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The Englishing of Targum Onkelos and Septuagint Pentateuch

January 27, 2012

Of the several ancient translations of the Pentateuch, perhaps the two most important are the Septuagint Pentateuch (a translation into Koine Greek) and Targum Onkelos (a translation into Aramaic).  It is instructive to see how they have been treated by their respective communities. 

The main part of this post is a review of the newly completed Drazin-Wagner Onkelos on the Torah – but the theme of this post is to compare how poorly the Septuagint translation has been treated (be relegated, in the Western churches, almost solely to scholars), while another translation continues to be consulted by lay members of a religious community.

Septuagint Pentateuch

Septuagint Pentateuch was originally a Jewish translation, but with the demise of Alexandrian Jewish community (and its subsequent vilification by Jews for its neglect of Hebrew), Septuagint Pentateuch was  largely adopted by the Christian community.  In the Western churches, it has largely been neglected in favor of the Vulgate or translations directly from the Hebrew.  I am only aware of one paper English diglot edition of Septuagint Pentateuch:  a 160 year-old translation by Lancelot Brenton which is still in print.  (Brenton, an English Protestant, inherited a Baronet from his father, a vice-Admiral in the British navy and a contemporary of Nelson, although ironically, Lancelot was a pacifist).  Although many Eastern Orthodox (particularly Greek Orthodox) nominally should Septuagint Pentateuch as their Scripture, it took until 2008 for a major publisher to release an Orthodox Study Bible which includes a translation of Septuagint Pentateuch (but not the original Greek).  The Orthodox Study Bible was patterned after the style of the NKJV translation.  However, the Orthodox Study Bible has been heavily criticized by several prominent Eastern Orthodox Bible bloggers (see here, here, and here for links).  As part of the NETS translation, a 2007 academic translation of Septuagint Pentateuch (again, published in English only with no Greek) was produced and published by Oxford University Press under the leadership of Albert Pietersma, patterned after the style of NRSV.  We have frequently commented on this translation here on BLT, see here and here.

Targum Onkelos

In contrast, Targum Onkelos, an Aramaic translation, has never stopped being part of the Jewish tradition.  Based on an instruction in the Talmud (Berachos 8a), Jews are obligated to read the weekly lectionary (parsha) twice in Hebrew and once in the Targum:  שנים מקרא ואחד תרגום (shnayim mikra ve-echad targum).  Later authorities concluded that a substitution of the commentary of Rashi was acceptable (or even better a combination of Rashi and Targum Onkelos) or, in some cases, a translation into a contemporary vernacular language.  However, Rashi and the other medieval Pentateuch commentators regularly reference Targum Onkelos. 

As a result, Targum Onkelos (and the commentary of Rashi)  is regularly printed with the the Pentateuch as part of chumash.  For example, the Artscroll chumash includes the Hebrew Pentateuch text, Aramaic Onkelos,  Hebrew Rashi, an English translation of the Hebrew Pentateuch, and English commentary, and the Artscroll Rashi chumash edition includes the same elements, together with an English translation of Rashi (the English commentary in the latter edition is a meta-commentary on Rashi rather than on the Hebrew.)  Since traditional Jewish education includes training in both Hebrew and Aramaic (the latter necessary to read the Talmud), the inclusion of Onkelos makes sense.  Of course, a Rabbinic Bible must include Rashi.   Mossad HaRav Kook’s Rabbinic Bible edition of the Pentateuch (which is arguably the most accessible edition in print) includes, in addition to the Hebrew text, Targum Onkelos, Saadia Gaon, Chananel, Rashi, Rashbam, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Nachmanides, Maharam, Chizkuni, Sforno, and the entries from Sefer HaChinuch

However, not everyone knows Aramaic as well as he or she should, and in any case, the Aramaic demands commentary.  The question is:  where does the Aramaic differ from the Hebrew and what does it mean? 

