The Targumim Factor

Another factor influencing the use of the Hebrew Scriptures by the New Testament writers is the “Targumim Factor.” This refers to the interpretive translation style of the Targumim that was prominent in the first century. The word “targum” means “translation” or “to translate.” Targumim is the plural form-“translations.” The Targumim are Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible. Aramaic was one of three languages in common use in first century Israel (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic).

The Targumim are not word-for-word translations; rather, they were paraphrastic in nature. They were interpretive translations; they would be equivalent to the Living Bible we have today. The Living Bible is not a translation, it is a paraphrase. The goal of the Living Bible is the same as that of the Targumim, the aim-the goal-was to communicate understanding. The aim was to communicate what the passage meant in the clearest possible terms. They were not interested in producing a one-for-one, literal translation. For example, Isaiah 52:13 literally says, “My servant will prosper …,” in contrast, Targum Jonathan says, “My servant, the Messiah, will prosper …” Isaiah 52:13 does not contain the words “the Messiah” in the Hebrew text. However, Jonathan understood the verse to refer to the Messiah, and accordingly, he paraphrased the text when he translated it into Aramaic.

He added the paraphrastic comment “the Messiah.” He did this in order to communicate his understanding of the text to the reader.[1] Could we say that the Jewish New Testament writers did the same? Yes, we can. They are Jews writing in the same Jewish, cultural context as the Targumim.

They are communicating their understanding of the Hebrew text to their readers, just like Jonathan. This is a very different approach than what we are used to. We live in 21st century, not the first century. We live in America, not Israel. Our culture is high-tech, high-speed, urbanized, linear, and time-fixated. Accordingly, we tend to view the Hebrew Scriptures from our perspective. We do not consider adjusting our point-of-view to fit the perspective of the writer and his audience. However, we must do our best to make that adjustment. We need to do this out of fairness to the author and to the text. Without making this adjustment we can misunderstand the meaning of the text.

This desire to communicate understanding is explained by biblical archaeologist, James A. Sanders, in his book The Dead Sea Scrolls after Forty Years:

“Early manuscripts were written to be read to the community – Tradents wanted their communities to understand, so they would slightly alter the text to facilitate understanding.”

The key sentence is that last one:

“… Tradents wanted their communities to understand, so they would slightly alter the text to facilitate understanding.”

I need to define one word in that key sentence; the word is “tradent.” The word “tradent” means: “The person who delivers or hands over any property to another.[2]” I believe his point is that the Jewish and Christian communities considered the Bible to be the property of God. Those who taught or read the Bible to others considered themselves as stewards passing on God’s property; they considered themselves “tradents.” In order to fulfill that duty in a responsible manner they would do what they felt necessary to facilitate understanding. That is the basis for the Targumim.

The Aramaic paraphrases would alter the biblical text if the translator felt that the alteration would facilitate a proper understanding of the text. The translator felt that amending the translation was a responsible action to take in order to communicate the intended meaning.

The value of the Targumim lies in the fact that they help us to understand the first-century Jewish understanding of the text. In consequence, the first-century Messianic Jews were not concerned by this factor. They considered this technique of amending the text to gain understanding a valid technique. As a result, a free translation of a verse from the Hebrew Bible did not present in their minds the problems it presents to us. We, in the 21st century are much less tolerant of free translations. However, the quotations we have in the New Testament are not always word for word from the Hebrew Bible. They can be slightly different than the original in order to facilitate proper understanding.

My point: when an anti-missionary accuses the Church of tampering with the text he is using an invalid argument. This is a common charge the anti-missionaries level at the New Testament. However, amending the text to produce understanding was an accepted practice in the first-century Jewish community, and the New Testament is a first-century Jewish document. It simply reflects the Jewish culture in which it was written. Altering the text is not the practice of a devious Gentile whose intention is to deceive unsuspecting and gullible Jews into believing a false religion.

This brings up the question of the inspiration and reliability of the New Testament. The Targumim factor does not compromise the inspiration, reliability and authority of the New Testament. If we believe in divine inspiration, then, since the practice is found in the New Testament, the practice does not bother God.

Remember, the practice is found in the New Testament. Matthew Chapter 2 is a prime example. Since God oversaw the production of the New Testament then we can have confidence in the New Testament text. God saw to it that the proper understanding of the Hebrew Scriptures was communicated through the pages of the New Testament. As a result, slight differences in quotations should not bother us as well. You should understand this attack by an anti-missionary to be invalid.

  1. ^ “Life of the Messiah” tape series, Ariel Ministries
  2. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd ed., 1989)