IT HAS BEEN POINTED OUT numerous times that even while the Jews were in a state of political subjection, while their land was devastated and the enemy triumphed and there reigned the belief that their God has forsaken them, even at that time there were many people of high estate who gave up their careers and entered the Jewish people as proselytes. One of these was Onkelos the son of Kalonymos, or Aquilas, as he is referred to in some places, who was closely related to the emperor Hadrian.*)The name Aquilas closely resembles Onkelos in the Palestinian pronounciation. The “Ain” is pronounced as a nasal sound and resembles a “Nun.” The stories related in the Talmud and Midrashim regarding Onkelos are substantially the same as those told in other places regarding Aquilas. The main difference is in that the Babylonian Talmud relates Onkelos to Titus and Rabban Gamliel the elder, which would indicate that he lived at the time of the destruction of the temple, while Aquilas is connected with Hadrian and Rabban Gamliel of Jabneh which would indicate that he lived after the destruction. Some historians are therefore of the opinion that Onkelos and Aquilas are two different persons. But the Gaon of Vilna believed that they were the same person and he corrected (גטין נ״ו) to read: “the son of the sister of Hadrian” instead of “the son of the sister of Titus.”
The story of how Onkelos (Aquilas) turned to Judaism is related in the following manner:
Aquilas (or Onkelos) was the nephew of emperor Hadrian and wanted to become a proselyte. He greatly approved of the Jewish faith. (Others say that he was brought to this conviction by a Jewish girl.) But he feared his uncle and once he said to him: “I would gladly engage in commerce.” Hadrian replied, “If you lack money, my treasury is always at your disposal.” But Aquilas continued, “I want to journey throughout the world and to meet many men, I therefore want your advice as to what merchandise I shall take.” To this Hadrian replied: “If you see merchandise which is fallen in price, deal in it, for it will surely rise again and you will gain thereby.”
Aquilas then went to Palestine and began to study with Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania. Sometime later he returned to Hadrian and his uncle asked him: “Why is your face so changed? It is obvious that you have suffered losses; or has someone done you harm?” But Aquilas-Onkelos answered, “Neither.”
Then Hadrian said, “You are my kin and I am pained at your poor appearance,” and Aquilas-Onkelos declared, “I have learned the Jewish Torah and I have become a Jew.”
Greatly shocked Hadrian exclaimed, “Who permitted you to do so?” Aquilas-Onkelos answered, “You told me to do so. When I asked your advice what merchandise I should trade in, you told me to get all merchandise which is depreciated, for it would surely rise in value again. I searched among all nations for a people which had fallen lower than the Jews but I found none. I therefore bethought myself that they are sure to rise to heights again.”
This conversation was witnessed by one of the emperor’s ministers who praised Aquilas’ step. The emperor was angered at this and struck his minister. Out of shame that minister leaped from the roof of his house and killed himself.
Hadrian persisted in trying to find out the cause of Aquilas-Onkelos’ conversion until the latter told him, “I wanted to know the Jewish Torah.” “But you could have learned it without embracing Judaism,” the emperor wondered, but Aquilas-Onkelos replied that a non-Jew can never comprehend the Torah.1)מדרש תנחומא פּרשת משפּטים.
There are several versions regarding the conversion and one of them relates that when the emperor heard of it he sent a few soldiers to bring Aquilas back to Rome, but he explained to them a number of verses of the Torah and they too were converted. The emperor then sent other soldiers to bring him back and commanded them not to engage in any discussion with him. When the soldiers took Aquilas-Onkelos and were ready to leave, he said to them: “Let me tell you one thing; among people it customary that the one of lesser rank lights the way for those of higher rank, but my God is the greatest and still he lights the way that people may see where to go.” Upon hearing this, these soldiers too became converted. The emperor then sent soldiers for the third time and commanded them neither to speak nor to listen to what Onkelos may tell them. As they were emerging from the house with him, he placed his hand upon the Mezuzah and said to them: “See the difference between a human ruler and the great God of Israel. A human ruler stays within his house and his guards stay at the gate, but here the people stay inside the house while the king stays at the door to guard them.” Hearing this these soldiers also became converted and the emperor sent no more soldiers to bring Onkelos back.2)עבודה זרה י״א, א׳.
When Onkelos spoke to the Roman soldiers, or on other occasions compared the ways of God to the deeds of human rules, it was entirely in accord with the concepts of that time. The emperor was then looked up to as divine. Instead of drawing a parallel between an idol, which the king worshipped, and God, as the author of the Psalms did, it became customary at that time to compare the conduct of a human ruler with that of God.