After ten years, Israel Drazin and Stanley M. Wagner have finished their five volume, 1534 page edition of Onkelos on the Torah for Gefen Press.  Amazon is currently selling the set for $146.   The pages are large format 11 by 8.5 inches (the books are still handy to hold since they are not too thick, and each volume features a ribbon), and the page format features a large, vocalized version of Onkelos, an English translation, the Hebrew text and Rashin in Hebrew, and a commentary on the English translation of Onkelos.  The commentary discusses linguistic and theological issues raised in the text as well as points where Onkelos varies from the Hebrew.  The commentary is claimed to draw upon some lesser known French commentaries, those of Joseph Bechor Schor and Joseph ibn Kaspi), as well as commentaries by Maimonides, Ibn Ezra, Rashi, Nachmanides, Radak, Rashbam, Sforno, Chizkuni, “and others, and the Targums of Neophyti, Pseudo-Jonathan, the Greek Septuagint, and the Samaritan Bible).”  The commentary is based on the Onkelos texts determined by Abraham Berliner (Targum Onkelos) and Alexander Sperber (The Bible in Aramaic).  However,  the actual Aramaic text printed in the volumes is slightly different – the authors blame technical reasons (I suspect that those technical problems include copyright protection and the unavailability of the Berliner and Sperber texts in electronic form.)  The commentary typically takes up about half the page, but is set in smaller type, so there is a great deal of annotation.


The text includes extras:  The table of contents is annotated, with a summary of each parshah given in paragraph format. Front matter includes an author’s note, publisher’s note, preface, a longer introduction to Targum Onkelos for that biblical book, and an “introduction to ‘beyond the text,’” a set of advanced questions indicated in stand-alone boxes in the text.  Each chapter ends with a summary of the chapter.  The volumes include the lectionary readings from the Prophets and Writings of the Hebrew Bible, featuring extended introductions, Hebrew, and an English translation from the Targum text (not the Hebrew).  This is followed by by 50-70 pages of appendices, a glossary, and a bibliography.  The commentary itself tends to be moderately theologically based, and can hardly be called critical, but does cover the key linguistic issues and fully covers differences between the Hebrew and Aramaic.

What can we learn by contrasting the treatment of Septuagint Pentateuch and Targum Onkelos?  In one way, the comparison is unfair – the Pentateuch is a secondary religious text for Christians while (in Hebrew) it is the primary religious text for Jews.  On the other hand, the English-speaking Christian community is so much larger than the English-speaking Jewish community that one would expect that this factor would be outweighed by sheer demographics.  Indeed, a strong argument that if our measure is accessibility and availability to a wide popular audience in both Greek and English:  the classical Greek writings (including some relatively minor volumes) have been better treated (say, by the green volumes in the Loeb Classical Library) than the Septuagint has. 

How did this come to pass?  How did the Protestant and Catholic religious communities, both of which have often emphasized scholarship, come to treat the Septuagint so shabbily?  Is there any hope that things might change in the near future?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Pastor G. Reckart permalink
    October 10, 2013 11:15 am

    Why would anyone love and respect the Septuagint when it does not give validity to the so-called names of God (YHWH/Allah).

    If you believed the tetragrammaton or Allah were names of the same God, would you want a bible that does not contain them?

    Would you want to promote a Bible Jesus and the Apostles used that did not have these?

    Of course, you would not want that bible.

    You would want a bible that has both the tetragrammaton and Allah because these are your God. And you will want some ancient authority to prove this. So, to do it, you throw the Septuagint in the trash and go get the Babylonian Aramaic bible because in it you can have the tetragrammaton and Allah.

    You can then choose between YHWH and all the invented guess names from it, or just call God by the name Allah.

    If you want the bible Jesus and the Apostles used, you will want the Septuagint. But who cares any more about what bible Jesus and the Apostles used? Truth is no more a matter of Scripture it is all replaced by traditions of rabbis and monks.

    Sola Scripture is not the King James bible. If it does not start with the Septuagint bible Jesus and the Apostles used it is all a joke.

    The problem as I see it, is modern bible scholars have all just about trashed the Septuagint or they have made it inferior to the Babylonian Aramaic for fear of being mocked and ridiculed for putting a Greek bible above the so-called Hebrew one.

  2. Wambo permalink
    June 26, 2019 2:44 am

    Dear Pastor Wreck, The Septuagint ((The Source Material of the Sixtine Text of 1587 that is presently Quarantined since 1590 by the Largest Christian Church not to be confused with the Tampered Reprint of John Fields in 1665 that was edited by John Pearson the Future Bishop of Chester)) uses ΚΥΡΙΟΣ for the Tetragrammaton because Someone “Over Two Millennium Later” might be Curious to Know the Tripthong of the The Third Character Waw/Vav of “Yod Heh Vav Heh” hence this Greek Translation preserved the Eye of the Needle for Your Tongue : U/OO(Small Rounded U), EE/Ø(Small Rounded EE), O/Ò(Small Rounded O) hence “Yauøòah”


  1. Biblioblog Carnival February 2012 « Cheese-Wearing Theology
  2. Septuagint english | Askgeorgann

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