Translation as Interpretation
The earliest postbiblical interpretive traditions, however, are found in another new genre, Bible translation. In the postexilic period, after the return from the Babylonian exile where the common language was Aramaic, many Jews were no longer fluent in Hebrew, and the Bible was for the first time translated into Aramaic. Though these earliest translations are no longer extant, we do have later translations of sections of the Bible that predate the destruction of the Second Temple (70CE) from the Dead Sea community of Qumran, as well as a set of Aramaic translations, called Targums, that crystallized at a later date in both Babylon and Israel. In addition, the Bible was translated into Greek in Alexandria, Egypt, beginning in the third century BCE. This translation, called the Septuagint (the translation of the seventy), is of great value and is supplemented by a variety of other Greek translations, some of which were found at Qumran. (See “Hebrew Bible: Texts and Versions,” pp. 462–464 ES.)
These translations illustrate the truism that all translations are interpretations. More particularly, they demonstrate the range of translation approaches, from literal interpretation to free paraphrase. (See the essay on “Translation of the Bible into English” for a discussion of translation approaches.) For example, the Septuagint and the Aramaic translation called Targum Onqelos are typically word‐for‐word, literal versions, as far as that is possible. Yet even these “literal” translations show nonliteral tendencies at certain points. For example, Onqelos was aware of the fact that the biblical verse, “You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk” (Ex 23.19; 34.26; Deut 14.21 ), was generalized in early Jewish tradition and served as the basis for the prohibition of eating dairy products and meat together. For this reason, Onqelos translates the biblical text according to the rabbinic tradition, rendering it, “Do not eat meat with milk.” The interpretive nature of the Septuagint is especially obvious in Psalms. Following an interpretive tendency that already existed in the Hebrew Bible, whereby several psalms were given historical superscriptions that contextualized them in the life of David (e.g., Ps 51 , “To the leader. A Psalm of David, when the prophet Nathan came to him, after he had gone in to Bathsheba”), superscriptions were added to several additional psalms (e.g., Ps 27 , introduced in the Septuagint with “A Psalm of David, before he was anointed”). Thus, a biblical model was followed, and new introductions, which provided new interpretive “Davidic” frameworks for these psalms, were composed.
In other cases, nonliteral translations were offered because the theology of the author and his community disagreed with what the text explicitly said; this is the philosophical equivalent of the translation by Onqelos of “You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk” as “Do not eat meat with milk.” For example, Num 12.8 says of Moses, “he beholds the form of the LORD,” a notion that was very disturbing to the translator of the Septuagint, for whom the predominant image of Deuteronomy, that God has no form (see esp. Deut 4.12,15 ), was normative. The translator thus assimilated what the text explicitly says into his theology (and into the Priestly theology, which emphasizes the manifestation of God through his “glory”), and rendered this section of the verse as “and he saw the glory of the LORD.” This was the same sort of change discussed above (p. 472 ES) when both Deuteronomy and Chronicles rewrote (rather than translated) earlier texts, changing them so that they conform to the later theology.
These cases of nonliteral, exegetical translations are rather tame when compared to some of the highly expansionistic translations seen in the Targums, especially those originating in Palestine. Most remarkable is the case where the Targums “translate” the Akedah or the binding of Isaac (Gen 22 ). In the biblical account, Isaac has a relatively minor role and is a character who is acted upon rather than one who acts. The Targums, however, interpret the story in such a way that Isaac now plays a major role. For example, Targum Pseudo‐Jonathan glosses v. 10 as follows: “Abraham put forth his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. Isaac spoke up and said to his father: ‘Tie me well lest I struggle because of the anguish of my soul, with the result that a blemish will be found in your offering, and I will be thrust into the pit of destruction.’ The eyes of Abraham were looking at the eyes of Isaac, and the eyes of Isaac were looking at the angels on high. Isaac saw them but Abraham did not see them. The angels on high exclaimed: ‘Come, see two unique ones who are in the world; one is slaughtering, and one is being slaughtered; the one who slaughters does not hesitate, and the one who is being slaughtered stretches forth his neck’” (Targum Pseudo‐Jonathan: Genesis, trans. Michael Maher. Collegeville, Minn: Liturgical, 1992, p. 79 ). (The translation in Targum Neofiti is similar.)
The Targum to Song of Solomon is even more remarkable in the way in which it assimilates the text to its general understanding that the book should be interpreted as a historical allegory. Thus, its “translation” of 1.2, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth! For your love is better than wine,” reads as follows: “Solomon the prophet said: ‘Blessed be the name of God who gave us the law via Moses the scribe, a law inscribed on two tablets of stone, and six orders of the Mishnah and the Talmud by oral tradition, and spoke to us face to face as a man kisses his companion, from the abundance of the love with which he loved us, more than the seventy nations’” (Marvin Pope, Song of Songs[Anchor Bible], New York: Doubleday, 1977, p. 299 ). A similar, very expansionistic translation of Genesis may also be seen in the much earlier Aramaic Genesis Apocryphon, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.