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Historically, how did Esav come to be associated with Rome/Christianity? How did Yishma'el come to be associated with Arabs/Islam?

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The Arabs were already associated with Yishmael at the time that Onkelos the Convert wrote his translation of the Torah. Although the same association is used in Targum Yonason Ben Uziel who lived two generations earlier (maybe even three!) he may not be the actual author of that translation and it may actually date from some time after the founding of Islam. See Parshas VaYeshev 37:25.

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Yahu, It is not so certain that the Targum Yonason on the Torah we have today was actually written by the Tanna Yonesen Ben Eziel. Some have dated it to the 8th century which would make it after the founding of Islam. See here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Targum_Pseudo-Jonathan – user258 Nov 24 '10 at 17:32
Zz, this sort of response to another answer is best expressed as a comment on that answer, rather than as an independent answer. When you have accumulated 50 reputation points, you'll be able to post such comments. – Isaac Moses Nov 24 '10 at 17:40
Thank you. I was wondering why I didn't have the option to comment. I guess I should've read the FAQ! – user258 Nov 24 '10 at 17:58
This is interesting but doesn't fully answer the question. It gives an upper bound on the "when" but doesn't address the "how". – Yosef Nov 24 '10 at 19:25
I would think that it's simply because the Torah describes Yishmael and his descendants as nomadic desert dwellers, caravaneers, and robbers, which pretty well describes the pre-Mohammedan Arabs. – Alex Nov 24 '10 at 19:55

See http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0006_0_05562.html

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Zz, Welcome to mi.yodeya, and thanks for finding this source! Please note our copying guideline lo.yodeya.com/2010/04/guidelines-referring-and-quoting.html. I've edited your answer accordingly. You're welcome to improve the answer by writing a proper synopsis and reference. – Isaac Moses Nov 24 '10 at 16:11

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