Still another version of the story of Onkelos’ conversion relates that Onkelos bar Kalonymos was a nephew of Titus (or of Hadrian as the Gaon of Vilna claims) and wanted to embrace Judaism. With the aid of witchcraft he had Titus aroused from his grave and he asked him: “Which is the worthiest people on earth?”, Titus replied, “The Jews are.” Onkelos then asked, “What would happen if I were to join them?” and Titus said, “Their teachings are too great and it is impossible to observe them. If you want to gain greatness there is no better way than by oppressing the Jews.”3)גטין נ״ו ב׳.
The Midrash relates4)בראשית רבה פּרשה ע׳ פּיסקא ה׳. that before Onkelos became converted he came before Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and asked him: “Do you think it is worth while for a person to embrace Judaism if God only offers the proselyte divine love and bread to eat and a garment to wear?” Rabbi Eliezer was greatly angered by this question and answered: “Is it not enough for a proselyte that he receives that for which our father Jacob prayed. To him God offers it as a gift, is not that enough?” But this answer did not satisfy Onkelos and he asked the same question of Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania. Rabbi Joshua responded kindly and said: “The bread which God offers to the proselyte is not ordinary bread but the Torah. And when it is said that God will give the proselyte a garment to wear, no ordinary garment is meant but the Talith of wisdom. If the proselyte is worthy enough to learn the Torah he deserves the Talith of a scholar and he may marry his daughter to a priest and her sons may become High Priests.” Later the scholars said that if Rabbi Joshua had not spoken so kindly to Onkelos he would probably have returned to the Gentiles.
In later years it was told of Onkelos that when he praised the virtues of God he said that even at the creation of the world God showed that his way was different from that of human rulers. A human ruler generally allows his goodness to be praised before he has achieved anything and before he has established courts or built public baths. His name is mentioned before his deeds. But of God the deeds are mentioned first and only then follows the praise.
According to the Christian Church-fathers, Onkelos was an adherent of Christianity first and Hadrian sent him as the representative of the government to Jerusalem where new decrees were then issued almost daily. At first the Jews were permitted to restore the temple, later it was commanded to convert the city to pagan purposes and its name was changed to “Aelia Capitolina” in honor of the Roman god Jupiter. But since Onkelos devoted himself to astrology, which the Christians considered as sinful, he was disowned by them and he turned to Judaism.
For those Jews who lived in the Greek speaking countries and did not know Hebrew but who wanted to acquaint themselves with the content of the Torah, there then existed a Greek translation of the Bible which was known as the “Septuaginta” or the translation of the seventy. But by that time this translation was considerably falsified and it included incorrect interpretations of various Biblical texts. Onkelos-Aquilas undertook to make a new translation which he accomplished with the consent of Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania. They later characterized it as an introduction of the beauty of Japheth (Greece) into the tents of Shem.
According to the Jerusalem Talmud, Aquilas was a colleague or a pupil of Rabbi Akiba, and he is said to have sanctioned the new translation of the Bible into Greek. Onkelos’ translation of the Bible became accepted among all the scholars and the Jerusalem Talmud quotes tens of words as Onkelos translated them in order to establish the meaning of various verses. It is also told that as a recognition of his authority in explaining the Bible, Hadrian consulted Onkelos in elucidating a certain text.5)ירושלמי חגיגה פרק ב׳ הלכה א׳.
Today we possess an Aramaic version of Onkelos’ Greek translation (Targum Onkelos) which has become sanctified almost to the same degree as the Hebrew Bible text. When the Christian Church-father Hieronymus later translated the Bible into Latin he extensively used Onkelos’ Greek translation. Commenting on it he said that it was a poor translation because “the translator slavishly followed the Hebrew text and translated literally without taking into consideration the Greek language and its syntax.” The Jews adopted the translation of Onkelos, Hieronymus said, and some Jewish communities which employed Greek as the spoken language read Onkelos’ translation on the Sabbath instead of the Hebrew text of the Torah or they read both versions.
Onkelos’ conversion apparently occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem during the time that Rabban Gamliel II was Nasi, for Onkelos is frequently mentioned together with Rabban Gamliel. Thus it is told that they were both in Ascalon and Rabban Gamliel performed his ablutions in an ordinary bath house. But since Ascalon was considered to be outside the boundaries of the Land of Israel, Onkelos considered an ordinary bath house there to be unclean and he bathed in the sea instead.6)תוספתא מקואות פרק ו׳.
When Rabban Gamliel died the Talmud relates that Onkelos burned sixty pounds of incense at the funeral, as was customary during the funeral of a king. When he was asked by the scholars why he did so, he replied, “In my eyes Rabban Gamliel was more important than a hundred Roman kings.”
Aquilas-Onkelos was very pious and although the temple no longer existed he observed all the regulations of cleanliness which pious Jews observed when the temple was still in existence. When Aquilas-Onkelos inherited the wealth of his father he refused to derive any benefit from the golden and silver idols and cast them into the Dead Sea.7)תוספתא דמאי פרק ו׳.