Sunday 11 November 2018


A fragment of  Targum Onkelos

A typical Chumash with Targum Onkelos in Aramaic on the left, next to the Torah text in Hebrew on the right.

 On opening almost any Chumash, one notices an Aramaic translation of the Hebrew text which is often printed directly opposite the words of the Torah. This is known as Targum Onkelos (or ‘the translation of Onkelos’).

According to tradition, Ezra the Scribe was the first to translate the Torah into Aramaic. Aramaic was the language of the Jews of Babylon, and when they returned with Ezra to Eretz Yisrael to build the Second Temple, they had forgotten Hebrew and hence the need for an Aramaic translation.

Ezra’s Aramaic translation was lost to history and it was only centuries later that Onkelos produced his Aramaic translation of the Torah.

Onkelos, also known as Onkelos haGer, was a convert to Judaism.

Who exactly was Onkelos - when did he live - what was his story – and how did the translation of a convert get to share centre stage together with the Torah text itself?


For a lovely introduction to Onkelos, one can read a short portrait published by Kehot which deals with some of the episodes “in the Talmud and Midrash where we find enough material to put together the life story of this great giant in Jewish history..."

“...Onkelos...was blessed not only with a clear head and exceptional brain, but also with a golden and pure heart and a lofty soul. He soon realized that idolatry is foolish and that the Jewish religion is the real G‑dly religion. On the quiet he began to serve G‑d, the Creator of heaven and earth, and he waited for the opportunity of formally accepting the Jewish religion.”[1]
One can read about how legions upon legions of Roman soldiers sent by Emperor Hadrian, ended up converting to Judaism when they tried to arrest Onkelos for his conversion to Judaism.
In this article, however, we will take a look at some other historical references which add to the tapestry of the very interesting personality of Onkelos.

Onkelos, as he is known in the Talmud Bavli, is thought to be the same person also known in the Talmud Yerushalmi as  Aquila[2] the convert (of Sinope, Turkey 35-120[3]CE).

According to the Talmud, he was a nephew of Titus. According to Medrash Tanchuma, he was a nephew of Emperor Hadrian.


Jewish tradition has it that Onkelos translated into Aramaic the ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ pshat or literal meaning of the Hebrew text of the Torah. He received this ‘correct version’ from Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Yehoshua ben Chanania.

According to some accounts, he was also a student of R. Akiva.


Onkelos not only translated the Torah into Aramaic but also into Greek.           
There is a Talmudic view that a Sefer Torah written in Ancient Greek can qualify as a kosher Torah scroll which may be read in synagogue.


“The difference between the scrolls of a Sefer Torah and the scrolls of Tefillin and Mezuzot, is that Torah scrolls may be written in any language, whereas Tefillin and Mezuzot must only be written in Hebrew script.
R. Shimon ben Gamliel [disagrees and] says: Torah scrolls may only be written in Greek [and, obviously Hebrew, but not in any other language].”[4]


Onkelos’ Greek translation was so highly regarded in Greek-speaking synagogues, that his Greek Targum soon replaced the older Greek translation of the Torah known as the Septuagint, dating back to 3rd-century BCE. 

[The Septuagint was the early translation of the Torah into Greek by the seventy rabbis who all came up with the same translation despite being placed in separate rooms.]

Furthermore, the Christians too preferred Onkelos’ Greek translation over the Septuagint because they claimed the Septuagint incorrectly translated some messianic passages.

According to Alec Eli Silverstone[5], Onkelos only began to study Hebrew when he was forty years old. Learning a new language at that age and then producing authoritative translations must have been a momentous task.


Silverstone cites the writing Bishop Epiphanius (310-403CE) of Salamis, Cyprus, who claims Onkelos was appointed by his relative Hadrian to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem 47 years after the destruction of the Second Temple. Jerusalem was to be re-named Aelia Capitolina.

Epiphanius records that while working in the holy city, Onkelos became so impressed by the “wonders performed by the Apostles” that he converted from paganism to Christianity and was baptized.


In consequence...of his continued devotion to the practice of astrology, he was expelled from the Church, and, embittered by his treatment, was induced through his zeal against Christianity to become a Jew, to study the Hebrew Language, and to render the Scriptures afresh into Greek with the view of setting aside the Christological passages which were drawn from the Septuagint.”

According to Epiphanius’ account, Onkelos converted to Judaism almost out of a sense of spite for the church which had expelled him.

Silverstone questions the historicity of Onkelos’ alleged conversion to Christianity as, besides Epiphanius, no other source, Jewish or Christian, makes any mention of this conversion.

