Introducing Targums Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan


Targum Onkelos is the rabbinically indorsed Aramaic translation of the Five Books of Moses. Publishers have recognized its historical and theological importance since the invention of the printing press and have honored Onkelos by placing it on the inside center spot adjacent to the biblical Hebrew text. Many Jews know that it exists. They know that it is for the most part a literal translation of the Torah. But most Jews do not know that there are two other full-length Targums as well as fragments of currently non-existing Targums; Targum means “translation” and is used today primarily for translations composed in Aramaic. The other two complete Targums are Targum Neophyti and Targum Pseudo-Jonathan. What are these Targums and when were they composed?

The first of the two Temples was destroyed in 586 BCE, when many Judeans were deported from their land. After being exiled in Babylonia for close to two generations, many of the Judeans who returned to Judea around 536 BCE could no longer understand the language of their ancestors and the Torah, Hebrew, for they now spoke Aramaic. Thus, scholars read the biblical book Nehemiah 8:8 as a mandate to translate the Torah for this group in Aramaic, the language that they could understand. “And they read in the book, in the Law of God, distinctly; and they gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.


Targum Pseudo-Jonathan

The three currently existing full Targums were composed by different translators with different agendas during the first millennium. Fragments of earlier Targums were found among the Dead Sea remnants in Qumran that may date earlier than the first millennium. Scholars differ as to when exactly Pseudo-Jonathan was composed. Some see references to the names of Mohammad’s wives in the Targum and, therefore date it around 700-900. The Targum’s unusual name is based on the fact that it was originally thought that Jonathan ben Uzziel wrote the translation in the second century. Since it was later discovered that this is untrue, the Targum was retitled Pseudo (fake) Jonathan. This translation is the most imaginative and prolific of all the Targums on the Five Books of Moses since it contains extensive inventive, non-literal, midrashic-type material.


Examples of Pseudo-Jonathan additions in Genesis:

Many, but not all, scholars recognize that the Hebrew Bible does not advocate the notion that people are born tainted by original sin, and understand that it is an idea introduced by the fourth century Christian scholar Augustine. They also know that people have not been infused by an evil inclination that sometimes controls or seduces or forces them to act improperly against their will and better judgment. They are also aware that there is no evil demon Satan who creeps around in the dark seeking ways to ruin people’s lives. However, Pseudo-Jonathan disagrees. In 3:15, for example, Eve is told that because she ate the forbidden fruit her offspring will be tainted. They will fight in the future against their parents until the messiah comes, when there will be peace.

The translator frequently inserts the idea that people are born with an evil-inclination that causes them to act improperly. He identifies this evil inclination with Satan in 3:6. Readers should not confuse Satan in this Targum and current literature with the satan in the biblical book of Job. The Job satan simply means “adversary,” which is the meaning of the Hebrew noun, and is not a description of an evil being. The adversary in Job is an angel that is having a discussion with God and offers a contrary view to God’s idea that Job is a righteous man and would remain so even when persecuted and afflicted with pain.

In 4:1, he states that Satan has sexual intercourse with Eve, and is the father of Cain, although Abel is the child of Adam.

In 22:20, Satan outrageously tells Abraham’s wife Sarah that her husband sacrificed her son Isaac, and the shock of this lie causes her death.


Similar insertions are in Exodus:

Satan is not mentioned in the Torah in Exodus, but Pseudo-Jonathan introduces him. While Moses is on Mount Sinai for forty days to receive the Ten Commandments, Satan misleads the Israelites by saying that Moses is dead. They panic, accept his report, and wail: Moses “may have been consumed in a destructive fire from before the Lord on the mountain. We don’t know what happened to him.” So thinking and so concerned, they build the golden calf to lead them (32:1).

When Moses descends from Sinai, he sees Satan dancing joyfully among the Israelites who are worshiping the calf (32:19).

Aaron, Moses’ brother defends the worshippers. He says that the people are good, but “the evil inclination (Satan) led them astray” (32:22).

Aaron justifies his own involvement by explaining that he never intended to build a golden calf. All he did was throw gold into the fire. He only meant to melt it, but “Satan entered (the fire), and the body of this calf rose out of it” (32:24).


He also placed the evil inclination in Leviticus:

Satan works in heaven against Israelite interests. He reminds God continually that the Israelites worshipped the golden calf (9:2) and Joseph was sold by his bothers (9:3). Readers should note that Pseudo-Jonathan is unwittingly insulting God. This Targum suggests that God can forget and needs reminders and that God can be persuaded by constant false repetitions. It also adopts the fourth century theology of Augustine that descendants can be punished for their ancestor’s misdeeds.

The translator says that the Bible requires a goat as a sacrifice “because Satan is similar to it” (9:3).

He suggests that people should “remove the evil inclination from your hearts, and immediately (apparently, miraculously) the glory of the divine presence will be revealed to you” (9:6).


The following are examples of Pseudo-Jonathan insertions in Deuteronomy:

Chapter 6 contains the legend that when the patriarch Jacob, also called Israel, was dying he feared that there might be “a defect among his sons. He called them and asked them: ‘Is there any guile in your hearts?’ They replied as one and told him: ‘Hear, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.’” The original does not suggest that “Israel” is Jacob, but the entire Israelite people.

