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What is the Jewish Targum?

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The Targum (plural, Targumim) is an Aramaic paraphrase/explanation/interpretation of the Hebrew text of the Jewish Scriptures provided by the rabbis in the course of teaching. These paraphrases or explanations were not meant to carry equal authority with the Word of God, and it was normally forbidden to record them in writing, just to make sure that no one would equate them with the written Word of God. However, this rule was not always obeyed, and a good many were written down. In some circles, certain of the targumim were considered authoritative. Various rabbis whose targumim were recorded had followers who accepted their explanations as authoritative, and, in some cases, they put them on par with the Word of God. It is against this backdrop that Christ conducted His ministry and often clashed with various sects who “let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (Mark 7:8).

Jesus gave a specific example of the Jews of His day esteeming the Targum over the Word of God: “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)—then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that” (Mark 7:9–13).

The Targum is useful today to help the modern interpreter understand how certain groups or even a large portion of the population understood a certain passage. In some cases where the meaning of a passage is unclear, we may be able to better understand what the passage intends to say if we can understand the logic of the Targum in question.

There is a caution here for modern Christians. There are some modern paraphrases of the Bible such as The Living Bible or The Message, which some Christians read and study as if those books were the Word of God. These works are NOT translations of the Bible, but paraphrases. They may be helpful in understanding Scripture, much like the Targum is, but they should not be used in place of Scripture. At best, such paraphrases should be supplemental materials.

Likewise, some Christians may accept the interpretations of a certain Bible teacher or pastor as if those interpretations were the inspired Word of God. While the church today is blessed with some wise and faithful teachers, every teaching must be evaluated on the basis of God’s Word. A teacher’s authority only extends as far as his teaching is an accurate presentation of the Word. We should never follow any teacher to the extent that his or her words are put on par with Scripture.

D. A. Carson, in his devotional book For the Love of God, offers thoughts on various passages of Scripture as is common in devotional books. However, Carson plainly states that his purpose is “to provide edifying comments and reflections on some part of the designated text, and thus to encourage readers to reflect further on the biblical passages they are reading. . . . If you must skip something, skip this book and read the Bible instead.” This is the proper perspective.

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What is the Jewish Targum?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022