Aramaic Literature – Part 4 – The Primary Targums

Most books of the Old Testament have Targums. The only exceptions are Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. The reasons for these omissions are not clear. Perhaps it is due to the fact that these books already contain some Aramaic, especially since Daniel is about half Aramaic. It does seem to be clear that the third section of the Jewish canon was considered less important (at any rate, less in need of targumic treatment) than the books of the Law and the prophets.

This third part of the Jewish canon, known as the Writings, consists of Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Ruth, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Lamentations, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Books of Chronicles. The five books from Ruth through Esther are together identified as the “Five Megilloth” (the five scrolls), because they are read during annual Jewish observances. Ruth is read at Pentecost, since it deals with the barley harvest, which is about the same time as Pentecost. Song of Songs is read at Passover, since at Passover, the Lord created a people for himself. The book is understood to refer to the relationship between Yahweh and his people. Ecclesiastes is read at the Feast of Booths. Lamentations is read on the 9th of Ab, which commemorates the destruction of the temple. Esther is, of course, read at the Feast of Purim, since it tells the story of the origin of that festival.

The Targums for the Megilloth are of diverse character, though all of them have explanatory additions as well as translations of the basic Hebrew text. Thus, reading them can be helpful in learning how these texts were understood to relate to the festivals during which they were read. It appears unlikely that there was any concerted effort to provide Targums for the Writings. Some of the earlier rabbis betray no knowledge of Targums on the Writings. The Targums that do exist are also sufficiently different in character that they probably originated from several different writers. It is also the case that more attention was paid to Targums on the Law. These latter Targums reflect clearly the developments going on in Judaism that eventually resulted in the characteristics of early modern Judaism.

Though the Targums in their modern form originated in the period after the rise of the Christian church, the currents that produced them were underway in the period between the Testaments. It is during this period, that also produced the Dead Sea Scrolls, that non-canonical Jewish writings appeared, expanding the breadth of Jewish literature. It is also in this period that Judaism, as a distinct religion, is considered to have appeared. Historically speaking, in the period before the Babylonian Exile, the people are called Israelites, and their religion is simply Israelite religion. After the return from Exile, the people are called Jews, and their religion is called Judaism. Thus, the apocryphal books, the Pseudepigrapha, and the Dead Sea Scrolls all originated in this era, and it is this literature that we will begin exploring next week.


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