A Brief and Open-Ended Question

19 04 2007

I was asked an interesting question by a student in my third class on Textual Criticism yesterday morning, relating to the status of the Targums. According to the PowerPoint that I had conjured up for them all, the Targum constitutes a version of the Biblical text alongside such versions as the Samaritan Pentateuch, the MT, and the various texts that translate directly from the same source that the MT is attempting to preserve (the LXX, Vulgate, Peshitta). This made sense to me for, despite the fact that Onqelos is never quite literal as his reputation makes him out to be, his translation always struck me as a version of the Biblical text in its own right. Well, one of my students did not see that distinction (not entirely true: her name is Robyn and she is a PhD student and the normal facilitator of that class; still, she was present at the time and her sentiments were adopted to an extent by the others present). According to Robyn, the text of Onqelos (and other Targums) is too paraphrastic to be considered anything other than a witness to the Biblical text; it cannot constitute a version of the same.

This all seems very terminological to me, and I took a moment to defend my argument insofar as Onqelos was concerned, but conceded for other Targums like Neofiti and Pseudo-Jonathan. In my mind, those Targums are midrashim, and I do certainly differentiate between a midrash and a version of the Bible itself. Yet I also often wonder why I do. Does 4Q158 (one of the texts of the so-called “Rewritten Pentateuch”) constitute a version of the Biblical text, or is it “merely” a midrash of sorts? A commentary? And looking at the MT, how can we be certain that Chronicles is a reworked version of Samuel-Kings when it may also simply be a translation into a later form of the language? It would be a highly paraphrastic translation, just like some of the Targums themselves.

At the end of the day, this seems to be the nature of terminology. In order to differentiate between different readings and different texts, we are forced to apply a rubric through which to appreciate their differences and make note of their similarities. The Peshitta is different to a Targum because the Peshitta was designed to replace the text from which its translation was made; Onqelos is different from Pseudo-Jonathan because Onqelos aims (by and large) at literalness and can therefore be used (by and large) in ascertaining details of his vorlage; the Vulgate is superior to the older Latin versions because the Vulgate is translated from the Hebrew while the older versions are made from Greek; etc. I wonder often just to what extent the “ancients” also delineated categories such as these. Are our assumptions about the ways in which they used their texts correct?

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