Aramaic Literature 3

– The Primary Targums

The other most important Targum on the Pentateuch is that of Neofiti. It was discovered only recently (1956). It had remained hidden in the Vatican library, probably for centuries, before it was re-discovered. Lest the reader think that there is some sort of Da Vinci code conspiracy at work here, the Targum was placed along with other Targum manuscripts, and catalogued under Onkelos. This sort of mis-cataloging takes place even in modern highly technological libraries, let alone when the works are in obscure languages and catalogued by someone who may or may not know the language. It is quite possible that the cleric who catalogued it knew only that it was written in Hebrew/Aramaic characters, and it came in with a batch of other texts, perhaps more clearly labeled.

[Just for a modern example of that kind of mis-cataloging: A number of years ago I was teaching at another institution, and was doing some study on the Book of Revelation. As I was perusing the commentaries on the shelves, I saw one whose title looked slightly out of place. I took a closer look at it and discovered that it was not on the Book of Revelation, but was on the doctrine of revelation (theology, rather than biblical commentary). Someone who was not paying careful attention, or didn’t really know any better, simply mis-catalogued the book,]

At any rate, Targum Neofiti was re-discovered by A. Díez-Macho, who is a specialist in Targum studies, as he was sorting through these manuscripts in the Vatican library. There is a colophon (an explanatory note at the end of a text) to the Targum that reveals that the text was copied in 1504. It is a complete text of the Pentateuch. The character of the work is such that is falls somewhere between the literalness of Onkelos and the more paraphrastic Pseudo-Jonathan. It is apparently inconsistent in its translation principles, sometimes varying between more literal and more paraphrastic renderings. There is currently no scholarly agreement on when or where the text reflected in this manuscript originated.

Apart from the Targums on the Pentateuch, there are also important Targums on other books of the Bible. I have already mentioned in passing the Targum of Jonathan on the Prophets. Along with Onkelos and Pseudo-Jonathan, it is considered an “official” Targum. According to Jewish tradition, Jonathan ben Uzziel “translated the prophets into Aramaic, revealing the divine mysteries, an endeavor that shook the foundation of the world, causing the land of Israel to move four hundred parasangs” (ISBE 4.732). “Parasang” is an old Persian term, referring to the distance one could travel by foot in an hour (roughly 3-3.5 miles). Obviously this is a fanciful account, but origins of the Targum are obscure and nothing can really be said with certainty. Its general character is closer to Onkelos than to Pseudo-Jonathan, but it does have paraphrastic passages.

All of these Targums are well-known in the Jewish and academic communities, but are generally difficult to find in English translation. The Targum Edition Exploratory Committee is currently developing a long-term plan for producing scholarly editions of all the Targums. See

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