Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels
The Aramaic word targum by itself denotes “translation” in Aramaic, yet the type and purpose of the rendering involved in Judaism means the term also refers to a type of literature. We need to appreciate the general phenomenon of targum, and the specific documents called Targumim, before we can take up the question of Targumic influence on Jesus and the Gospels.
Aramaic survived the demise of the Persian Empire as a lingua franca in the Near East. It had been embraced enthusiastically by Jews (as by other peoples, such as Nabateans and Palmyrenes); the Aramaic portions of the Hebrew Bible (in Ezra and Daniel) attest a significant change in the linguistic constitution of Judaism. Even before Hebrew emerged as a distinct language, Abraham had been an Aramaean, although the variants of the Aramaic language during its extensive history are stunning. Conceivably, one reason for Jewish enthusiasm in embracing Aramaic during the Persian period was a distant memory of its affiliation with Hebrew, but it should always be borne in mind that Hebrew is quite a different language. By the time of Jesus, Aramaic had become the common language of Judea, Samaria, and Galilee (although distinctive dialects were spoken); Hebrew was understood by an educated (and/or nationalistic) stratum of the population, and some familiarity with Greek was a cultural necessity, especially in commercial and bureaucratic contexts.
The linguistic situation in Judea and Galilee demanded translation of the Hebrew Bible into Aramaic, for purposes of popular use and worship among the majority of Jews. Although fragments of Leviticus and Job in Aramaic, which have been discovered at Qumran, are technically targumim, they are unrepresentative of the genre targum in literary terms. They are reasonably “literal” renderings; that is, there is a formal correspondence between the Hebrew rendered and the Aramaic that is presented. The Targumim that Rabbinic Judaism produced are of a different character.
The aim of Targumic production was to give the sense of the Hebrew Scriptures, not just their wording, so paraphrase is characteristic of the Targumim. Theoretically, a passage of Scripture was to be rendered orally and from memory