Jewish translations of the Old Testament were made from time to time by Jews, in order to satisfy the needs, both in public service and in private life, of those that had gradually lost the knowledge of the ancient national tongue. In Palestine itself, Hebrew was driven out first by Aramaic, then by Greek, and finally by Arabic. Portions of the Bible itself (in Daniel and Ezra) are written in Aramaic; and there is no consensus of opinion among scholars as to whether these parts were originally written in that tongue or were translated from the Hebrew.

Though Hebrew remained the sacred and the literary language, the knowledge of it must have faded to such a degree in the second century preceding the common era that it became necessary for a “meturgeman” to translate the weekly Pentateuch and prophetic lessons as read in the synagogue. The assertion made by the two scholars just cited, that the Targums date from the time of Ezra, is unwarranted; since they are written in a West-Aramaic dialect.

The authorities of the synagogue did not willingly allow such translations to be written down. They felt that this would be putting a premium upon ignorance of the text, and that the Biblical word would be in danger of being badly interpreted or even misunderstood. They sought to minimize the danger by permitting only one verse to be read and translated at a time in the case of the Law, and three in the case of the Prophets. Certain passages were never to be translated publicly; e.g., Gen. xxxv. 22; Ex. xxxii. 21-25; Num. vi. 23-26; Lev. xviii. 21.

These passages are to be found in Pseudo-Jonathan and in the Midrashim for private use. It is distinctly stated that no written copy of the Targum was to be used in the public service (Yer. Meg. iv. 1); though for private purposes copies were allowed to be made.

The Talmud, it is true, mentions a written Targum to the Book of Job which was in the possession of Rabban Gamaliel I. during the Second Temple, about 20-40 C. E. and which was then buried by order of Gamaliel. A variant tradition tells of such a Targum having been in the hands of both the elder and the younger Gamaliel.

Though this tradition is accepted, there are no means of verifying this statement, the existing Targum to that book being of a much later date. The tradition certainly can not refer to a Greek translation. The Targum is largely a paraphrase, reproducing the rabbinical tradition as regards the meaning of the text.

In passing a word should be said about the Samaritan version of the Pentateuch in the West-Aramaic dialect, which the Samaritans at one time spoke. It is as yet not possible to say in which century this version was made. Even though the citations under the caption τὸ Σαμαρειτικόυ, which are found in the scholia to Origen’s Hexapla, refer to it.

They are drawn from a Greek translation of the Samaritan made in Egypt. The text has been edited in Samaritan characters by H. Petermann and K. Vollers (Berlin, 1872-91), and in Hebrew characters by A. Brüll (1873-75), from the London Polyglot. M. Heidenheim’s edition in Hebrew characters, of which Genesis only has appeared, has been very severely criticized.



At Edessa, capital of the principality of Osrhoëne (in eastern Syria), and western Mesopotamia neither Latin nor Greek was understood. Therefore, the native language Syriac (a Semitic language related to Aramaic) was used in Christian writings. The political fortunes of Edessa present a remarkable contrast to those of other centers of Christianity. Until 216 CE in the reign of the Emperor Caracalla, Edessa lay outside the Roman Empire. Christianity seems to have reached the Euphrates valley about the middle of the 2nd century, that is, while the country was still an independent state. Since its people did not speak Greek, like their neighboring Syrians in Antioch, it is not surprising that the Christianity of Edessa began to develop independently, without the admixture of Greek philosophy and Roman methods of government that at an early date modified primitive Christianity in the West and transformed it into the amalgam known as Catholicism.

According to early traditions and legends embodied in the Doctrine of Addai (~400 CE), the earliest New Testament of the Syriac speaking Church consisted of the Diatesseron, the Epistles of Paul, and Acts. The Diatesseron was written by Tatian by weaving the 4 canonical Gospels together into a coherent and continuous account. Tatian was born of pagan parents in the land of the Assyrians and received an education in Greek culture and its philosophical systems. Tatian came to Rome, made the acquaintance of Justin Martyr, and converted to Christianity. While there, he composed the Diatesseron about 150 CE. The original language of the Diatesseron (certainly either Old Syriac or Greek) is still a much-debated question. The term diatesseron borrowed from musical terminology and designated a series of 4 harmonic tones. It was Tatian’s private judgment that the format of a fourfold harmony was the most convenient way in which to present the whole Gospel story at once instead of confusing people by offering them 4 parallel and more or less divergent narratives.

