Targums: Pharisee translations of the bible.

by K.W. Leslie, 22 August 2019

The original New Testament was written in Greek. That’s because in the eastern Mediterranean, where Christianity originated, Greek was what Latin became in medieval Europe, and what English now is worldwide: Everybody’s second language, used because it’s everybody else’s second language. (Unless it’s your first. Greek’s my third.) When Alexander of Macedon took a shot at conquering the world in the 300s BC, he Grecianized everything he could find, left Greek colonies everywhere, and Greek became the language you needed to know for commerce and diplomacy.

But before that, it was Aramaic, the language of the Assyrian Empire and the neo-Babylonian Empire, both of which conquered northern and southern Israel in the 700s and 500s BC. The Hebrew-speaking Israelis were scattered throughout these empires, and when their descendants returned to Palestine, they spoke Aramaic. (And, after Alexander came through Palestine, Greek too.) Only scribes knew Hebrew.

Okay, but their bible (our Old Testament), with the exception of a few chapters here and there, was in Hebrew. If only scribes knew Hebrew, how were the rest of the population to know what was in the bible? Obviously the same way we do: Translation. The scribes’ usual practice was to read the bible in the original, then translate as they went, clause by clause.

And at some point, certain Pharisees decided to transcribe the scribes’ translations. Hey, if you don’t know Hebrew, and don’t always have a scribe around to translate bible for you, stands to reason you’d want your own copy available.

The scribes discouraged this. They didn’t want their off-the-cuff translations to become permanent translations, or to be considered official translations. Especially since they were in the bad habit of paraphrasing—adding details to the scriptures which aren’t in the text. Sometimes to clarify things, like when you’re telling bible stories to children or newbies… and sometimes to bend the text to suit their theology. I’ll explain that practice in more detail in a bit. In any event scribes didn’t want their alterations recorded for posterity.

But they were, ’cause we got ’em. The first written copies of these Aramaic translations appeared in the mid-first century. We call them targums, or targumím if you prefer the proper Aramaic plural ending. The Aramaic and Hebrew word תִּרְגּוּם/targúm simply means interpretation.

Aramaic-speaking Jews in Yemen still refer to targums because, duh, that’s their language. Aramaic-speaking Christians prefer the Peshitta, an Syriac translation of the Old and New Testaments first produced in the second century. But Christian scholars refer to the targums for two reasons: We wanna know how first-century Pharisees interpreted bible; and, like the Septuagint and Vulgate, we wanna compare ancient translations to the ancient texts to see how they interpreted it.

But because targums are Pharisee paraphrases, we study them with a certain amount of caution. You recall Jesus didn’t always agree with the Pharisees’ spin on the scriptures. Neither should we.

Two primary targums.

When people quote the targums, most of the time they’re referencing the two targums mentioned in the Babylonian Talmud: Targum Onqelós and Targum Yonatán ben Uzziel. (If you wanna read them, Sefaria has copies, and English translations, of both Onqelós and Yonatán.)

Onqelós, often spelled Onkelos, is a transliteration of the Roman name Aquila, and refers to Aquila of Sinope, a second-century Anatolian convert to Pharisaism. (According to Epiphanius of Salamis, Aquila was previously Christian, but after the Christians rebuked him for practicing astrology, he joined the Pharisees—who wouldn’t have tolerated astrology either, so I have my doubts about this story.) His targum translates the books of Moses. He also translated the Old Testament into Greek, although only parts of his Psalms and Kings survived to the present day. There’s some speculation that the targum is Aquila’s Greek bible translated into Aramaic, and some debate as to whether it isn’t a fourth- or fifth-century work. Regardless, the Talmud considered it “our translation,” rather than any of the other popular Palestinian translations, and recommended it be studied along with the Hebrew text: Read the Hebrew twice, then the targum once.

Aquila’s translation is notable in that he tries his darnedest to avoid describing God as human, or human-like. Pharisees wanted to emphasize the fact God’s not human Nu 23.19 (well, at the time Moses said this, not yet) and downplay any scriptures which sounded too anthropomorphic for their comfort. So where the scriptures describe God’s face Ex 33.23 or feet, Ex 24.10 Aquila went with “before me” or “throne of glory.” Where the scriptures describe the LORD personally interacting with sinful humanity, Aquila borrowed the Pharisee practice of saying “the word of the LORD,” like we find in the Hebrew text of Genesis 15.1. So instead of the LORD doing this or that, the Word did it—an idea John borrowed and began his gospel with.

Yonatán, or Jonathan, translated the Deuteronomistic History and the Prophets. It’s named for Jonathan, a first-century student of Hillel the Elder, but it dates from the second century; although it’s likely someone from that century edited it thoroughly to make it match Aquila’s style. According to legend, Jonathan also wanted to translate the later-written parts of the Old Testament, but a voice from heaven told him to stop. In reality Jonathan may have translated those books too, but not all Pharisees recognized them as bible, and possibly deleted them.

Onqelós and Yonatán are considered official targums. Jewish bible commentaries refer to them, and often include them along with the Hebrew text, along with the comments of other authoritative medieval interpreters like Rashi and Rambam. So they’ve been hugely influential in rabbinic and contemporary Judaism.

Now, are they the targums Jesus and the people of his day would’ve been most familiar with? No. But they’re like the targums of Jesus’s day. They follow the same principles, and reflect the ideas of leading Pharisees. So they provide useful insights into how they interpreted the scriptures—and people who grew up in synagogue, like Paul and the apostles, would also have been familiar with their ideas. They definitely help in our cultural understanding of Jesus’s day.

Bible translations.