Review of A. Houtman and H. Sysling, Alternative Targum Traditions

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 12 (2012) - Review

Houtman, Alberdina and Harry Sysling, Alternative Targum Traditions: The Use of Variant Readings for the Study in Origin and History of Targum Jonathan (Studies in the Aramaic Interpretation of Scripture, 9; Leiden: Brill, 2009). Pp. xiii + 304. Hardcover. €112.00; $156.00. ISBN 978-90-04-17842-7.

This study, conducted by two prominent Targum scholars, Alberdina Houtman and Harry Sysling, attempts to fill a significant lacuna in Targum studies. It is generally recognised that a new edition of Targum Jonathan to the Prophets (TJ) is needed, but such a project is not yet possible. The origin and history of its text have not yet been sufficiently explored nor has its language been systematically described. Though Targum Jonathan (TJ) experienced centuries of redaction, the period before its so-called “official” recension is veiled in mist. This project prepares the ground for such a new edition of TJ by examining two sets of data that have potential for clearing the fog: the Targumic Toseftot to TJ (additions or supplements to TJ), and alternative readings found in early quotations of TJ.[1]

The first chapter is a prolegomena, a whistle-stop tour of preliminary issues related to the character and background of the Targumim. The ground has been covered many times. Houtman and Sysling, however, give more sustained attention to the history of scholarship than is typical, especially from Zunz onward.[2] The one inventive part of the chapter is the authors' attempt to provide an original definition of “Targum.” A survey of definitions, ancient and modern, is followed by a new offering. They begin with a definition from Alexander Samely: “Targum is an Aramaic narrative paraphrase of the biblical text in exegetical dependence on its wording.”[3] They revise this definition several times, with the following result: “Targum is a Jewish-Aramaic interpretive word-by-word translation of the biblical text in exegetical dependence on its wording” (p. 18). This definition and the following attempt to schematize “targum types” highlight the fact that Houtman and Sysling consider the Targumim to be, first and foremost, translations. They are only secondarily interpretations.

In chapter 2, “Tosefta Targums and other Targumic Traditions to the Books of Samuel,” the authors turn their attention to the so-called Targumic Toseftot (literally, “targumic additions”). Targumic Toseftot occupy a special niche within Targum research. The toseftot are extraneous readings or supplements to the complete Targumim. Some are small marginal glosses a few words in length. Others are complex compositions in their own right. The toseftot are not demonstrably homogeneous in origin, purpose, content, or language. The origins of the various types of toseftot and their relationships to TJ are still largely unexplained. Should there be enough evidence to suggest that the toseftot preserve remnants of an ancient Palestinian Targum to the Prophets or alternative translations to TJ, they would provide important evidence regarding the textual history of TJ.

The toseftot are numerous, forcing the authors to focus their attention on a selection of the data. Following a useful, brief summary of prior research and a pair of excurses on Aramaic poems, the authors restrict their focus to the toseftot to TJ-Samuel. The chapter is a comprehensive survey of the relevant manuscripts, and the toseftot to Samuel, catalogued by their self-designations: ספ׳ אח׳, “another book”; ל׳ א׳, “another version”; ירוש׳ or ירו׳, “Targum Yerushalmi”; תרגו׳ של תוספתא, “tosefta targum”; and those with no designation.

Houtman and Sysling conclude that the toseftot are not homogeneous. Certain toseftot, those labelled ספ׳ אח׳ and ל׳ א׳, represent substitutions rather than additions, many of which should be thought of as variants to TJ. Those labelled “Yerushalmi” or “Targum Yerushalmi” are atomistic and fragmentary. Some clarify individual vocabulary words, whereas others offer paraphrastic renderings of phrases or clauses. These toseftot are incoherent apart from TJ, and their language almost always conforms to that of TJ. They too appear to be alternative renderings rather than additions. Those additions categorised as “tosefta” do indeed appear to be supplemental materials to TJ, influenced by Babylonian tradition if not composed in Babylon. These, Houtman and Sysling argue, are true toseftot, in the sense that they are additions to TJ. The unlabeled cases comprise Aramaic poems and midrashic compilations, which are far enough removed from TJ, thematically and ideologically, that the authors do not consider them to be part of the corpus of targumic toseftot. In sum, Houtman and Sysling find few commonalities within the body of so-called “toseftot.” Their origins and purposes, in most cases, remain opaque. Though a valuable body of literature in their own right, they offer only a little assistance in the quest to uncover TJ's pre-history.

