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Onkelos (Hebrew: אֻנְקְלוֹס’unqəlōs), possibly identical to Aquila of Sinope, was a Roman national who converted to Judaism in Tannaic times (c. 35–120 CE). He is considered to be the author of the famous Targum Onkelos (c. 110 CE).

Onkelos in the Talmud[edit]

Onkelos is mentioned several times in the Talmud. According to the traditional Jewish sources, he was a prominent Roman nobleman, a nephew of the Roman emperor Titus. According to the midrash Tanhuma[1] he was a nephew of Hadrian, and not Titus. The story goes that his uncle, the Roman Emperor, advised Onkelos to go out and find something that wasn't worth much today but would be invaluable in the future. Onkelos found Judaism. His conversion is the subject of a story wherein he first consulted with the spirits of three deceased enemies of Israel to see how Israel fared in the next world (Gittin 56b). The first was his uncle Titus, who was blamed for the destruction of the Second Temple; the second was the seer Balaam, hired by Balak king of Moab to curse Israel; and the last was Yeshu, a name used for those who sought to lead Jews astray to idolatry, in particular an idolatrous former student of Joshua ben Perachiah in the Hasmonean period as well as Manasseh of Judah. (In later writings Yeshu is used for Jesus, but opinions differ over whether it can be understood this way in the Talmud.) Onkelos is said to have seen all of them subjected to humiliating punishments for harming Israel. The earlier Jerusalem Talmud[2] gives the subject of these stories as Aquilas the proselyte, often understood as being a person other than Onkelos. The difficulty with this theory, however, is that the Jerusalem Talmud says explicitly that he (Aquilas the proselyte) translated the Torah under Eliezer ben Hurcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah. The Babylonian Talmud[3] repeats the same oral tradition, but this time calls him by the name Onkelos the proselyte, which leads one to conclude that the name is a mere variant of "Aquila", applied in error to the Aramaic instead of the Greek translation. This view is supported by Epiphanius of Salamis (4th century).[4]

After his conversion, the Talmud records a story of how the Roman emperor tried to have Onkelos arrested (Avodah Zarah 11a). Onkelos cited verses from the Tanakh to the first Roman legion, who then converted. The second legion was also converted, after he juxtaposed God's personal guidance of Israel in the Book of Numbers to the Roman social hierarchy. A similar tactic was used for the third legion, where Onkelos compared his mezuzah to a symbol of God guarding the home of every Jew, in contrast to a Roman king who has his servants guard him. The third legion also converted and no more were sent.

The Targum of Onkelos[edit]

According to tradition, Onkelos authored the Targum Onkelos as an exposition of the "official" interpretation of the peshat (or basic meaning) of the Torah as received by rabbis Eliezer ben Hurcanus and Joshua ben Hananiah.[5] This helped canonise the status of both Onkelos and his Targum in the Jewish tradition.

Methodology of Targum Onkelos[edit]

Onkelos' Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch (Five Books of Moses) is almost entirely a word-by-word, literal translation of the Hebrew Masoretic text, with very little supplemental material in the form of aggadic paraphrase.[6] However, where there are found difficult biblical passages, Onkelos seeks to minimize ambiguities and obscurities. He sometimes employs non-literal aggadic interpretations or expansions in his translated text, usually in those places where the original Hebrew is marked either by a Hebrew idiom, a homonym, or a metaphor, and could not be readily understood otherwise. He often updates the names of biblical nations, coinage and historical sites to the names known in his own post-biblical era. Some of the more salient changes made by Onkelos in his Aramaic translation for purposes of elucidation are as follows:

  • (Genesis 2:7) (Syriac: והות באדם לְרוּחַ מְמַלְלָא‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "...and it became in man a speaking spirit"], instead of "and man became a living soul."
  • (Genesis 18:8) (Syriac: וְהוּא מְשַׁמֵּשׁ עִלָּוֵיהוֹן תְּחוֹת אִילָנָא‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "...and he waited upon them under the tree, etc."], instead of "...he stood by them under the tree, etc."
  • (Genesis 38:26) (Syriac: וַאֲמַר זַכָּאָה, מִנִּי מְעַדְּיָא‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "...and he said, 'She is in the right. It is from me that she is pregnant', etc."], instead of "...and he said, 'She has been more righteous than I', etc."
  • (Exodus 1:8) (Syriac: וְקָם מַלְכָּא חֲדַתָּא עַל מִצְרָיִם דְּלָא מְקַיּיֵם גְּזֵירַת יוֹסֵף‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "And there arose a new king in Egypt who did not fulfill Joseph’s decrees."], instead of "And there arose a new king in Egypt who knew not Joseph."
  • (Exodus 4:25) (Syriac: וַאֲמַרַת בִּדְמָא דִּמְהוּלְתָּא הָדֵין אִתְיְהֵב חַתְנָא לַנָא‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "...and she said, 'By the blood of this circumcision the groomed infant has been given to us'." (i.e. the child was on the verge of dying until he was circumcised)],[7] instead of "…and she said, 'Surely a bloody husband are you to me'."
  • (Exodus 14:8) (Syriac: וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל נָפְקִין בְּרֵישׁ גְּלֵי‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "...and the children of Israel went out openly."], instead of "...and the children of Israel went out with an high hand."
  • (Exodus 23:19) (Syriac: לָא תֵיכְלוּן בְּשַׂר בַּחֲלַב‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "...Do not eat flesh with milk."], instead of "...You shall not seethe a kid [of the goats] in his mother's milk."
  • (Numbers 12:1) (Syriac: וּמַלֵּילַת מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל עֵיסַק אִתְּתָא שַׁפִּירְתָא דִּנְסֵיב אֲרֵי אִתְּתָא שַׁפִּירְתָא דִּנְסֵיב רַחֵיק‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "And Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses concerning the beautiful woman whom he took [in marriage], for the beautiful woman whom he had taken [in marriage] he had distanced (from himself)."], instead of "...spoke out against Moses concerning the Ethiopian woman whom he had married, etc."
  • (Deuteronomy 20:19) (Syriac: אֲרֵי לָא כֶאֱנָשָׁא אִילָן חַקְלָא לְמֵיעַל מִן קֳדָמָךְ בִּצְיָרָא‎, in Hebrew characters) [= "...for a tree of the field is not like unto man to remove himself from you during a siege."], instead of "...for the tree of the field is man's life to employ them in the siege."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Partial Text of Midrash Tanchuma in English p.25
  2. ^ Megillah 10b
  3. ^ Megillah 3a
  4. ^ Epiphanius, Treatise on Weights and Measures - Syriac Version (ed. James Elmer Dean), Chicago University Press c1935, pp. 30-31. Click to see online translation of Epiphanius' Treatise on Weights and Measures
  5. ^ Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 3a
  6. ^ Michael L. Klein, "Converse Translation: A Targumic Technique", in: Biblica (1976), vol. 57, no. 4, p. 515
  7. ^ In accordance with a teaching in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 3:9 [13a]): "Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel said: May God forbid! The angel [of death] did not seek to kill Moses, but rather the infant!" Still, the matter is disputed, some holding that it was Moses, Zipporah's bridegroom, whom the angel of death sought to kill for not performing the circumcision on one of their sons, as relayed in the Palestinian Aramaic Targum.

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