Translating The Bible

The books of the Hebrew Bible, with a few exceptions, were written in Hebrew. Beginning in the Second Temple period and continuing after its destruction in 70 CE, fewer and fewer Jews could understand their ancestral language. The earliest indication that Hebrew no longer served the entire Jewish populace comes in the fifth century. As Ezra, a priest, scribe, and leader of a reform movement in fifth-century BCE Judea, publicly read the law in Jerusalem, he enlisted persons to translate and help the people understand what was being said (Neh. 8:7-8). This trend progressed as Jews came into more frequent and more substantive contact with non-Hebraic cultures. The translation of the Hebrew texts into Greek was an early attempt to meet the needs of Jews living in the Mediterranean regions, particularly the large Jewish community of Alexandria. Following the conquests of the famous Macedonian leader Alexander in the late fourth century BCE, Jews came into much more direct contact with Hellenistic culture. Hellenization, the process of mixing Greek and indigenous cultures, began on a promising note, including the adoption of the Greek language by many of the indigenous populations of the eastern Mediterranean basin. Jews also incorporated many aspects of Hellenistic society. Greek names, styles of architecture, and dress all contributed to the changing dimensions of Judaism. Greek culture and the spread of trade made a new world perception necessary and eroded the automatic assent of Judeans to the religion of their ancestors. The religion had to explain itself in new ways and had to evolve new forms of expressing and understanding itself in a Greek environment.

The translation of the Bible into Greek represents a notable moment in the Hellenization of Judaism. According to one legend, seventy scholars, working independently, by a miracle produced identical translations of the Torah for Ptolemy, King of Egypt in the third century BCE. These texts formed the core of what eventually became a Greek Bible called the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX). Though the story is only a fable, it gives the translation a place of authority and respect. The miracle authenticates it as religiously authoritative, on a par with the original Hebrew texts.

By the first century the Septuagint had become accepted as the legitimate translation for Greek-speaking Jews. Christians also consulted the Bible, and those who did so in Greek, therefore, turned to the Septuagint. This version of the Hebrew Bible evolved into the Christian Old Testament. As the Septuagint became increasingly identified as a Christian text, Jews were moved to produce other Greek versions. The result was two new Greek versions, one attributed to Aquila, a convert to Judaism, and the second to Theodotion. Both translations were composed in the second century CE and attempt a reading of the original Hebrew more literal than the Septuagint.

Apart from Greek, Aramaic served as the primary means of communication for many Jews in the Land of Israel and regions of the eastern diaspora. Aramaic, a Semitic language closely akin to Hebrew, had gained prominence in the

Near East through the conquests of the Persian empire in the sixth century BCE. Even after the collapse of Persia in the late fourth century, Aramaic remained an important method of communication among Jews and non-Jews alike. As with their Greek-speaking counterparts, many of these Jews eventually required the biblical texts be made accessible to them in a language they could understand. The Aramaic versions are designated by the term targum (plural, targumim). Some of the more complete and important targumim include Onkelos, Pseudo-Jonathan, and Neofiti on the Pentateuch and Jonathan on the Prophets. Individual targumim also exist for all the Writings, except those with substantial portions in Aramaic—Ezra, Nehemiah, and Daniel. Targumim themselves varied from those, such as Onkelos, that provided a relatively straightforward translation to others than inserted into the Hebrew text numerous phrases, sentences, and sometimes even full paragraphs. The targum of Pseudo-Jonathan, about twice the length of the Hebrew Bible it claims to translate, is an example of how some targumim significantly expanded the biblical accounts. As one example, Pseudo-Jonathan takes the extremely terse narration of Cain's murder of Abel, and uses it to explain ambiguous portions of Genesis and to express related theological ideas.

Cain said to Abel his brother, 'Let us go out to the field.' And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.

Cain said to Abel his brother, 'Come, let us both go out into the field.' And it came to pass, when they had gone out, both of them, into the field, that Cain answered and said to Abel, 'I see that the world has been created through mercy, but it is not ordered according to the fruit of good deeds; and that there is partiality in judgement. Otherwise why was your offering accepted with favour, whereas my offering was not accepted from me with favour?' Abel answered and said to Cain, 'The world has been created through mercy, and it is ordered according to the fruit of good deeds, and there is no partiality in judgement. It is because the fruit of my deeds was better than yours and preferable to yours that my offering was accepted with favour.' Cain answered and said to Abel, 'There is no judgement, no judge, no other world; there is no fair reward given to the righteous nor punishment exacted from the wicked.' Abel answered and said to Cain, 'There is judgement, there is a judge, and another world; there is a fair reward given to the righteous and punishment exacted from the wicked.' On account of these matters they were quarrelling in the open field, and Cain rose up against Abel his brother, drove a stone into his forehead, and killed him.


This example demonstrates how a targum could be much more than a translation. The targumim, therefore, inform us not only about the Aramaic competence of many Jews, but also how the biblical texts were interpreted in these communities, and the theological ideals they valued. Despite the service that these versions provided for Aramaic-speaking Jews, no targum achieved universal acceptance as the standard Aramaic translation for any given biblical text.

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