Poetry, Prose, and Redaction: Preliminary Conclusions on Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 1

I have been working steadily since my last blog post on Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 1, and I feel confident enough to state a few preliminary conclusions about the poetics of the text.

1. Formally, the text of P-J to Genesis 1 is rhythmic prose. It shows many of the features of poetry, but lacks a real poetic structure, which was important for late antique Jewish Aramaic poetry.

2. Though the text is technically prose, many of the additions (e.g. those in verses 1-6, and even some of the longer additions, like those of verses 21 and 30) maintain or expand upon the rhythm of the original text, implying that at least one of the earlier authors of P-J saw Genesis 1 as poetry.

3. Several of the longer expansions (e.g. in verses 7, 16, and 26) are fully prosaic–they do not maintain any noticeable rhythm, meter, or parallelism. Interestingly, these additions all introduce material from later, rabbinic sources, and therefore belong to a later redactional layer. Thus, I posit that the later authors/redactors of P-J did not see Genesis 1 as poetry, since it does not have much of a poetic structure.

4. Therefore, we may see a progression in how the authors of P-J saw Genesis 1. Early on, because the text of the targum retained the rhythm of the Hebrew Text, P-J to Genesis 1 was a text to be performed in front of an audience, probably in a synagogue service. Later, though, the text became a prose object of religious study: shifting views of what constituted good Aramaic poetry meant that the later rabbis saw the text as prose, and P-J’s use as a study text for seers meant that rabbinic traditions were added to the text.

Michael Maher, Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Genesis (Aramaic Bible 1B; Collegeville, Minn.:: Liturgical Press, 1992).

A. S. Rodrigues Pereira, Studies in Aramaic Poetry (c. 100 B.C.E. – 600 C.E.): Selected Jewish, Christian, and Samaritan Poems (Studia Semitica Neerlandica; Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum, 1997).


Filed under Uncategorized

4 responses to “Poetry, Prose, and Redaction: Preliminary Conclusions on Targum Pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 1

  1. I think it is fair to say that the poetic view of the Genesis record is relatively new compared to the overall historical understanding of this biblical text. A recent writer dates this poetic interpretation to 1924 (Chaffey 2011). For the most part it seems almost unnecessary to point out that conservative scholarship has long rejected the idea that the first chapters of Genesis are poetry.

    • Thanks for your comment, Everette.

      You’re right that the majority of Genesis 1 is not poetic. However, Kselman 1978 has shown quite convincingly that several verses in Genesis 1, as well as the overall structure of the chapter, come from a poetic source.

      Moreover, this blog post isn’t about the biblical text of Genesis 1; it’s about Targum Pseudo-Jonathan, a later (7th century CE) Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch. Like other early Bible translations, the targums add in material that they find relevant, and my post is about how some of the additions maintain the poetic meter where the original text is poetic, while other additions are purely prosaic. My argument, therefore, is that (at least) two groups of editors are responsible for the different additions to the text.

  2. Such characteristics do not uniquely determine Hebrew poetry, but they tend to be more common in poetry than in narrative. These features are not particularly prominent in Genesis 1-2.

    • Thanks for your comment, Mitch.

      I’d refer you to Kselman, “The Recovery of Poetic Fragments from the Priestly Source” (1978), who shows quite thoroughly how several verses in Genesis 1 are poetic, even though the chapter as a whole is prose.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s