Aramaic Bible?

By Mary Jane Chaignot

Categories: Old Testament / New Testament, The Bible


We know that, during Jesus' time, what we (Christians) call the OT was the only testament. Seeing that Jesus and his followers basically spoke and, I assume, read Aramaic, I would not think that they used the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Hebrew Scriptures. What was the Aramaic version that they would have been familiar with?


This is a very good question, but it has a complicated answer. It seems logical that along the way someone would have translated the Bible into the local language and we would be referencing that now.

We know that happened with the Greek language. Ptolemy II of Alexandria commissioned a Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. This is known as the Septuagint or LXX. Ptolemy reigned from 283-246 BCE. Scholars think he did this because many Jews in Alexandria could no longer read the Hebrew Scriptures. Others claim the Jews intended it to be a gift to Hellenistic culture. Either way, a Greek Bible existed and was used. We know that Jesus' followers were well-versed in Greek because most of the New Testament was written in that language. It is very possible that they could and did read the LXX. Obviously, however, not everyone was fluent in Greek. Still, there is no exact Aramaic counterpart to the LXX.

What does exist is the Targum, which has a long history. It goes back to the time of the exile. Jews who were taken into Babylon learned the colloquial language. By the fifth century, Aramaic was the language of the land. Over the years, Hebrew became a dying language, used only by schools and in worship. As fewer and fewer people were able to read/understand the language, it became necessary to provide explanatory notes. These were called a Targum, which means "translation." At first it was done for passages that were particularly hard to understand, but as the practice grew, it was done for the entire text. So a Targum was not necessarily just a translation; it could also be a paraphrase. There were even rules as to how this should be done. 

Scholars think the first use of a Targum occurred when Ezra read the Torah to the people upon their return from Babylon. Along with the words was a lengthy explanation. 

During the first century, someone would read from the Hebrew Scriptures and then add an explanatory note. If the synagogue was large enough, they would have had a professional interpreter (a meturgeman). The interpreter would try to translate the original text as closely as possible, but his main goal was to help others to understand it. Sometimes he needed to paraphrase or provide a commentary. A Targum, then, would be an explanation of an obscure point, usually done spontaneously and in the local language. Not surprisingly, these explanations were soon expanded upon. They began to include new interpretations of old texts, or emphasizing some moral lesson to be learned, or adapting the rules for the present. Later, Targums were more like sermons, legends, sayings, or allegories. The earlier Targums were probably more literal.

After the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE, Targums rose in stature for several reasons. Since few Gentile Christians could read Hebrew, they were likely to use the Greek translation of the Bible or the LXX. Jews didn't want to be using the same text, since they were trying to separate themselves from Christianity. Jews fled Jerusalem into the Diaspora where Aramaic was the dominant language and there was even less opportunity to know Hebrew. Targums proved to be essential. For a long time, though, Jews were reluctant to write them down because no one wanted to elevate them to the same level as the Bible. The Hebrew Scriptures were sacred; a Targum was an ongoing tradition of oral translation and explanation. Yet, it was considered authoritative. Over time, they found ways to compensate for this. Targums were among the writings discovered in the caves at Qumran, so scholars know they were in use by the first century. The first official recognition of a Targum dates to the 5th century CE. 

There were two "official" Targums – one originating in Babylon, the other in Palestine. The two Targums reflected both geographical areas and their cultures. All the books of the Bible have been found in Aramaic except for Daniel and Ezra-Nehemiah. Scholars think these books might have been written in Aramaic to begin with. The principal Targum is the Onḳelos or Babylonian Targum to the Five Books of Moses. Another important one is Targum Johanthan, written on the Prophets. These have been given official status and were used during synagogue services. Targums provide an important witness to the Hebrew texts and are invaluable for understanding the history of biblical interpretation.

If you have any questions related to the Bible, please feel free to email us.