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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).


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Poetry in Targum Pseudo-Jonathan

While reading for Bob Cargill’s seminar on the Targums to Genesis this past week, I noticed that Targum Pseudo-Jonathan (P-J) sees the opening verses of Genesis as poetry and that the meturgeman’s additions to this text maintain good poetic rhythm. As an example, here are the first few verses, divided into their poetic lines.

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1a From the beginning, God created
b The heavens and the earth.

2a The earth was formless and void,
b Desolate of humanity and empty of all livestock,
c And darkness was upon the surface of the deep.

d A merciful wind from before God
e Blew over the surface of the waters.

3a God said,
b “Let there be light to illuminate the world,”
c And immediately there was light.

4a God saw
b that the light was good,
c And God separated
d between the light and the darkness.

5a God called the light “daytime,”
b and he created it for the inhabitants of the world to work during it.
c The darkness he called “nighttime,”
d And he created it for the creatures to rest.

e It was evening
f And it was morning,
g The first day.


When divided up this way, several features about the text become apparent.


The first four strophes (lines 1a-3c) show good parallelistic alternation. Strophe 1 (lines 1a-b) and strophe 3 (lines 2d-e) are both bicolons with the same stress pattern, 3-2. Strophe 2 (lines 2a-c) and strophe 4 (lines 3a-c) do not share a common meter—strophe 2 has three lines of four stresses each, while strophe 4 has a stress pattern of 2-3-3—but both are tricolons that, importantly, tell two halves of the same story, and therefore must be connected.

Strophe 5 (lines 4a-d) and strophe 6 (lines 5a-d) are also well matched. Each consists of two parallel bicolons, and each of those bicolons have matching stress patterns: strophe 5 has a stress pattern of 2-2|2-2, and strophe 6 has 4-4|3-3.

Finally, strophe 7 (lines 5e-g) is a nice concluding tricolon of stress pattern 2-2-2.

P-J’s additions

P-J takes the Hebrew text of Genesis 1 and obviously reshapes it, but the additions maintain the poetic balance of the original. Even in the five verses I have examined so far, we may see two very clear examples of P-J’s skill at maintaining good meter in his additions to the text.

The first example is in Genesis 1:2. In the Hebrew text, Genesis 1:2 can be read as a four-line strophe, consisting of two parallel bicolons; P-J, however, expands the text into a well-balanced tricolon and a well-balanced bicolon.

The second example, from verse 5, is even more striking. P-J adds two phrases into this verse, but these additions maintain—even enhance—the verse’s poetic effect. Line 5a, which is a literal translation of the Hebrew text, has four stresses, and line 5b, which is entirely P-J’s own material, also has four stresses; likewise, line 5c, which matches the Hebrew, has three stresses, while P-J’s addition in line 5d also has three stresses.

These additions, especially those in verse 5, show even more concretely that the author of this text composed it as verse and that he intended it to be read as such.


Lastly, we may draw a few conclusions based on my analysis. First, we may conclude that the author of this section of P-J was clearly educated and was well versed in composing poetry—a conclusion that is consistent with the view, advocated by Y. Maori and E. Itzchaky, that an educated author composed P-J for an educated audience. Second, it seems the author of this section of P-J saw the opening chapter of Genesis as poetry, which led him to maintain poetic meter through his targum of the text. Lastly, even if P-J was not intended for use in a synagogue (as Yeshayahu Maori, Efraim Itzchaky, and Avigdor Shinan have argued; see Maher 1987 for references), this section of the text, at least, was intended for corporate use, to be chanted or sung to an audience.


Maher, Michael. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan: Translated, with Introduction and Notes. Aramaic Bible 1B. Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1987.

Westermann, Claus. Genesis 1-11: A Continental Commentary. Minneapolis: Augsburg; London: SPCK, 1984.

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Isaiah 40:7-8 in the Ancient Versions

I’m trying to work out the/an original text for Isaiah 40:7-8, which is proving to be quite a puzzle. Here are the ancient versions in roughly chronological order (in English, for those who can’t read the various languages).

