The Contribution of Targum Onkelos to Bible Study


The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud stated that Targum Onkelos is the authoritative translation of the Bible, yet, as we will see, it is grossly misunderstood. It is the document that the talmudic rabbis expected people to look to in order to determine the meaning of scriptural words and phrases. Although these rabbis authored Midrashim and their views on the Bible were recorded in the Talmuds, they did not instruct Jews to read these two works every week with the weekly Bible portion. Rather, they told Jewry to read the Bible in its original Hebrew twice each week and once in the Aramaic translation of the original Hebrew, Targum Onkelos.

The printers of rabbinic Bibles, volumes that can sometimes contain as many as three dozen rabbinical commentaries, placed Targum Onkelos in the premier center spot, alongside the original Hebrew text, in every scriptural publication.

Rashi, Tosaphot, Maharsha and others felt that the Targum is so significant and so holy that it must have originated as a gift from God to the Israelites at Sinai. Abraham ibn Ezra stated in his two introductions to his Torah commentary that Onkelos translates the Bible as it should be understood and that he intends to use its method in his commentary. Every Bible commentator examines the renderings of Onkelos before commenting on a verse.


Early Translations of the Bible

Targum Onkelos is one of a half-dozen translations of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic. Three full translations were written especially for Jews: Targum Onkelos, Pseudo-Jonathan and Neophyti. Scholars generally date Pseudo-Jonathan after Targum Onkelos, but differ as to whether Neophyti preceded Onkelos or followed it. Most scholars take the latter view. Neophyti and Pseudo-Jonathan are, in large part, midrashic, replete with derash, rabbinical elaborations that go beyond the plain meaning of biblical passages to teach ethical and religious lessons, frequently by means of parables. Other Aramaic translations exist, including several that were made for the Samaritan community. There are also a number of different Aramaic Bible translations that still exist, though only in a fragmented state.

These Aramaic translations were not the first renderings of the Hebrew Bible into another language. The Bible was also translated into Greek for the Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt, around 250 B.C.E. This translation is called the Septuagint. The Septuagint in our hands today is not the original version; changes were made to the document in ancient times to meet the needs of sectarian groups by reflecting their interpretations of Scripture.

We no longer know when the Bible was first translated into Aramaic. It is possible, but not certain, that when the biblical book of Nehemiah (8:8) informs us that the scribe Ezra – who lived around 440 B.C.E. – explained the Bible to the Judeans who had recently returned from a two-generation exile in Babylonia, he was giving them an Aramaic translation, since many of the returnees no longer understood Hebrew.

We know for certain that an Aramaic translation existed around the beginning of the Common Era since fragments of this translation were found with other early documents among the Dead Sea Scrolls, remnants of books of a group of people who lived in Qumran, Israel, from about 160 B.C.E. to 67 C.E., long before Targum Onkelos was composed. Thus, if Neophyti was composed after Targum Onkelos, Onkelos is the earliest Bible translation still in its original form.

Who Was Onkelos?

The word Targum means “translation.” Therefore, Targum Onkelos means “the translation of (a man called) Onkelos”; however, the talmudic attribution of the Targum to Onkelos in about 130 C.E. is incorrect; the translation was not composed until around 400 C.E.

The rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, as we said, recognized Targum Onkelos as the authoritative translation of the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch, into Aramaic. However, the rabbis did not know who authored it. In the Babylonian tractate Megillah 3a the rabbis ask, Who wrote our Targum? They answer that the author was Onkelos, who was a student of Rabbis Joshua and Eliezer and lived in the first third of the second century. The rabbis relate many miraculous stories about Onkelos, including that he was the nephew of the Caesar Titus, he converted to Judaism, Titus tried to get him to renounce Judaism, and Titus sent cohort after cohort of Roman soldiers to arrest him with repeated failures because of divine miracles.

Scholars, including traditionally minded rabbis such as the Vilna Gaon and others, have long recognized that identical miraculous stories are told of the now no longer existing Greek translation of Aquilas, or Akelos in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Akelos Greek translation was composed, as the Jerusalem Talmud states, in the first half of the second century. These scholars were certain that it was impossible for so many identical miraculous events to happen to both the Greek and the Aramaic translators. They concluded that the fifth-century Babylonian rabbis no longer knew the author of their translation; instead, they remembered the story of Akelos and how he and his Greek translation were praised and assumed that he authored their Aramaic translation. The name Onkelos is the Babylonian version of the name Akelos. It is customary in the Babylonian dialect to add the letter nun, an “n,” and so Akelos became Onkelos.

When, then, was the authorized translation composed?

