The Targums are the Aramaic translations--many authors say paraphrases--of the books of the Old Testament. In their earliest form, they date from the time when Aramaic was superseding Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jews. They were designed to meet the needs of the unlearned among the people who had ceased to understand the Hebrew of the Old Testament.

Jewish tradition places the beginning "targums" in the days of Nehemiah when Judah is returning from the exile. We read in Nehemiah 8.8 "They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear (translating it ) and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read." It is easy to think that many of the returning exiles had lost more than a little facility in Hebrew during the exile. Especially since many did not return at all. We also know from the story that those that did return had lost much of their knowledge of what was contained in the law. The written Targums that have come down to us are of much later date.

The custom among the Jews today is to read a Torah Parsha and a Haphtarah reading in the weekly synagogue meetings. In the meetings I have attended the readings are followed by an English translation. As we know from the New Testament, the custom of reading in the synagogues both from the Law (Acts 15:21) and from the Prophets (Luke 4:16 f.; Acts 13:14, 27) was well established in the first-century AD. The practice of accompanying these readings with a translation into Aramaic is generally recognized by the second century AD. The Mishna takes it for granted, and merely inculcates certain regulations to be observed by the Meturgeman (translator), who had by this time acquired a definite status.

From the Mishna we learn that the Meturgeman, who was distinct from the reader, translated each verse of the Law into Aramaic as soon as it had been read in Hebrew: in the readings from "the Prophets" three verses might be read at a time. Later regulations are also laid down in the Talmuds in order to prevent any appearance of authority attaching to the translation, and also to ensure reverential treatment on the part of the translator. The pattern of reverance continues to this day, but the regulation are more lax. Of course we all sit with copies of the Tanakh in our laps that contain both the English and the Hebrew.

Based in large part on John F. Stenning, Encyclop√¶dia Britannica, 11th ed. (1911) on http://www.bible-researcher.com/aramaic3.html  accessed 9/9/06