The Versions

1QIsa [The Great Isaiah Scroll]
ca. 150-100 BCE

Grass withers, a flower fades,
(Because the breath of YHWH blows on it.
Truly the people are grass.
Grass withers, a flower fades,)
But the word of our God stands forever.

Notes: The text in parentheses is written in a second hand in the margins of the scroll. It was either a haplography that was corrected by a second scribe, or the second scribe added it to make 1QIsa match the text of a different exemplar. At any rate, the uncorrected text matches LXX, while the corrected text matches MT, Vulgate, Peshitta, and Targ. Isa.

Septuagint (LXX)
ca. 140 BCE

The grass dries up and the flower falls,
But the word of our God remains forever.

Notes: The text of the LXX matches that of the uncorrected 1QIsa, except for “the flower falls” versus 1QIsa’s “a flower fades.” It is worth noting that LXX and 1QIsa are more or less contemporaneous, though they come from quite different places.

Targum Isaiah (Targ. Isa.)
2nd cent. BCE-1st cent. CE

The grass withers, its flower fades, because the wind from before YHWH has blown upon it. Therefore, the wicked among the people are counted as grass. The wicked dies, his thoughts perish, but the word of our God abides forever.

Notes: Targ. Isa., being an Aramaic explanation of a Hebrew poem, is necessarily in prose, and I have reflected that here. (Translation is modernized from Stenning’s.) And, though the translator has taken some liberties, it’s clear enough that the Hebrew text behind Targ. Isa. corresponds with MT, Vulgate, Peshitta, and corrected 1QIsa.

1st-2nd cent. CE

The grass withers, the flower fades,
Because the breath of the LORD blows upon it;
Surely this people is like the grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Notes: Translation is Lamsa’s. The text matches that of the corrected 1QIsa, Targ. Isa., Vulgate, and MT.

390-405 CE

Hay dries up and a flower falls,
Because the breath of God blows on it.
Truly the people are hay.
Hay dries up and a flower falls,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Notes: Hay, of course, is dried-up grass, so the variant reading isn’t all that important. Vulgate has “flower falls,” like the LXX, over against 1QIsa, Peshitta, and MT.

Masoretic Text (MT)
Fixed 10th cent. CE

Grass withers, a flower fades,
Because the breath of YHWH blows on it.
Truly the people are grass.
Grass withers, a flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

Notes: The text of MT matches that of the corrected 1QIsa, Targ. Isa., Peshitta, and Vulgate.


I find it interesting that the two oldest texts in the tradition — LXX and uncorrected 1QIsa — both contain the short reading. Moreover, the two are from different provenances: 1QIsa from Palestine and LXX from Alexandria. In my opinion, the age and geographic separation of the two texts argues against simple haplography, instead presenting evidence of a consistent textual tradition. I’ll call this tradition the “shorter tradition”

However, the tradition in corrected 1QIsa, Targ. Isa, Peshitta, Vulgate, and MT dates to roughly the same time as LXX and uncorrected 1QIsa. I’ll call this tradition the “longer tradition.”

Dating of manuscripts will not help us decide which of the traditions is original, since they are both reflected on the same manuscript (1QIsa). The style of the two traditions argues in favor of the longer, as it is the more difficult reading (a brief survey of the commentaries is more than enough to bear this notion out). However, the length of the two traditions argues in favor of the shorter, because shorter readings are to be preferred over longer ones.

In the end, I prefer the shorter tradition because of its geographical diversity. The longer tradition is confined to Palestine, while the shorter tradition was in both Palestine and Alexandria at the same time. In addition, though the phrase “Truly the people are grass” could be read as a refrain or as part of a call-and-response, its main purpose is to make explicit the metaphor of humans as grass; in other words, it looks very much like an explanatory gloss, which should therefore be rejected.

Thus, I find that the shorter tradition of Isaiah 40:7-8 is more original.

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