While studying the ten thousand Onkelos deviations from the Hebrew biblical text, I discovered for the first time that when the translator deviated from rendering the scriptural text exactly, he consistently took his wording from the tannaitic Midrashim. Remarkably, he even incorporated the midrashic Hebrew words into his Aramaic translation hundreds of times. Because Targum Onkelos contains the plain meaning of the biblical text, its peshat, and not its imaginative elaborations, its derash, it only copied the Midrashim when the Midrashim related the peshat. Since the tannaitic Midrashim’s final editing took place around 400 C.E., and since the Targum consistently uses the final edited versions of the Midrashim, we can now date Targum Onkelos to just after 400 C.E.

This early-fifth-century dating explains why Targum Onkelos is not mentioned in prior rabbinic documents, such as the Jerusalem Talmud and the tannaitic Midrashim: it is not mentioned because it did not exist at that time. These documents mention an unnamed Targum, but the quotes do not match Targum Onkelos’ wording. As we stated earlier, we know that there were Targums prior to Onkelos that no longer exist, except for the Qumran fragments.

Rabbinical Accolades

In their description of the origin of Targum Onkelos, the rabbis make a significant statement. They write that the translator learned from Rabbis Joshua and Eliezer. These two rabbis were at two extremes. The former joined his teacher Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai in founding Rabbinic Judaism after the destruction of the Second Temple and the cessation of sacrifices. The latter was of a conservative bent and repeatedly differed with his colleagues by insisting that ancient practices should be continued. By stating that the translator was a disciple of both, the rabbis were informing their readers that the translation is acceptable to all streams of Judaism.

Through this statement and their general endorsement of the Targum – referring to it as “our Targum” – and by telling Jews to read it weekly, they were certifying that, in contrast to other documents, this now sixteen-hundred-year-old translation is “the” most literal version of the Torah par excellence. It contains the plain meaning of the Torah with some changes for didactic reasons, but no derash.

Common Misconceptions about Targum Onkelos

Since Targum Onkelos is rabbinically endorsed, it must contain translations that reflect the halakhic opinions of these rabbis.

This is not true. The Targum, as we said, was written to present the plain meaning of the Torah, not the way the rabbis interpreted it to teach halakhah. Thus, like virtually all translations and commentaries that were written to present the plain meaning of the biblical text – such as Rashbam, ibn Ezra and others – it contains a wealth of non-halakhic material. Targum Onkelos states what the Torah text itself actually says and means.

Targum Onkelos contains derash and even mystical teachings designed to enhance the spirituality of people.

Many people see Onkelos as a repository of derash, that is, exegetical and moral teachings that are derived from the wording of the text that are not present or even hinted in the plain sense of the words. All kinds of clever methods are used to find derash in Targum Onkelos.

These commentators fail to realize that every Bible commentator from the fifth to the twelfth century used Targum Onkelos when commenting on the Bible and everyone, without exception, saw the Targum as a source of the straightforward meaning of Scripture. Most of them, especially Rashi, wrote commentaries that were filled with derash, yet none of them searched Targum Onkelos for derash, simply because they understood that Onkelos does not have derash.

The first Bible commentator to find derash in Onkelos was Abraham ibn Ezra, over six hundred years after the Targum’s composition, and his finding is suspect. In his introductions to his commentaries, ibn Ezra states that his intention is to give his readers the plain meaning of the text, as did Targum Onkelos. He adds that he found some few renderings in Onkelos that were derash. Two comments must be made.

  • It is very likely that ibn Ezra, who was very sensitive in his opposition to derash, saw a targumic rendering that he considered to be derash, but which another reader of the Targum would realize was not derash but the plain meaning of the passage.
  • It is also possible, even likely, that what ibn Ezra found were recent insertions placed into the Targum by overzealous scribes who thought they were improving the Targum by adding what they considered to be religious teachings. Thus, even if what ibn Ezra saw was indeed derash, some scribe who lived around the time of ibn Ezra most likely inserted it. We know that this appalling adulterating phenomenon occurred with ibn Ezra’s own commentary, as well as many others, such as Rashi’s and Rashbam’s.

The few finding by ibn Ezra aside, the first Bible commentator who instituted the mistaken practice of reading Targum Onkelos’ peshat renderings as derash and as mystic teachings was Moses Nachmanides, who also instituted the practice of reading mysticism into the words and ideas of the Torah.

This translation with rabbinic imprimatur must follow the authoritative method of Rabbi Akiva when it interprets the Torah.

Wrong again. Two rabbis of the first third of the second century differed radically in how they thought the Bible should be interpreted. Rabbi Akiva was convinced that since the Bible is of divine origin, and since God could certainly say what He wanted briefly and to the point and would certainly not waste words, God purposely inserted every word, indeed every letter, in the Bible and thus every word and letter must be interpreted as teaching a divine lesson.

Rabbi Ishmael disagreed. He felt that since the Bible was written for the people who need to understand it, it must have been written in the way people think and talk, in human, not divine, language.

According to Rabbi Akiva, one would expect a rabbinically endorsed translator to respectfully translate every letter and word, for each contains God’s separate intention and is holy. Thus whenever the Bible repeats a phrase, it should not be seen as a repetition for emphasis or a poetic or rhetorical device, but as a lesson that must be translated as something new.

