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Naomi Tadmor

"Biblical translation in Tudor and Stuart England: Texts and Contexts"

Naomi Tadmor, Lancaster University


As the world celebrates the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible and its trans-historical resonance, it is time to reflect its historicity. One reason why the English Bible had become so successful, I suggest, is because it was not only translated, but also ‘Englished’. This now obsolete verb, employed in the early modern period to describe the rendition of words to the English tongue, encapsulates cultural adaptation. When early modern artists sketched biblical scenes, they often clothed the ancient figures in contemporary garb or placed them amidst familiar settings. Similar processes, I suggest, happened with the rendition of words.


Debates concerning the translation of important ecclesiastical words – ‘church’ and ‘congregation’, ‘charity’ and ‘love’ – are well known. Less attention has been given to the translation of apparently ordinary words of social description. This paper will focus on terms relating to social institutions and government. The ancient Hebrew text, I suggest, has been rendered into English in terms that invoked contemporary monarchical concepts. It is not surprising that authorities then drew on the same texts to legitimate power. In due course critics – whose numbers increased as the early modern English Bible became widely disseminated – re-read the same concepts to question authority.


While presenting specific examples, the paper will illustrate some of the underlying principles that guided early modern translators from Tyndale to the King James Bible. While learned translators did their utmost to engage with ancient Hebrew and Greek, the Vulgate continued to serve as a cardinal mediating text. The Scriptures were habitually read back, starting from the New Testament and reading the Hebrew Bible in the light of it (that is, following a theological rather than philological logic), which affected the translation. Textual tradition was increasingly important, which meant that key English versions (including the King James Bible) were first and foremost revisions.


Naomi Tadmor was educated at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Cambridge. She taught at the Hebrew University and the Universities of Cambridge and Sussex. In 2009 she was a visiting Professor and Lady Davis Fellow at the Departments of History and Bible in the Hebrew University. She was appointed in 2010 as Professor of History at Lancaster University. She has published on the history of the family and the history of reading in early modern England. Her new book, The Social Universe of the English Bible: Scripture, Society and Culture in Early Modern England, was published in 2010 by Cambridge University Press.

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