Onkelos and Aquila

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ONKELOS AND AQUILA (second century c.e.), two translators of the Bible, the one into Aramaic and the other into Greek, both of whom were proselytes. Although there is no doubt of their separate existence, the translation of Onkelos being preserved in its entirety, and that of Aquila in fragments (see *Aramaic (Middle Aramaic) and *Bible, Translations), the similarity of the names has caused considerable confusion. Similar or identical incidents are given in the Babylonian Talmud and the Tosefta as applying to Onkelos, and in the Jerusalem Talmud and the Palestinian Midrashim to Aquila (Akilas). It is therefore convenient to treat both of them primarily as one, while indicating where possible where they can be distinguished from one another. Fact and legend are inextricably interwoven.

According to Epiphanius, Aquila was a native of Pontus and a relative of the emperor *Hadrian, who in about 128 appointed him to an office connected with the rebuilding of Jerusalem as Aelia Capitolina. The Midrash (Tanḥ. 41a, Mishpatim 3) also refers to him as the son of the sister of Hadrian, although the Babylonian Talmud refers to him as "Onkelos the son of Kalonikus [v. Kalonymus] the son of the sister of Titus." He became converted to Judaism, but before doing so he raised the spirits of Titus, Balaam, and Jesus (this last was expurged by the censor from the printed editions), all of whom confirmed that the people of Israel is held in the highest repute in the world to come (Git. 56b, 57a). According to the Tanḥuma, when he formed the intention of converting to Judaism, fearing the anger and opposition of Hadrian, he informed him that he wished to travel (to Ereẓ Israel) on business, and Hadrian offered him all the money he needed to remain in Rome. In any case, he must have been a person of wealth, and this lends point to the comment of the Midrash (Gen. R. 70:5), to the effect that he asked R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus whether there was no greater reward for the proselyte than that stated in the Bible, that God "loveth the stranger [ger, in mishnaic Hebrew a proselyte] in giving him food and raiment" (Deut. 10:18), pointing out that he was short of neither of these things. Eliezer's brusque reply might have discouraged him, but he went to R. Joshua with the same question and Joshua replied that it refers to spiritual benefits. His conversion met with the vigorous opposition of the emperor. According to the Tanhuma he "smote him on the cheek"; according to the Talmud (Av. Zar. 11a) he sent four successive contingents of soldiers to arrest him, but he succeeded in converting them all to Judaism. Onkelos was a contemporary of Rabban Gamaliel of Jabneh and a colleague and pupil of Eliezer b. Hyrcanus and Joshua b. Hananiah (cf., above). His relationship with Gamaliel was a close one, and when Gamaliel died Onkelos arranged a costly funeral for him, such as was usually reserved for royalty (Tosef., Shab. 7 (8):18; Av. Zar. 11a). He conducted himself with the utmost piety and was particularly meticulous in adhering to the laws of ritual purity, surpassing in this respect even Rabban Gamaliel, applying to ordinary food the rules enjoined for partaking of sacrifices (Tosef., Ḥag. 3:2 and 3). On one occasion he refused to bathe in the ritual baths of Ashkelon (since he regarded it as heathen territory) and made his ablutions in the sea, while Gamaliel (according to one opinion) was not so particular (Tosef., Mik. 6:3). There is one talmudic statement attributed to him (bb 99a) that the faces of the *cherubim were turned sideways "as a pupil taking leave of his master."

The two translators are differentiated from one another in two passages of the Talmud. Where the Babylonian Talmud (Meg. 3a) states that Onkelos the Proselyte translated the Pentateuch into Aramaic (Targum) under the guidance of R. Eliezer and R. Joshua, the parallel passage in the Jerusalem Talmud (ibid. 1:11, 71c) clearly refers to the translation of Aquila the Proselyte into Greek, and there are some quotations in the Talmud which clearly refer to a translation into Greek. Since Azariah de *Rossi, attempts have been made to disentangle the confusion between the Aramaic translator Onkelos and the Greek translator Aquila. The prevalent opinion tends to ascribe the talmudic passages to Aquila, but when, in Babylonian sources, the name was corrupted to Onkelos, the existing anonymous translation of the Pentateuch into Aramaic was ascribed to "Onkelos the Proselyte."


A. Silverstone, Aquila and Onkelos (1931); Zunz-Albeck, Derashot; Kohut, Arukh, 1 (1926), 158, and note. For further bibliography see *Bible, Translations.

[Louis Isaac Rabinowitz]