dianoigo blog

Monday 4 January 2016

Targum Jonathan to Zech. 3:1-2 and Christadelphian apologetics

Targum Jonathan to the Prophets is an Aramaic paraphrase of the prophetic books of the Hebrew Scriptures which is traditionally attributed to Jonathan ben Uzziel, a pupil of Hillel, who lived around the turn of the era. It is, however, a composite work, and the final redaction may have taken place only in the third century A.D., or even as late as Islamic times.1

In the realm of Christadelphian apologetics, Targum Jonathan has been pressed into service as evidence of ancient Jewish belief that 'satan' refers to 'the natural inclination people have to sin', and not to an external being. A brochure entitled The Death of the Devil lists Jonathan ben Uzziel among ancient Jewish expositors alleged to have interpreted Scripture 'according to this understanding'.2

Elsewhere, in Jonathan Burke's response to Anthony Buzzard's critique of the Christadelphian doctrine of Satan, Burke makes these same claims. Here he elaborates on why he thinks Targum Jonathan on Zechariah 3:1 contains an exposition of 'satan' 'which hold[s] to the same interpretation as Christadelphians'.3

Burke's secondary source here is John Gill's Commentary on the Bible from 1748, which he quotes to the effect that Targum Jonathan paraphrases Zech. 3:1b as, 'and sin standing at his right hand to resist him'. Since the original Hebrew read, 'and Satan standing at his right hand to accuse him',4 Burke comments:
The fact that the phrase 'the satan' was interpreted here as a personification of sin is noteworthy, since it demonstrates that such personification was current among the Jews even at the very time that the gospels were written - a fact in opposition to Buzzard's claims.5
Burke is so confident in Gill's interpretation here that he (or someone else) has incorporated it into the Wikipedia page on Christadelphians, where it is stated as though factual with no supporting evidence. This is one of a number of instances where this Wikipedia article shifts gears from neutral reporting to an apologetics posture, and does so by making unsubstantiated claims that are not established in academic literature.

If Burke were familiar with scholarly study of Targum Jonathan to Zechariah 3:1-2 more recent than 1748, he would know that Gill erred in his translation of this passage. The Hebrew hassatan has been translated into Aramaic as hata. This word is defined in Jastrow's Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature generally as 'sinner', but with respect to the passage in question, as 'searcher of sin, accuser.'6 Why has the translator chosen to translate satan with this word instead of transliterating with the Aramaic satana? Sweeney offers an explanation. We first consider his translation of Targum Jonathan to Zech. 3:1-2:
1) And he showed me Joshua, the High Priest, before the angel of YHWH, and the Sinner was standing by his right hand to accuse him. 2) And YHWH said to the Sinner, "YHWH rebukes you, O Sinner, and YHWH rebukes you, the One who chooses to cause His Shekhinah to dwell in Jerusalem! Is this not a firebrand saved from the fire place?"7
Sweeney's exegesis of the term 'Sinner' here (note his use of upper case) runs as follows:
The subunit continues to portray the ordination ceremony of Joshua ben Jehozadak as in the Hebrew text, but the changes introduced into the reading of this text by the Targumist change the character of the presentation. The first is the identification of the Satan figure, that is, Hebrew hassatan, as Aramaic hata’, “the Sinner,” although the verb employed to portray his denunciation of Joshua continues to be the Aphel infinitive, le’satana’, “to accuse him,” analogous to the Hebrew, lesitno. The effect of such a change is to ensure that the evil character of the Satan figure is clear in this text. He is not merely an “opponent” or “denouncer” as the Hebrew term hassatan would suggest, but a sinful figure who prompts sin in others, as indicated by the following portrayal of the priests as having compromised their sanctity by having married women who were not fit to be the wives of priests.8
Hence, for Sweeney, the translator's decision here has been motivated not by a desire to demythologize the opponent, but to express more clearly that he is evil and not merely adversarial.

