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Naomi Tadmor’s Social Universe of the English Bible

May 22, 2012

Naomi_TadmorTranslations matter.  That’s the message of Naomi Tadmor’s stunning book The Social Universe of the English Bible:  Scripture, Society and Culture in Early Modern England.

9780521769716Tadmor, who grew up in Israel and received her undergraduate degree from Hebrew University, but later studied history at Cambridge and is on the faculty at Lancaster, takes as her topic the major translations of the Bible from 1530 to 1611:  Tyndale, Coverdale, Matthew, Great Bible, Geneva, Bishops’ Bible, and Douai, and KJV translations – with particular emphasis on the KJV.   (She also considers the late medieval Wycliffite translations.)  She introduces her thesis thus (I’ve converted her writing to American spelling, although I’ve left her Bible quotations in original spelling):

One additional reason for the during success of the English Bible, I suggest, was that it was not only beautiful and accurate, widely propagated, and deeply revered, but that it was – at least in some ways – Anglicized.  The biblical text was not simply translated into English “worde for word,”as Tyndale said), but also transposed, slightly molded, or otherwise rendered in terms that made sense to people at that time and invoked certain notions and ideas.[…]  One synomym of the verb “to translate” in early modern England was indeed the (by now obsolete) verb, “to English.”  As the Bible was rendered into the vernacular, I propose, subtle and overt “Englishing” also took place, which in turn played a role in the widespread propagation of the English Bible.  When early modern artists sketched biblical scenes, they often clothed the ancient figures in contemporary garb or placed them amidst familiar settings; likewise, when people in early modern England ventured overseas, they often understood the cultures they encountered in their own terms.  Similar processes, this book suggests, happened with the rendition of words.

Tadmor starts by considering some relatively trivial examples:

Indeed, diverse transpositions in the meanings of biblical words are well known and widely recorded.  Adam and Eve famously appear in the Geneva Bible wearing “breeches” (Gen. 3:7). 

A long footnote at this point includes this:

In a similar way, in the King James Bible at Dan. 3:21, the three men cast into the furnace are described as being bound in their “coats, their hosen, and their hats.”  The words “head attire” of the Bishops’ Bible have been erased and replaced with the more conventional yet possibly less accurate English description.

Tadmor’s main text continues:

In one version “high priest” becomes “hed bischop,” “wise men” are called “wizards,” and “gentiles,” re-designated as “heyns” [heathens], are glossed in a side note:  “strangers,” such as those called by the Greeks “barbarous” and by “our old Saxons … welschmen.”  Already in the Wyclifite Bible, the word “cider” (“sidir”) appeared to designate the biblical strong drink, “able to make drunkun.”  When Tyndale notably insisted on using “love” rather than “charity,” “elder” instead of “priest,” or “congregations” instead of “church,” he was willing to risk his life.

Biblical dictionaries and encyclopedias furthermore reveal how numerous ancient words were prone to shifts, both subtle and overt, and including important terms and mundane words devoid of any heavy theological baggage.  Dwelling room and stately office were described as “chamber,” canopy as “closet,” thus invoking familiar special settings.  Kesef  was at times rendered not as “silver” but as “money,” better to depict economic transaction.  Whereas Hebrew men assemble to eat lechem (bread and generic for food), in English they dine on “meat”; the English biblical maiden thus “dresses meat” while her Hebrew counterpart prepares cakes.  The English rebel Absalom is caught not among the twigs of the Mediterranean terebinth but in the majestic branches of an oak.  In other contexts birds and insects are given English names (no fewer than five different biblical birds, for example, are identified as “owl”).

Tadmor indicates that the same process took place with much more important concepts, and lays out the general outline her book:

“Englishing” the Hebrew Bible, however, this book proposes, went beyond instances such as these:  the semantic shifts and transpositions, which took place in the process of translation, affected not just individual words but the construction of a social universe.  This story of the creation of the English Bible and its relation both to the ancient Hebrew original and contemporary contexts has attracted relatively little attention, and least of all from social historians.  It is this textual and contextual story that this book seeks to pursue.  The four chapters of this book thus set out to explore different realms of Anglicization in the wording of the Hebrew Bible:  each relating to a set of social relations, each bearing on a historical field, and each pertaining to a historical approach.[…]  The formulation of the English biblical language, important in itself [can be tied with] some of the most central processes of its time, including state formation, changing community relations, the consolidation of marriage and gender roles, and changing labor relations.

Tadmor’s first chapter focuses on Hebrew words with special emphasis on the root for “neighbor” רע

The first chapter [traces] how the Hebrew “love thy friend” or thy “fellow man” evolved to become the English “love thy neighbor.”  Expanding from this to the social history of neighborliness in early modern England, this chapter investigates the significance of the increasingly Anglicized notion of “love thy neighbor” in early modern print culture and in the context of community relations and the “politics of the parish.”

Tadmore then looks at the roots for “to take” לקח and “to give” נתנ which are often used in terms of male-female unions (e.g., Genesis 27:46, “if Jacob take a wife of the daughters of Heth” and Genesis 29:19 “It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man.”)

The second chapter examines notion of gender and the ways in which conceptions of marriage have crept into the vernacular biblical versions over time.  This chapter also traces the broad resonance of biblical notions of gender, from enhanced ecclesiastical and state policies regarding marriage to conduct literature and popular print culture.  Textual readings, social history, and biographies of individual translators are brought together to suggest links between histories of marriage, the church, print culture, and the English Bible.

Tadmore next looks at the word for “slave” עבד and how it was translated, most dramatically, in the KJV, which removed ever occurrence of “slave” except one at Jeremiah 2:14.  (Co-blogger J. K. Gayle pointed out a eerie example of the ESV translators taking parallel actions here.)

The third chapter focuses on labor relations and how the Hebrew ‘eved (or ‘ebed, literally slave) has evolved to become the English “servant.”  This chapter also traces biblical notions of “service” from medieval England to colonial America, and the ways in which they were consolidated, promoted, and tested over time. 

The fourth chapter examines the word “prince” נסיך and other titled terms, as well as “eunuch” סריס and how they were translated into a complex variety of English terms, reflecting the highly stratified English social system.  Tadmor concludes in a virtuosic tracing of the reaction of the politicians and philosophers to this terminology. The latter discussion is especially fascinating to me: I still remember my shock when I first read John Locke’s first Treatise on Government and discovered it was largely about Hebrew exegesis!

Lastly, the fourth chapter investigates notions of office and rule manifested in the consolidation of a range of English biblical terms through diverse renditions, including “prince,” “captain,” “lord,” “duke,” “sheriff,” and “chamberlain” (this sanitized term employed in some contexts for designating the Hebrew saris, meaning eunuch.)  This last chapter starts with explorations of the early modern biblical idiom of office, and ends with its deployment by proponents and opponents including Charles I, Oliver Cromwell, Thomas Hobbes, and John Locke.

The book is relatively compact (about 170 pages of text) which allows Tadmor to make her arguments directly and effectively.  It has some fascinating black and white illustrations and is heavily footnoted. 

Tadmor effectively shows that the tedious Bible translation wars that we have been forced to live through (e.g., in issues of gender in translation) is hardly a new phenomenon – society shapes the translation at least as much as Scripture shapes society.  I highly recommend her work.


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