After Justin’s martyrdom (~165 CE) Tatian broke with the Roman church, returned to Syria in 172, and founded the sect of the Encratites (i.e. the self-disciplined). This sect rejected matrimony as adultery, condemned the use of meat in any form, and substituted water for wine in the Eucharist service. While in the East Tatian introduced the Diatesseron among the local churches. His influence at Edessa must have been considerable, for he succeeded in getting his book read in the churches there, and afterwards its use spread throughout the region. It was quoted by Aphraat, Ephraem (who wrote a commentary on it), and other Syrian Fathers.

Because of Tatian’s reputation as a heretic, however, a reaction set in against the use of his Diatesseron, and Bishop Rabbula of Edessa (d. 436 CE) instructed his priests to take care that in all the churches the 4 ‘separated’ Gospels should be available and read. Theodoret, who became bishop of Cyrrhus on the Euphrates in upper Syria in 423, sought out and found more than 200 copies of the Diatesseron, which he ‘collected and put away, and introduced instead of them the Gospels of the four evangelists’.

By the beginning of the 5th century, or slightly earlier, the Syrian Church’s version of the Bible, the Peshitta (‘simple’ translation) was formed. For the New Testament it represented an accommodation of the Syrian canon with that of the Greeks. It contains 22 books – all of the present New Testament except:

II Peter, II John, III John, Jude, Revelation of John

For the eastern part of the Syrian Church this constituted the closing of the canon, for after the Council of Ephesus (431 CE) the East Syrians separated themselves as the Nestorians. There are many surviving manuscripts of the Peshitta, the oldest of which bears the date 442. For much more on Peshitta history, see the article at The Encyclopedia of New Testament Textual Criticism. It is noteworthy that exactly these 22 books are cited by John Chrystosom (~347-407) and Thedoret (393-466) from the School of Antioch. For a visual summary of these 22 books see the Cross Reference Table.

Among the Western Syrians, however, there were closer ties with their neighboring Churches, and a further accommodation with the Roman church took place in the 6th-7th centuries when the Philoxenian and Harclean versions of the Peshitta were issued containing all 27 New Testament books. Yet, even so the West Syrian Church was slow in making use of these parts of the New Testament.

Still today the official lectionaries followed by the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church, with headquarters at Kottayam (India); and the Chaldean Syrian Church, also known as the Church of the East (Nestorian), with headquarters at Trichur (India); present lessons from only the 22 books of the original Peshitta.


The Aramaic translation of the Bible. It forms a part of the Jewish traditional literature, and in its inception is as early as the time of the Second Temple. The verb תרגם, from which the noun תרגום is formed, is used in Ezra iv. 7 in reference to a document written in Aramaic, although “Aramit” (A. V. “in the Syrian tongue”) is added. In mishnaic phraseology the verb denotes a translation from Hebrew into any other language, as into Greek, and the noun likewise may refer to the translation of the Biblical text into any language. The use of the term “Targum” by itself was restricted to the Aramaic version of the Bible. In like manner, the Aramaic passages in Genesis, Jeremiah, Daniel, and Ezra were briefly called “Targum,” while the Hebrew text was called “Miḳra.”

As an intepretation of the Hebrew text of the Bible the Targum had its place both in the synagogal liturgy and in Biblical instruction, while the reading of the Bible text combined with the Targum in the presence of the congregation assembled for public worship was an ancient institution which dated from the time of the Second Temple, and was traced back to Ezra by Rab when he interpreted the word “meforash” (Neh. viii. 8 ) as referring to the Targum (Meg. 3a; Ned. 37b; comp. Yer. Meg. 74d, line 48, Gen. R. xxxvi., end). The rules for reading the Targum are formulated in the Halakah. The Targum was to be read after every verse of the parashiyyot of the Pentateuch, and after every third verse of the lesson from the Prophets. Excepting the Scroll of Esther, which might be read by two persons in turn, only one person might read the Targum, as the Pentateuch or prophetic section also was read by a single person. Even a minor might read the Targum, although it was not fitting for him to do so when an adult had read the text. Certain portions of the Bible, although read, were not translated (as Gen. xxxv. 22), while others were neither read nor translated (as Num. vi. 24-26; II Sam. xi.-xiii.). The reader was forbidden to prompt the translator, lest any one should say that the Targum was included in the text of the Bible. With regard to the translation of Biblical passages, Judah ben Ilai, the pupil of Akiba, declared that whosoever rendered a verse of the Bible in its original form was a liar, while he who made additions was a blasphemer. A passage in Ab. R. N. referring to R. Akiba’s early training says that he studied the Bible and the Targum; but allusions to the Targum as a special subject of study in connection with the Bible are excessively rare. It must be assumed, however, that the Targum was an integral part of the Biblical course of study designated as “Miḳra”; and Judah b. Ilai declared that only he who could read and translate the Bible might be regarded as a “ḳaryana,” or one thoroughly versed in the Bible. In Sifre, Deut. 161 the Targum is mentioned as a branch of study intermediate between the Miḳra and the Mishnah.

