Thursday, October 15, 2009

5) Translations of the Tanakh

It seems most likely that several portions of the Tanakh which existed already then --foremost Torah and the Psalms of David-- were translated already at the time of the Persian kings into Aramaic, the international language of then. These kings wanted certainly to know from the source what Israel and its House of God in Jerusalem is all about. This the more so as they had to deal with the Jewish quest for Jerusalem as well as with the slander of hostile peoples and with the claims of the Samaritans who wanted first to take part in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem, and then have their sanctuary be built on Mount Gerizim. When we read in Ezra 4:7 that the adversaries in the days of Artaxerxes sent the King letters "written in Aramaic characters and composed in the Aramaic language", we may safely assume that the Jews had to present their cause likewise. Also the fact that the Book of Ezra is partly written in Hebrew, partly in Aramaic, gives us a hint that the Jews themselves were already at that time accustomed to use both languages. Rav Abba, a leading scholar of the 3rd century C.E., held that the practice of his days of translating the Hebrew readings into Aramaic in the synagogues, traces back to Ezra.

So far, no copy of such an early translation has been found, but till now-a-days we say prayers in that ancient language, and quite some portions of the Books of Ezra and of Daniel, and of the Scroll of Esther are still in Aramaic (although a somewhat "Hebraisized" Aramaic). Such a likely early Aramaic translation might have served as the prototype for Greek translations, including the Septuagint, and for Onkolos as well.

Since then, the teaching of the Tanakh reached about half of mankind, although for the time being mostly in the Christian or Moslem versions. The Psalms, like the rest of its content, would have become archaic songs and poetry of another people vanished in history, had it not been for the restoration of this people and its Temple under the Persian kings.

The Persian period was not graced by peace and tranquility throughout. Not only the royal court was plagued by quite a number of upheavals and intrigues, as mentioned already. Many peoples were affected by them, too, and apparently even more so the Jews. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple they had started to build, were raided and even destroyed in the Persian period at least twice by hostile neighbors, as we saw already. Then, in the ensuing Greek period, when the Temple was occupied and desecrated in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes IV by his troops, "the books that had been scattered because of war, were collected again"27. We must assume that valuable scrolls, including translations of Biblical texts into Aramaic, as well as other documents were destroyed in these incidents. This may account for our lack of profound knowledge about that period.

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