Onkelos does not do this. Although Rabbi Akiva’s method was accepted by the rabbis, and is the basis of many synagogue sermons and commentaries today, Targum Onkelos follows the methodology of Rabbi Ishmael. Thus it frequently drops a letter when the translator feels that it is not the plain meaning of the text (for instance, it will drop the letter heh, signifying the definite article “the,” when the text is not speaking about a specific item or person). It sees no theological or halakhic meaning in repetitions. Furthermore, more specifically, it frequently renders the text contrary to the explicit teaching by Rabbi Akiva.

The translator’s goal was simply to translate the text without any agenda and one need not know of any system followed by the translator.

This is an important error. It has led many otherwise knowledgeable commentators to read ideas into the Targum that the targumist never intended. Had the commentator known the systems that the targumist followed, this error would not have occurred.


What then is the methodology of Targum Onkelos?

Targum Onkelos is the most literal of all the Aramaic translations. However, it contains over ten thousand deliberately inserted divergences from the Hebrew original in the Aramaic translation. What prompted the Onkelos translator to alter the Bible?


The vast majority – almost eighty percent – of the changes that the targumist (translator) makes in his translation are designed to clarify the text, to make it more understandable for the average reader – for, as Rashi explains, Onkelos was composed for the common Jew who no longer understood Hebrew well enough to read the Torah. For example, he explains metaphors that he felt his audience would not understand. Thus, for instance, “a land flowing with milk and honey,” is rendered “a land producing milk and honey.” He changes terms, making singular plural and past present tense, and the reverse, for the sake of consistency and clarity. He deletes the definite article heh, as mentioned earlier, when he feels the Torah is not referring to a definite person or object. He updates the names of biblical nations, coinage and historical sites to the names known to his post-biblical audience. He adds a word if it is necessary to enhance clarity. He avoids biblical exaggerations and uses direct, forceful and vivid language instead of Scripture’s passive language. These changes make the text more understandable and less confusing, and minimizes ambiguities and obscurities.

Alternative translations

Every language has many words that have different meanings depending on the context in which they are used. Hebrew is no exception. Thus it is no surprise that Bible commentators disagree as to the meaning of some scriptural words.

Beside changing, or more precisely explaining, the biblical passages, Targum Onkelos gives the rabbinically acceptable meaning, generally the same meaning contained in the early Midrashim, when, and only when, these Midrashim give the plain, overt, simple meaning of the text. Rashi, who favored midrashic interpretations, for example, nevertheless also used the Targum in hundreds of instances to discover the definition of biblical terms. So, too, did all the traditional and many non-traditional Bible commentators.

Respect for God

Close to twenty percent of the targumic deviations were inserted to show respect for God. The Bible depicts God performing acts as if He were a corporeal being – such as stretching out His arm – so that the people, accustomed to such phrases, would better understand the text. Hundreds of these anthropomorphic depictions of God are altered by the substitution of such terms as shekhinah (a human feeling of the “presence” of God), dachal (a human sense of “fear” of the divinity), yekara (a depiction of the feeling of the appearance of God’s “glory,” rather than God Himself), and kadam (literally “before,” a term separating the human from the divine – for example, people do not give a sacrifice to God, but “before” God). In other instances, the Targum explains the corporeal term; for instance, Deuteronomy 9:13 states “I [God] see,” implying that God has eyes, and the Targum replaces it with “It is revealed before Me,” which has no corporeal implication. Maimonides used Targum Onkelos’ renderings such as this one over twenty times in his Guide of the Perplexed to show that the targumist understood that God has no body and that this is the plain meaning of the passage.

Respect for Israelite Ancestors

The Targum Onkelos targumist also alters his translation in many instances to depict the Israelite ancestors in a better light. This occurs, for example, over one hundred times in the book of Genesis. In Exodus, for instance, he alters “who did not know Joseph,” to “who did not fulfill Joseph’s decrees,” thinking that Joseph would be belittled if the new Pharaoh was ignorant of the work and achievements of this Israelite patriarch in Egypt.


The earliest translation of the Bible still in existence, if Neophyti post-dated Onkelos, is the Aramaic Targum Onkelos. The translation was extolled by the rabbis as being the authoritative Torah translation. The talmudic rabbis encouraged Jews to read the Torah portion weekly twice in Hebrew and once in the Targum Onkelos translation. Although they wrote the Talmuds and Midrashim that contained derash, and used derash to derive halakhah and moral lessons, they felt that people should also know exactly what the Torah is stating, its plain meaning, the meaning contained in this Targum.

Yet, despite a long history of its correct use, remarkably, many scholars today no longer understand that Targum Onkelos was composed to present the plain meaning of the Torah; instead a host of misunderstandings exist about it, including its date of origin.