Aramaic Literature – Part 1

The most extensive, and most significant, collections of Aramaic literature (apart from the Aramaic in the Bible) exist in the various texts produced by Jewish scholars in the early centuries of the Christian era. I have given a quick survey of these materials in an earlier column in this series. It is my intention over the next several weeks to take a closer look at these materials, with more detailed descriptions, and discussion of what they tell us.

Probably the oldest of this literature is the targums. The targums are, loosely, speaking, translations of the Old Testament into Aramaic. The origins of this literature are lost in obscurity. It is sometimes supposed, on the basis of Nehemiah 8:8, that the targums originated in the period immediately after the exile. This text tells about Ezra’s reading of the law at the Feast of Trumpets. At the conclusion of that section, it says, “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.” Some have either assumed or argued that “giving the sense” meant that a verbal translation of the Hebrew was made into Aramaic. While this is indeed possible, the language doesn’t really support the contention. Rather, “giving the sense” probably has the idea of explaining the intent and purpose of the text. The law had been written for a people preparing to enter the land. The law was being read to a people only recently returned from exile—two completely different social situations. Thus, explanation would have been necessary.

Nehemiah 13:24 speaks of some of the children of returnees not being able to speak the language of Judah (that is, Hebrew). But again, it does not say that none spoke Hebrew. The idea that those attending the reading of the law in Nehemiah 8 would have been profoundly lacking in a knowledge of Hebrew, so that they would need an Aramaic translation/explanation does not fit the facts.

Whatever the precise origins of the targums might have been, it is clearly the case that some targums were in existence before the start of the Christian era. Pieces of targums on Job and Leviticus were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls material. It is usually supposed, by those who don’t adopt the Ezra explanation given above, that the targums originated as oral translations in the synagogue, only later being formalized by being written down. This may well be the case, and later Jewish tradition gives some support for it, but it must be noted that the explanation comes from a period well after extensive written Targums had appeared. The appearance of targums among the Dead Sea Scrolls literature makes it clear that targums, as a distinct literature, made their appearance no later than the 3rd-2century BC. It must be remembered, however, that these early targums differ significantly from the later targums that have achieved semi-official status with the Jewish community.

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