Onkelos the proselyte from the mouths of R. Eleazar and R. Joshua. The Targum of the Prophets was composed by Jonathan ben Uzziel under the guidance of Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi (Jonathan b. Uzziel was a disciple of Hillel, so he had traditions handed down from them-Maharsha), and the land of Israel [thereupon] quaked over an area of four hundred parasangs by four hundred parasangs, and a Bath Kol (heavenly voice) came forth and exclaimed, “Who is this that has revealed My secrets to mankind?” Jonathan b. Uzziel thereupon arose and said, “It is I who have revealed Thy secrets to mankind. It is fully known to Thee that I have not done this for my own honour or for the honour of my father’s house, but for Thy honour l have done it, that dissension may not increase in Israel.” He further sought to reveal [by] a targum [the inner meaning] of the Hagiographa, but a Bath Kol went forth and said, “Enough!” What was the reason? Because the date of the Messiah is foretold in it”. [A possible reference to the end of the book of Daniel.] But did Onkelos the proselyte compose the targum to the Pentateuch? Has not R. Ika said, in the name of R. Hananel who had it from Rab: What is meant by the text, Neh. VIII,8 “And they read in the book, in the law of God, with an interpretation. and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading? And they read in the book, in the law of God: this indicates the [Hebrew] text; with an interpretation: this indicates the targum,…” (which shows that the targum dates back to the time of Ezra).
Nevertheless, most books of Ketuvim (with the exceptions of Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah, which both contain Aramaic portions) have targumim, whose origin is mostly western (Land of Israel) rather than eastern (Babylonia). But for lack of a fixed place in the liturgy, they were poorly preserved and less well known. From Palestine, the tradition of targum to Ketuvim made its way to Italy, and from there to medieval Ashkenaz and Sepharad. The targumim of Psalms, Proverbs, and Job are generally treated as a unit, as are the targumim of the five scrolls (Esther has a longer “Second Targum” as well.) The Targum of Chronicles is quite late, possibly medieval, and is attributed to a Rabbi Joseph.
Other Targumim on the Torah
There are also a variety of western targumim on the Torah, each of which was traditionally called Targum Yerushalmi (“Jerusalem Targum”), and written in Western Aramaic. An important one of these was mistakenly labeled “Targum Jonathan” in later printed versions (though all medieval authorities refer to it by its correct name). The error crept in because of an abbreviation: the printer interpreted the abbreviation T Y (ת”י) to stand for Targum Yonathan (תרגום יונתן) instead of the correct Targum Yerushalmi (תרגום ירושלמי). Scholars refer to this targum as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. To attribute this targum to Jonathan ben Uzziel flatly contradicts the Talmudic tradition (Megillah 3a), which quite clearly attributes the targum to Nevi’im alone to him, while stating that there is no official targum to Ketuvim. In the same printed versions, a similar fragment targum is correctly labeled as Targum Yerushalmi.
The Western Targumim on the Torah, or Palestinian Targumim as they are also called, consists of three manuscript groups: Targum Neofiti I, Fragment Targums, and Cairo Geniza Fragment Targums.
Of these Targum Neofiti I is by far the largest. It consists of 450 folios covering all books of the Pentateuch, with only a few damaged verses. The history of the manuscript begins 1587 when the censor Andrea de Monte (d. 1587) bequeathed it to Ugo Boncompagni—which presents an oddity, since Boncompagni, better known as Pope Gregory XIII, died in 1585. The route of transmission may instead be by a certain “Giovan Paolo Eustachio romano neophito.” Before this de Monte had censored it by deleting most references to idolatry. In 1602 Boncompagni’s estate gave it to the College of the Neophytes, a college for converts from Judaism and Islam, until 1886, when the Holy See bought it along with other manuscripts when the Collegium closed (which is the reason for the manuscripts name and its designation). Unfortunately, it was then mistitled as a manuscript of Targum Onkelos until 1949, when Alejandro Díez Macho noticed that it differed significantly from Targum Onkelos. It was translated and published during 1968–79, and has since been considered the most important of the Palestinian Targumim, as it is by far the most complete and, apparently, the earliest as well.
The Fragment Targums (formerly known as Targum Yerushalmi II) consist of many fragments that have been divided into ten manuscripts. Of these P, V and L were first published in 1899 by M Ginsburger, A, B, C, D, F and G in 1930 by P Kahle and E in 1955 by A Díez Macho. Unfortunately, these manuscripts are all too fragmented to confirm what their purpose was, but they seem to be either the remains of a single complete targum or short variant readings of another targum. As a group, they often share theological views and with Targum Neofiti, which has led to the belief that they could be variant readings of that targum.
The Cairo Genizah Fragment Targums originate from the Ben-Ezra Synagogues genizah in Cairo. They share similarities with The Fragment Targums in that they consist of many fragmented manuscripts that have been collected in one targum-group. The manuscripts A and E are the oldest among the Palestinian Targum and have been dated to around the seventh century. Manuscripts C, E, H, and Z contain only passages from Genesis, A from Exodus while MS B contains verses from both as well as from Deuteronomium.
The Samaritan community has their own Targum to their text of the Torah. Other Targumim were also discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
- Attribution: This article incorporates text from the public domain: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
- Schühlein, Franz (1912). Targum. New York: Robert Appleton.
- Oesterley, WOE; Box, GH (1920). A Short Survey of the Literature of Rabbinical and Mediæval Judaism. New York: Burt Franklin.
- “Levita, Elijah”, in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia.
- Levita, Elia (1542). Sefer meturgeman.
- Philip S. Alexander, (1992) “Targum, Targumim,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman (New York: Doubleday), 6:320–31
- Ellis R. Brotzman; Eric J. Tully (2016). Old Testament Textual Criticism: A Practical Introduction. Baker Publishing Group. p. 77. ISBN 978-1-4934-0475-9.
- Studi di biblioteconomia e storia del libro in onore di Francesco Barberi, ed. Giorgio De Gregori, Maria Valenti – 1976 “(42) Trascrivo una supplica dell’Eustachio al Sirleto : « Giovan Paolo Eustachio romano neophito devotissimo servidor di… (44) « Die 22 mensis augusti 1602. Inventarium factum in domo illustrissimi domini Ugonis Boncompagni posita”.
- McNamara, M. (1972) Targum and Testament. Shannon, Irish University Press.
- Sysling, H. (1996) Tehiyyat Ha-Metim. Tübingen, JCB Mohr.
- “The Dead Sea Scrolls – Browse Manuscripts”. http://www.deadseascrolls.org.il. Retrieved Monday, May 24, 2021.
- For the date of translation, see Peter J. Williams (2001). Studies in the Syntax of the Peshitta of 1 Kings. BRILL. p. 2. ISBN 90-04-11978-7.
- Tadmor, H., 1991. “On the role of Aramaic in the Assyrian empire”, in M. Mori, H. Ogawa and M. Yoshikawa (eds.), Near Eastern Studies Dedicated to H.I.H. Prince Takahito Mikasa on the Occasion of his Seventy-Fifth Birthday, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, pp. 419–426