Smolar and Aberbach offer a somewhat different take:
Satan, the angel of evil, man’s heavenly “adversary” or antagonist is translated by TJ on Zech. 3:1b-2a as חטא or חטאה, i.e., “searcher of sin”, “accuser”. This description of Satan – which contrasts with that in Job 1:6ff.; 2:1ff. (where the Aramaic translation reners סטנא) – agrees with that given in T.B. Baba Bathra 16a, according to which Satan “comes down and seduces (or: leads astray); then goes up (viz., to heaven) and arouses anger (viz., through his accusations); gets permission (i.e., to inflict punishment), and takes away the soul”. It is the function of seducer and accuser which is emphasized in TJ rather than Satan’s supernatural demonic power current in contemporary angelology.9
Hence, for Smolar and Aberbach, Targum Jonathan wishes to further highlight Satan's accusing function, as opposed to his supernatural demonic power. This would then reflect a different perspective from what we find in the New Testament, where Satan's supernatural demonic power receives more attention than his accusing function. However, it is still not in any way a demythologization of Satan inasmuch as Satan is still conceived of as man's heavenly adversary.

Smolar and Aberbach make another significant observation on Jonathan's stylistic tendencies. Commenting on Targum Jonathan to Hab. 3:5, they write that the translator is
always loath to use abstract expressions... Thus, where there is a choice between abstract expressions - which could easily be misunderstood by unsophisticated audiences - and the employment of an angel who in the last resort is merely an instrument to carry out the will of his divine master, TJ opts to introduce an angel.10
Hence, what Burke alleges to be Jonathan's intention in his rendering of Zech. 3:1-2 - the replacement of an angelic being with an abstract expression - is the exact opposite of his tendency (observed by Smolar and Aberbach) to favour angelic beings over abstract expressions.

Kasher translates Targum Jonathan to Zech. 3:1b, 'and the Subverter standing at his right to accuse him'.11 In commenting on this he merely repeats Smolar and Aberbach's view. He otherwise notes only that the Toseftot Targum to Zech. 3:1-2 is more bold than the Targum Jonathan, regarding Satan as a named being who is 'part of God's heavenly retinue.'12

Besides all of this we can state the obvious: that for sin to stand at Joshua's right hand to accuse him, and then to be directly addressed by God, is not a natural way to interpret these words, especially given that they are the content of a visionary experience on Zechariah's part. We can also observe that the interpretation of Zechariah 3:1-2 which is imputed to Jonathan ben Uzziel by Burke does not correspond to Christadelphian interpretation of this passage, which has tended to regard hassatan as a human individual or group.13

To summarize, then, the Christadelphian apologetics-motivated interpretation of Targum Jonathan to Zechariah 3:1-2, which is depicted as factual on the Wikipedia page on Christadelphians (as of the time of publication of this post), appears to rest entirely on a misreading of the Aramaic by John Gill over 250 years ago. It has no support from Jastrow, the standard lexical authority on biblical Aramaic, and no support from modern scholars, who regard 'the sinner' or 'the accuser' here as a reference to a heavenly adversary.

I call on Christadelphians to remove the claim of Jonathan ben Uzziel's support for their doctrine of Satan from their apologetic literature, or at least to qualify this claim with an acknowledgment that it flies in the face of contemporary scholarship.