In 7:10, the translator adds a theological concept that is not explicit in the Torah. If the people do good works, they will have life in the world to come. He adds that wicked people will be paid for their good deeds while they are alive, but will not have the world to come. This is how he explains why good things happen to bad people.

In 5:22, 30:9, 10, 11, and 10:1, 3, he glorifies the tablets of the Decalogue, commonly called the Ten Commandments, even though there are more than ten commands in the Decalogue, by saying that the Decalogue was written on two tablets of costly “marble.” However, inconsistently, in 4:13 and 34:12, he seems to forget and he writes that they were on “sapphire.” Onkelos and Neophyti have “stone,” the biblical word.

Although the Israelites will be exiled from Israel and dispersed throughout many lands, Pseudo-Jonathan on verse 30:4 assures Jews that “the memra [word or wisdom] of the Lord [will] gather you through the efforts of Elijah, the great priest, and from there he will bring you near through the efforts of the king Messiah.”

Maimonides states in his Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings 12:1, that the age of the Messiah will be no different from the current times. He writes, “Do not think that in the Messianic age matters will be different or the laws of nature will be altered. To the contrary, the world will continue in its usual ways.”  Maimonides explains that the biblical verses that seem to indicate that miraculous events will occur during the Messianic Age – such as a lamb lying with a wolf – should be understood as “metaphors” and “parables,” but not literally. He continues in 12:2: “The sages tell us that there will be no difference between the present and the Messianic era except that our subjection to the [non-Jewish] kingdoms will end.” He warns: “A person should not delve into the aggadot, tales, and Midrashim that deal with [the Messianic era] and other esoteric matters, nor should people imagine that they are essential elements of Judaism because studying these matters do not lead to the fear and love of God.” The Pseudo-Jonathan translator disagrees. He says in 30:6 that God will remove free will at that time. He “will remove the evil inclination from this world and will create a good inclination that will make you love the Lord.”

Perhaps fearful of portraying the divinely written words falling in undignified fashion on the soiled earth when Moses broke the tablets in 30:17, he writes that the Israelites “saw when the tablets were breaking that the (divine) letters were flying off.”

He introduces a legend into 30:19. After the Israelites worshipped the golden calf, five angels went forth from before God to destroy Israel. They were Anger, Wrath, Ire, Destruction, and Rage. Moses, “the lord of Israel,” reacted by reciting God’s name. This caused the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, to rise from their graves and pray to God to stop the five angels. The three halted three of the angels, but Anger and Wrath remained. Moses prayed and stopped the remaining two. Then (apparently feeling that he needed to assure that these two angels do not return), Moses dug a pit in the land of Moab and hid them there. Then (apparently seeking additional assurance) he uttered over them the oath of the great and fearful name.

He stresses in 30:19 and 20 that people must obey the law and that this is the way to “live in the life of the World to Come.”


Targum Neophyti

Neophyti, also spelt Neofiti, was housed in the Vatican for many centuries and only rediscovered in the 1960s. The name Neophyti, or more precisely Neophyti 1, is the way the Vatican catalogued the Targum. Scholars differ when Neophyti was composed. Some date it earlier than Onkelos, which I dated at the end of the fourth or beginning of the fifth century because I found that the Onkelos translator inserted many words from late fourth century Midrashim (see “Dating Targum Onkelos by means of the Tannaitic Midrashim, Journal of Jewish Studies, Volume L, No. 2, Autumn 1999). Others think that Neophyti was compiled around the same time as Pseudo-Jonathan, after 700 CE. This Targum, like Pseudo-Jonathan, is very midrashic, but not as much as Pseudo-Jonathan.


Examples of Neophyti adding midrashic material in Genesis:

“From the beginning, the word of the Lord created and perfected the heavens and the earth with wisdom” (1:1).

Since nothing can be like God, the Neophyti translator changes the serpent’s words to “you will be like angels before the Lord” (not like God, as Scripture states in 3:5).

While the Five books of Moses do not mention the messiah and life after death explicitly, the translator interprets some biblical verses to inform us about these subjects. He adds information about the afterlife in 3:19. “But from the dust you will rise again to give an account and a reckoning of all that you have done.”

Probably bothered by the Bible’s silence, he gives a rather long imaginative discussion between the brothers Cain and Abel, and offers us a vociferous sibling argument that provoked Cain to murder his brother (4:8).



Sometime after the return of the Judeans from their exile in Babylon in 536 BCE to Judea, as the people and the land of Israel were called at that time, when the majority of Judeans were unable to understand the Torah because they were now speaking Aramaic, the practice began, perhaps by the biblical Ezra, to translate the Torah into Aramaic so that they could understand the holy books. These translations are called Targums. Shreds of early Targums were found in Qumran, which was destroyed around 67 CE, dating these remains to a very early period.

Today, besides these and other fragments from later periods, three full Targums exist. These include the rabbinically-endorsed Targum Onkelos, which generally renders the Torah passages literally, and Pseudo-Jonathan and Neophyti, which are very close to Onkelos when they treat the text literally, but which very frequently, in fact in most verses, add their theological views and legends that are not explicit in the Torah. These additions often parallel rabbinic Midrashim, but not always. They also have what many rabbis consider non-Jewish notions, such as “original sin” and even non-halakhic statements.