The Proselyte and the Prophet

Character Development in Targum Ruth

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Christian M. M. Brady
Supplemental Aramaic Studies
  • Boston, MA: 
    Brill
    , November
     2016.
     188 pages.
     $112.00.
     E-Book.
    ISBN
    9789004329676.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The targumim, the Aramaic translations of the books of the Hebrew Bible, are an important window into the language and culture of Judaism in late antiquity. The most intensively studied targumim have been Targum Onqelos to the Pentateuch and Targum Jonathan to the Former Prophets because of their status as official rabbinic targumim, which meant they were studied in houses of learning and included in synagogue worship. Other targumim never achieved an official status in rabbinic Judaism and this fact is shown by the relative paucity of extant targumic manuscripts. Such is the case with the Palestinian Targumim to the Pentateuch as well as the targumim to the hagiographical books of the Hebrew Bible. The hagiographical targumim are of great interest because in addition to word-for-word translations of the Hebrew text, they also tend to include significant chunks of exegetical material attested elsewhere in rabbinic literature—the Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, and the midrashim (which are halakhic and exegetical commentaries on books of the Bible). 

Christian M. M. Brady is a scholar of the hagiographical targumim and has published extensively on different aspects of their composition. He is particularly well-known for his book on Targum Lamentations (The Rabbinic Targum of Lamentations, E. J. Brill, 2003). In the present book Brady has turned his attention to Targum Ruth. He has set his sights on investigating the character development of the two main protagonists of the story, Naomi’s daughter-in-law Ruth, and Boaz, Naomi’s relative, who extends kindness to Ruth and ultimately marries her in what appears to be a levirate-type marriage. 

The Hebrew biblical account in the book of Ruth, which contains only four chapters, serves as a springboard from which the translator(s) of the targum inserted pertinent rabbinic legends and themes dealing with the protagonists and, in doing so, effectively turned the composition into a rabbinic piece on piety. The Proselyte and the Prophet opens with a short introduction on the biblical book of Ruth followed by a state-of-art summary on research into Targum Ruth. The latter includes a description of the manuscripts containing Targum Ruth. Brady goes on to discuss the hagiographic targumim in general, their purpose and use in the synagogue, and their rabbinic context; moreover, he examines how the targumim are exegetical commentaries on the biblical books. Before turning to the essence of the book—an in-depth analysis of the motifs embedded in the targum— Brady presents a diplomatic edition of the oldest medieval manuscript of Targum Ruth, MS Valmadonna 1, which dates to 1189. On the opposite page he translates the text into English, distinguishing between literal translation and targumic additions to the original text. In addition to the diplomatic edition of the manuscript, Brady also notes at the bottom of the page variant readings from other manuscript sources and their thematic significance.

As indicated by the book’s subtitle, “Character Development in Targum Ruth,” Brady explores how the targum depicts Ruth as an ideal proselyte, and how it paints a portrait of Boaz as an Old Testament sage and prophet. The targum has turned the biblical story into a narrative of exemplary piety. The translator opens the book by situating Ruth within the framework of a Heilsgeschichte, whose purpose is to reveal God’s care and actions on behalf of Israel. The book of Ruth was originally written in order to deliver a universalist message of brotherhood by showing that King David was descended from a gentile, a Moabite, and not from an Israelite. The targum goes further to stress that Ruth was not just a proselyte, but rather an ideal proselyte, the implication being that she is worthy of being the ancestor of King David and the Messiah. Similarly, Boaz, who marries Ruth, becomes the ideal Israelite and therefore is worthy of being the ancestor of kings as well as the Messiah. 

Brady carefully analyzes the targumic descriptions and examines them critically in the light of the rabbinic material that is attested elsewhere in late antique Jewish literature. The targum, he stresses, is a rabbinic attempt to explain the biblical narrative. He compares and contrasts what the translator presents with what is found in other rabbinic sources. He displays care when attempting to determine the original source of traditions that show up in the targum since it is notoriously difficult, if not usually impossible, to prove if source A borrowed from source B, or whether both A and B both borrowed from a source C.

Brady’s book discusses in detail, as expressed in Targum Ruth, the notions of conversion, obedience to Torah, the teaching of the sages, and expectation of the world to come. Brady illuminates how the translator fills out character details about Ruth and Boaz and demonstrates what the translator wanted the text to mean for its readers beyond the mere description of the plot. As much as the book is about the Targum Ruth, it also about how targum is inextricably part of the larger rabbinic literature and must be examined in the light of other rabbinic works. The work is a lucid and well-written exposition of the nature of Targum Ruth. The reader learns of the late antique translator’s goals, objectives, and use of rabbinic materials.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven E. Fassberg is Caspar Levias Professor of Ancient Semitic Languages at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Date of Review: 
August 19, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Christian M. M. Brady is associate professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and Jewish Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. He has published extensively on Targumic literature and The Rabbinic Targum of Lamentations (Brill, 2003).

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