Theorizing in the Absence of a Theory:The Case of the Aramaic Targums to the Pentateuch

Simon Lasair


Targums are a kind of ancient Jewish translation literature that may have played an important role in synagogues, private devotion, and education. The reason scholars adduce such widespread use for the targums is because they translate the Hebrew Bible from Hebrew into Aramaic, another ancient Semitic language widely used by Palestinian and Babylonian Jews. Despite their supposed popularity, there are no sustained discussions in ancient Jewish literature concerning how to produce a targum, or what makes a quality targum. This is in direct contrast to some of the early theoretical discussions that informed ancient Christian translations of the Bible. Similarly, internal evidence from the targums suggests they underwent extended diachronic growth, thus eliminating the possibility of a single author, translator, or—as conventionally designated—targumist. As a result, theorizing the situation of a targumist is extremely difficult, in that to do so modern scholars must rely exclusively on the evidence presented by the targums themselves. Furthermore, the targumist must remain at the level of a hypothetical composite in order to reflect the historical realities of targumic production and development. Nevertheless, in this paper I will examine three issues that might give some insight into the situation of the Pentateuch Targums (targums to the first five books of the Hebrew Bible): 1) the targumic “shadow” of the Hebrew Bible; 2) the basic unit of meaning in the targums; and 3) the possible translational role of the targumic narrative expansion—extended portions of text that add new material to the Hebrew Bible narrative. By examining these issues I hope to tease out some of the translational dynamics and cross-cultural issues that likely influenced the production of the targums. And although the targumist must remain a hypothetical construct, the consistency of translational dynamics within the Pentateuch Targums probably reflects a tacit consensus of approach among the targums’ producers. As a result, it becomes possible to theorize in the absence of a theory.


Targum; Aramaic; Hebrew ; Bible

Full Text:


ISSN 1920-0323