  • 1 275 CE is suggested by Mortensen as a possible date for the final form of Targum Jonathan to the Prophets (Mortensen, Beverly P. (2002). Pseudo-Jonathan's Temple, Symbol of Judaism. In Paul V.M. Flesher (ed.), Targum and Scripture: Studies in Aramaic Translations and Interpretation in Memory of Ernest G. Clarke (pp. 129-148). Leiden: Brill, p. 142). Levey proposes a date in the Islamic era for the final redaction (Levey, Samson H. (1971). The Date of Targum Jonathan to the Prophets. Vetus Testamentum, 21(2),, 186-196). Ware's cautionary note concerning Targum Isaiah (also part of Targum Jonathan to the Prophets, albeit with more evidence of later redaction than Targum Zechariah) is appropriate here: 'The use of Targum Isaiah as evidence for the second temple period is extremely problematic... for the targum in its written form dates to the second century at the very earlist, and much more probably to the fifth century or beyond. Despite the late date of the codification of the work in its final form, many of the exegetical traditions within the Targum reflect a much earlier period. Yet while it is certain that some of the interpretations advanced by the Targum of Isaiah derive from interpretations in vogue in Palestine prior to 70 C.E., there is apart from independent confirmation by second temple sources, no way of securely determining whether this is so in any particular case. The evidence of Targum Isaiah must therefore be used with great care.' (Ware, James P. (2005). The Mission of the Church in Paul's Letter to the Philippians in the Context of Ancient Judaism. Leiden: Brill, pp. 107-108. Hence, Burke's assumption that Targum Jonathan to Zechariah 3 'demonstrates' beliefs current at the time the Gospels were written is incautious.
  • 2 The other expositors mentioned in this brochure are as follows: 'Joshua Ben Kar'ha [sic], 135-160 (Deuteronomy 15:9); Simeon Ben Lakish, 230-270 (said that satan/the heart/angel of death are all one); Ben Isaac, 330-360 (Micah 7:5; compare Deuteronomy 15:9 LXX); Judah, 400s(?) (Micah 7:5; compare Deuteronomy 15:9 LXX).' Of the two other sayings that Burke dates to the second and third centuries, one may comment very briefly as follows. Joshua ben Karcha appears to mythologize Deut. 15:9 rather than demythologizing it, since he seems to interpret what was originally a reference to an abstract belial as a reference to a personal belial - as is frequently seen in the literature of Qumran and elsewhere in ancient Judaism. As for Resh Lakish, as I've pointed out elsewhere, the saying (from b. Baba Bathra 16a) does not imply that Satan lacks an external existence; indeed the Talmudic context in which the saying occurs presupposes such an external existence.
  • 3 Burke, Jonathan. (2007). Satan and Demons: A Reply to Anthony Buzzard, p. 13. Note that Burke incorrectly states here that Targum Jonathan is 'also known as Targum Pseudo-Jonathan'.
  • 4 Many scholars would opt for translating hassatan here as the accuser, the adversary, or the prosecutor, since it is not clear that satan functions as a proper name. See discussion here.
  • 5 Burke, op. cit., p. 14. As pointed out above, Burke's assumption that this text is contemporaneous with the Gospels is incautious.
  • 6 Jastrow, Marcus. (1926). Dictionary of Targumim, Talmud and Midrashic Literature, p. 447. Accessed at http://www.tyndalearchive.com//TABS/Jastrow/index.htm
  • 7 Sweeney, Marvin A. (2008). Targum Jonathan’s Reading of Zechariah 3: A Gateway for the Palace. In Mark J. Boda and Michael H. Floyd (eds.), Tradition in Transition: Haggai and Zechariah 1-8 in the trajectory of Hebrew theology (pp. 271-290). London: T&T Clark International, p. 279.
  • 8 op. cit., p. 280. With apologies, I have not bothered to accent the transliterated Hebrew and Aramaic words, here or elsewhere in the article.
  • 9 Smolar, Leivy and Aberbach, Moses. (1983). Studies in Targum Jonathan to the Prophets. New York: KTAV, p. 225.
  • 10 op. cit., p. 226.
  • 11 Kasher, Rimmon. (1996). Angelology and the Supernal Worlds in the Aramaic Targums to the Prophets. Journal for the Study of Judaism, 27(2), 168-191. Here p. 181.
  • 12 op. cit., p. 182.
  • 13 For a survey and critique of Christadelphian interpretations of Zech. 3:1-2, see my article, The Devil in the General Epistles, Part 4: Jude, pp. 2-4.