John’s Targumic Allusions

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However one translates John 1:17, both clauses should be positively portrayed. After all, it is John himself who states that "salvation is of the Jews" (John 4:22) and that "the Hebrew Scriptures testify about Jesus" (John 5:39).

מְתֻרְגְּמָן (me⋅tur⋅ge⋅MĀN) is Hebrew for “translator.” The articles in this series illustrate how a knowledge of the Gospels’ Semitic background can provide a deeper understanding of Jesus’ words and influence the translation process. For more articles in this series, click here.

The viewpoint of scholars toward the Gospel of John has changed considerably during the last generation. (See “Scholarly Attitudes to John” below.) Thanks to several recent discoveries, we are now able to appreciate a number of literary allusions in the Gospel’s introductory verses (1:1-18) that had previously escaped attention. We will discuss the background of a few of these allusions, and then consider some implications for translation.

Light from the Targums

In the synagogue, the targum (Aramaic translation of the Bible) was provided along with the Hebrew Scripture readings. By means of the targum, rabbinic interpretations of Scripture could be introduced without altering in any way the text of the Hebrew original. The tradition of an Aramaic translation may go back to the Persian era (539-332 B.C.) when Aramaic was the official language of government. In the first century it still provided help for those from outside the land of Israel who may not have known Hebrew well. The targums were transmitted orally at first and only written down in the second to seventh centuries A.D. The Qumran manuscripts and early rabbinic literature give evidence that some targums were written at an earlier date.[1]

A complete manuscript of a “Palestinian Targum” was found in the Vatican library in Rome in 1956. This discovery, while much less famous than the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, has provided important insight into a number of Jewish allusions in John 1:1-18.

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This article originally appeared in issue 41 of the Jerusalem Perspective magazine. Click on the image above to view a PDF of the original magazine article.

  • [1] Compare, for example, the Qumran Targum to Job (early first century A.D.) and Tosefta, Shabbat 13:2.

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  • Randall Buth

    Randall Buth

    Randall Buth is director of the Biblical Language Center and a lecturer at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Home for Bible Translators. He is a member of the Jerusalem School of Synoptic Research. Buth received his doctorate in…
    [Read more about author]

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