The professional translator of the text of the Bible in the synagogue was called “targeman.” His duties naturally formed part of the functions of the communal official (“sofer”) who bad charge of Biblical instruction. Early in the fourth century Samuel ben Isaac, upon entering asynagogue, once saw a teacher (“sofer”) read the Targum from a book, and bade him desist. This anecdote shows that there was a written Targum which was used for public worship in that century in Palestine, although there was no definitely determined and generally recognized Targum, such as existed in Babylonia.

The story is told that Jose b. Abin, an amora of the second half of the fourth century, reprehended those who read a Targum to Lev. xxii. 28 which laid a biased emphasis on the view that the command contained in that verse was based on God’s mercy—this same paraphrase is still found in the Palestinian Targum—; see also the statements on the erroneous translation of Ex. xii. 8, Lev. vi. 7, and Deut. xxvi. 4 in Yer. Bik. 65d; as well as Yer. Kil. viii., end, on Deut. xiv. 5; and Meg. iii. 10 on Lev. xviii. 21. In addition to the anecdotes mentioned above, there are earlier indications that the Targum was committed to writing, although for private reading only. Thus, the Mishnah states—Yad. iv. 5—that portions of the text of the Bible were “written as a Targum,” these doubtless being Biblical passages in an Aramaic translation; and a tannaitic tradition—Shab. 115a; Tosef., Shab. xiv.; Yer. Shab. 15c; Massek. Soferim v. 15—refers to an Aramaic translation of the Book of Job which existed in written form at the time of Gamaliel I., and which, after being withdrawn from use, reappeared in the lifetime of his grandson Gamaliel II. The Pentateuchal Targum, which was made the official Targum of the Babylonian schools, was at all events committed to writing and redacted as early as the third century, since its Masorah dates from the first half of that century. Two Palestinian amoraim of the same century urged the individual members of the congregation to read the Hebrew text of the weekly parashah twice in private and the Targum once, exactly as was done in public worship: Joshua ben Levi recommended this practise to his sons (Ber. 8b), while Ammi, a pupil of Johanan, made it a rule binding on every one (ib. 8a). These two dicta were especially instrumental in authorizing the custom of reciting the Targum; and it was considered a religious duty even in later centuries, when Aramaic, the language of the Targum, was no longer the vernacular of the Jews. Owing to the obsolescence of the dialect, however, the strict observance of the custom ceased in the days of the first geonim. About the middle of the ninth century the gaon Naṭronai ben Hilai reproached those who declared that they could dispense with the “Targum of the scholars” because the translation in their mother tongue (Arabic) was sufficient for them.

At the end of the ninth or in the beginning of the tenth century Judah ibn Ḳuraish sent a letter to the community of Fez, in which he reproved the members for neglecting the Targum, saying that he was surprised to hear that some of them did not read the Targum to the Pentateuch and the Prophets, although the custom of such a perusal had always been observed in Babylonia, Egypt, Africa, and Spain, and had never been abrogated. Hai Gaon (d. 1038) was likewise much astonished to hear that the reading of the Targum had been entirely abandoned in Spain, a fact which he had not known before; and Samuel ha-Nagid (d. 1056) also sharply criticized the scholars who openly advocated the omission of the reading of it, although according to him the Targum was thus neglected only in the northern provinces of that country. As a matter of fact, however, the custom did entirely cease in Spain; and only in southern Arabia has it been observed until the present time, although the Targum to the hafṭarot, together with introductions and poems in Aramaic, long continued to be read in some rituals. In the synagogues of Bokhara the Persian Jews read the Targum, together with the Persian paraphrase of it, to the hafṭarah for the last day of Passover.

The Aramaic translations of the Bible which have survived include all the books excepting Daniel and Ezra—together with Nehemiah—which, being written in great part in Aramaic, have no Targum, although one may have existed in ancient times.