What is interesting, though, is Epiphanius’ mention of expulsion from the church because of his interest in astrology. 

If this is correct, then it is ironic how Onkelos was able to cross over and later convert to Judaism, where he may have found a wider acceptance of astrology (although this would have been more repressed in the Holy Land than in Babylonia, see here).


Another account of Onkelos and his motivation to move from paganism to Christianity and then to Judaism can be found in an interesting book[6] by Humphrey Prideaux (1648-1724):
[Note, this is an old English text so read ‘f’ as ‘s’.]

According to this version, as the popularity of the Septuagint became widely accepted by the Christians, it fell out of favour with the Jews.

So, because the Septuagint was no longer as revered as it used to be, it became necessary to write a new Greek translation. The man to do this new translation was Aquila, or Onkelos.

Prideaux goes on to tell about Onkelos’ past. He started as a pagan and was drawn to magic and astrology. When he allegedly witnessed the miracles that the early Christians were able to perform, he wanted to achieve the same spiritual power to perform miracles – so he converted to Christianity.
However, he was not worthy or sincere enough for ‘so great a gift’.

Onkelos was not sufficiently obedient to the church and continued with his magic and astrology and as a result, was eventually excommunicated from the church.

Onkelos then converted to Judaism and became a student of Rabbi Akiva. He became a master of the Hebrew language and compiled two Greek translations of the Torah.

The second translation was more acceptable than the first and this was then used in synagogues by the ‘Hellenistical Jews’ instead of the original Septuagint.

This second edition Greek translation continued to be used until the end of the Talmudic period (500CE) when the custom of reading the Torah in Greek was abolished. From then on the rabbis decreed that it was only to be read in the original Hebrew - but for those who did not understand Hebrew, it was offered with another translation, this time in Chaldee or Aramaic. This Aramaic translation too, was the work of Onkelos (i.e. what we refer to today as Targum Onkelos).

According to this account, Onkelos did three works of Torah translation – two in Greek and one in Aramaic.

The new rabbinical decree that the Torah only be read in the original Hebrew or in the Aramaic translation of Onkelos, was not, however, accepted by the populace and they rebelled against it insisting that the old custom of reading the Torah in Greek be re-established.

Things got so disruptive, Prideaux continues, that Emperor Justinian had to get involved. He ruled from 527 to 565, just at the close of the Talmudic period, and was also known as Saint Justinian the Great, of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Justinian declared that Jews continue to read their Torah in their synagogues in Greek. They could, however, choose between the Greek of the Septuagint or the more recent Greek of Onkelos’ translations (or in any other language of the country in which they lived), defying the decree of the rabbis.



It is important to remember that the Jewish world was divided over the issue of the efficacy of astrology:

Rambam (1135-1204) the rationalist was vigorously opposed to the belief in any astrological influence over a human being. He also said that he had read all the extant literature on astrology and bemoaned the fact that just because something was widely written about, didn’t mean that it was correct.[7]

Ramban (1194-1270) the mystic, as well as most medieval Jewish philosophers, believed in astrological influences.

It is interesting to note that Ramban claimed that Onkelos converted to Judaism specifically because he was attracted to its mysticism.

It is also surprising that he dated the Targum to just after the time of Aristotle (384-322BCE) and seems to negate the date of around 130CE which is recorded in the Talmud. This places Targum Onkelos about 400 years earlier![8]


According to groundbreaking research by R. Israel Drazin, it appears possible that Onkelos may only have translated the Torah into Greek, and it was only much later, at around 400 CE that an Aramaic translation began to circulate. [9]

[1] Onkelos. By Nissan Mindel. Published and copyrighted by Kehot Publication Society.

[2] Or Akilus עקילס in Hebrew.

[3] Or 130CE.
[4] Megilla 8b.

[5] Aquila and Onkelos. By Alec Eli Silverstone, p. 151.

[6] Old and New Testaments Connected in the History of the Jews and Neighboring ...By Humphrey Prideaux

[7] See: Letter on Astrology, Lerner translation, Pages 227-236.
[8] I. Drazin, Dating Targum Onkelos by means of the Tannaitic Midrashim, JJS, Autumn 1999.
[9] Thanks to Mendy Rosin for pointing out this important research which could change the way we view 'Targum Onkelos'. 


  1. So does this mean the original targum Onkelos was Greek not Aramaic? When they went to bavel it was then translated to Aramaic?

  2. Here is an interesting view brought by Sefaria;

    [t]he name "Onkelos" originally referred to Aquila but was applied in error to the Aramaic instead of the Greek translation. The translator is unique in that he avoids any type of personification.