The following short description of the Aramaic Targums is excerpted from Bruce M. Metzger's article, "Important Early Translations of the Bible," Bibliotheca Sacra 150 (Jan 93), pp. 35ff.

The Jewish Targums

Bruce M. Metzger

The Targums are interpretive renderings of the books of the Hebrew Scriptures (with the exception of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel) into Aramaic. Such versions were needed when Hebrew ceased to be the normal medium of communication among the Jews. In synagogue services the reading of the Scriptures was followed by a translation into the Aramaic vernacular of the populace. For a reading from the Pentateuch the Aramaic translation followed each verse of the Hebrew; for a reading from the Prophets three verses were followed by the Aramaic translation.

At first the oral Targum was a simple paraphrase in Aramaic, but eventually it became more elaborate and incorporated explanatory details inserted here and there into the translation of the Hebrew text. To make the rendering more authoritative as an interpretation, it was finally reduced to writing. Two officially sanctioned Targums, produced first in Palestine and later revised in Babylonia, are the Targum of Onkelos (1) on the Pentateuch and the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets, both of which were in use in the third century of the Christian era.

During the same period the Targum tradition continued to flourish in Palestine. In addition to fragments and citations that have been collected, the Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch is found, primarily, in three forms. The two that have been the most studied are the Pseudo-Jonathan Targum and the Fragmentary Targum, which contains renderings of only approximately 850 biblical verses, phrases, or words. In the mid-20th century a neglected manuscript in the Vatican library, identified as Neofiti 1, was discovered to be a nearly complete copy of the Palestinian Targum to the Pentateuch. Though copied in the 16th century, its text has the distinction of being the earliest form of the Palestinian Targum. It is somewhat less paraphrastic than Pseudo-Jonathan in that its explanatory additions are fewer in number and more terse in expression. The wide divergences among these Targums clearly indicate that they are "unofficial," in that their text was never fixed. There are no reliable data as to who the authors and compilers were, under what circumstances and for what specific purposes they labored, and how literary transmission was achieved.

Though the several Targums display certain common features, there are also many differences of rendering among them, ranging from literalistic to paraphrastic, incorporating a variety of kinds of explanatory comments. Sometimes an anthropomorphic expression in the Hebrew concerning God is softened or eliminated in the Targum. In speaking of the relationship of God to the world, reverence for the God of Israel led the Targumist to employ surrogates for the Deity, such as "Word" (Memra), "Glory" (Yeqara, ’Iqar), or "Presence" (Shekinah, Aramaic Shekinta). Thus in Genesis 1:16-17 Targum Neofiti reads, "The Word of the Lord created the two large luminaries ... and the Glory of the Lord set them in the firmament," and in Genesis 2:2-3 it reads, "On the seventh day the Word of the Lord completed the work which he had created ... and the Glory of the Lord blessed the seventh day."

As was mentioned earlier, besides providing an Aramaic rendering of the Scripture text, the Targumist also sometimes provided interpretive expansions. Typical of such interpolations are the following:

"And whatever Adam called in the language of the sanctuary a living creature, that was its name" (Palestinian Targum, Gen 2:19).

"Behold, I have granted them a hundred and twenty years in case they might repent, but they failed to do so" (Palestinian Targum, Gen 6:3).

"And he [Moses] reached the mount over which the glory of the Shekinah of the Lord was revealed, Horeb" (Targum Neofiti, Exod 3:1).

"Let Reuben live in this world and not die in the second death, in which death the wicked die in the world to come" (Palestinian Targum, Deut 33:6).

Despite their self-professed purpose to be a translation and/or explanatory paraphrase of Scripture, here and there the Targums also present instances of what is termed converse translation, (2) in which the Aramaic text contradicts what is said in the Hebrew. This modification is accomplished through a variety of devices, including the addition or deletion of the negative particle, or the replacement of the original biblical verb with another of opposite meaning. Neofiti on Exodus 33:3 reads, "I will not remove my presence from among you," whereas the Hebrew text reads, "I will not go up among you." Cain’s cry in the Hebrew text, "Behold, you have driven me this day from the land, and from your face I shall be hidden" (Gen 4:14), is changed to read, "Behold, you have driven me this day from upon the land, but it is not possible to be hidden from you" (Targums Onkelos and Neofiti). In both these instances the Targumist was unwilling to accept the implication that God’s presence and power could be circumscribed or limited. In the Targum on Genesis 4:23 Lamech boasted, "I have slain a man for wounding me, a young man on account of which my progeny would be destroyed." Here the Targumist changed a bloodthirsty song of triumph into an affirmation of divine justice.

In passing through the territory of the descendants of Esau, the Israelites were instructed in Deuteronomy 2:6, "You shall buy water from them, so that you may drink." Since this verse is followed by the observation that "these forty years the Lord your God has been with you; you have lacked nothing," the buying of food and water appeared to be inappropriate to the Targumist. So he contradicted the biblical text and the Targum reads, "You need not buy food from them for money, since manna from heaven descends for you; neither need you buy water from them, since the well of water ascends with you, up to the mountain tops and down into the valleys" (Targum Neofiti).

All translations of the Bible are necessarily interpretive to some extent, but the Targums differ in that they are interpretive as a matter of policy, and often to an extent that far exceeds the bounds of translation or even paraphrase. It is perhaps against such license that Rabbi Judah (2nd century A.D.) declared with paradoxical vehemence, "He who translates a biblical verse literally is a liar, but he who elaborates on it is a blasphemer." (3)

1. Though the name Onkelos corresponds to Aquila, there is no reason to ascribe this Targum to the Aquila who made a literalistic Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures in the second century.

2. See Michael Klein, "Converse Translation: A Targumic Technique," Biblica 57 (1976), 515-37, and Etan Levine, The Aramaic Version of the Bible (Berlin: de Gruyter, 1988), 33-36 and 151-66.

3. Tosephta, Megillah 4:41, ed. M. S. Zuckermandel (Jerusalem: Bamberger & Wahrmann, 1937), 228.