A "Targum" is a translation, but the term is usually used specifically to designate Aramaic translations of the Bible. According to an ancient Jewish tradition, the public reading of the Bible in the synagogue must be accompanied by a translation into Aramaic, which was the spoken language of most Jews in Israel and Babylonia during the Talmudic era. The normal practice was that after each verse was read from the written scroll, an official known as the "Turgeman" or "Meturgeman" would then recite orally an Aramaic rendering of the previous verse.
As the use of Aramaic declined, the practice of reciting the Targum in the synagogue fell into disuse in most Jewish communities.
The title of "Targum Yonatan ben 'Uzziel" is based on an erroneous attribution. Rabbi Jonathan ben 'Uzziel was a first-century rabbi who is credited in the Talmud with the composition of an Aramaic translation of the Prophetic books of the Bible, and such a translation does exist. Based on literary and linguistic analysis, it is clear that the present work is a much later compilation.
It is widely believed that the mistaken ascription to Jonathan ben 'Uzziel resulted from a mistaken deciphering of an abbreviation in a manuscript, where the intended designation was to "Targum Yerushalmi"; i.e., the Jerusalem [Palestinian] translation.
The final editing of this Targum may have taken place around the eigth century, though it includes materials from much earlier times.
The textual tradition contained in this version was first attested prior to the sixteenth century in Italy, and no similar text has yet been discovered in manuscript, not even among the many examples of Palestinian Targum contained in the Cairo Genizah.
The Targum Yonatan is a typical example of a Palestinian-style Targum, in that it does not confine itself to a literal rendering of the Hebrew, but rather incorporates many additions based on rabbinic traditions. This reflects the manner in which the Bible was read in ancient Palestinian synagogues: After each verse was read from the Hebrew scroll, a special official (Turgeman) would recite an elaborate and expanded Aramaic version of that text, usually including a significant element of creative improvisation.
Since the Hanau 1614 printing of the Rabbinic Bible, many versions have included a brief explanatory commentary to the Targum Yonatan composed by Hayyim Feivel ben David Zechariah Mendel.