Chapter 3, “Quotations of Targumic Passages from the Prophets in Rabbinic and Medieval Sources,” focuses on quotations of TJ within other Targumim, the Talmudim and Midrashim, medieval commentaries and dictionaries, magical and mystical texts, and liturgical manuscripts. (Admittedly, an analysis of medieval sources, especially the commentaries, is needed to make this survey complete.) Many of these quotations betray variances with the extant Targumim and have been a central datum in academic debates about the pre-history of TJ. Following a review of scholarship on the subject, Houtman and Sysling begin by schematizing quotations on purely formal grounds, based on their self-presentation and literary form. They divide the cases into the following categories:

  1. Explicit quotations (quotations with citation formulae)
    1. Quotations that are indicated by an introductory formula and refer to a specific biblical verse or part of a verse
    2. Quotations indicated by an introductory formula that are not followed by a specific biblical verse but by an allusion to a certain biblical passage, a free rendering of biblical texts, or a combination of several scriptural passages
  2. Implicit quotations (quotations not introduced formally)
    1. Quotations without introductory formula [sic] that refer to a specific biblical verse or part of a verse
    2. Quotations without introductory formula that seem to allude to well-known texts, current sayings, or that are based on stereotype renderings
    3. Quotations without introductory formula that consist of free renderings of biblical texts
    4. Quotations without introductory formula that are based on analogy of words or expressions in the Hebrew text
  3. Philological interpretation of biblical words (alternative Aramaic renderings of a Hebrew word)

This is a significant improvement over alternative systems that blend issues of content, form and provenance in their schematization of the evidence.[4]

The schema is followed by a detailed examination of the evidence, working methodically through the quotations, source by source. Following 78 pages of detailed analysis, Houtman and Sysling sum up their findings. (1) There are only 47 cases of explicit quotations in the works under discussion, a much lower number than one might anticipate, and the formulae for introducing those quotations are unique to each body of literature. (2) Within the Palestinian Targumim, quotations are most often found in the midrashic introductions to the Sabbath and festival readings. (3) Some quotations differ from TJ; some agree. Of those that disagree, some are more interpretive and some less. There is not enough evidence to conclude that a more verbatim Palestinian Targum of the Prophets existed. (4) The majority of quotations in the Bavli are attributed to Rav Joseph bar Ḥiyya, who must have played a role in the propagation, if not redaction, of TJ. (5) The quotations in the Bavli are, as expected, largely aligned with TJ, though minor variants appear. (6) Quotations on magic bowls indicate that TJ was already an authoritative document by the 4th century, and suggest that it was translated in Palestine in the 3d century c.e. Slight differences between TJ and the quotations found on incantation bowls testify to the instability of TJ in the period. (7) The oldest quotations are those in the Palestinian Targumim. These quotations are rarely aligned with TJ, manifesting a wide array of linguistic and exegetical variants. (8) The Palestinian Targum tradition as a whole appears to have been unstable and fluctuating. Though they favour the notion that a complete Targum of the prophets was produced in Palestine, Houtman and Sysling conclude, based on the diverse forms that quotations take, that it was never subjected to systematic editing. That task was only endorsed and undertaken by the Babylonian sages.

In the concluding chapter, “Summary and Conclusions,” Houtman and Sysling revisit and sum up the results achieved in the first three chapters. The work concludes with two very helpful appendices: “Targumic Quotations from the Prophets in the Order of the Works in which They Appear,” and “Targumic Quotations from the Prophets in Biblical Order.”

The principal value of this work is the foundation it lays for a critical edition of TJ. Most of the Targumic Toseftot, Houtman and Sysling conclude, properly belong to the domain of reception. Their utility in this enterprise is limited. However, those marginal toseftot that record variant readings are important. Quotations are even more important. From these two lines of evidence, Houtman and Sysling are able to provide a rough sketch of the evolution, official redaction, and subsequent supplementation and adaptation of the Targum to the Prophets. The authors' close analysis of the toseftot of Samuel and quotations of TJ will also allow these bits of data to be located within a comprehensive stemmatology of TJ. Though narrow in focus and aim, Alternative Targum Traditions casts light on neglected dimensions of Aramaic studies and will be warmly received by Targum scholars everywhere.

William Tooman, University of St. Andrews

[1] The Targum research group in Kampen, led by Prof. Jan Wesselius, has been working toward a new edition of TJ for several years. The project, “Origin and History of Targum Jonathan to the Prophets: Towards a Critical Edition,” is funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. The first fruit of the group's work was R. J. Kuty's Studies in the Syntax of Targum Jonathan to Samuel (Ph.D. diss., Universiteit Leiden. 2008; published by Peeters). The book under review is the second. reference

[2] L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstlichen Vorträge der Juden historisch entwickelt (2d ed.; Frankfurt am Main: Kauffmann, 1892). reference

[3] A. Samely, The Interpretation of Speech in the Pentateuch Targums (Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum, 27; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1992), 180. This choice seems curious, in as much as Samely offered a more precise definition two years later: a Targum is a “dedicated exegetical rewording of Scripture on the basis of rabbinic reading assumptions, by way of synonymous or non-synonymous substitution or addition, with the help of the lexicon of a second language, Aramaic, and in conformity with the genre of the biblical original(s)” (“Is Targumic Aramaic Rabbinic Hebrew? A Reflection on Midrashic and Targumic Rewording of Scripture,” JJS 45 [1994]:, 92–100 [98–99]). reference

[4] Most notably, M. Goshen-Gottstein (with Rimon Kasher), שקיעים מתרגומי המקרא הארמיים (Fragments of Lost Targumim) (Ramat-Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 1983). reference