The early days of my doctoral research were quickly disrupted: I arrived in the Department of Biblical Studies just as the University announced its intent to close it. That step was forestalled, and I had a small role in shaping what became the new Sheffield Institute for Interdisciplinary Biblical Studies (SIIBS).
As a teenager, looking into possible degree courses, I made the error of thinking that “Biblical Studies” equated to “Bible Studies”. The equation was off-putting because I considered bible study to be a confessional practice, i.e. something that requires a prior conviction that this text is special, different and true. In choosing a Theology degree, I wanted space to ask questions about some of the things people around me took to be special, different and true. I imagined that a department of “Biblical Studies” would not offer that openness.
As an adult, I realised I had been mistaken. Taking “biblical” as the principal parameter for determining what would be studied, the founders of the Sheffield department had intended to provide a space where the Bible could be studied without a prior commitment to any theology. This created an environment in which young scholars were liberated to ask more radical questions about biblical texts, biblical history, biblical literature, and biblical exegesis. Written accounts of some of the Department’s history can be found in the celebratory volumes published at its 40th and 50th anniversaries.
At the start of my research, I imagined I would work on recent readings of the book of Ruth in the context of Jewish-Christian relations. In practice, my attentions were soon diverted to the history of English translations, provoked by an improbable but enduring feature in the text of Ruth 1:13. Little by little, I found myself engaged with analysis of early modern versions of the Ruth narrative, working to show that translation decisions (in English as in other languages) commonly reflected what the translator expected the text to say and the social mores of the period.
The course of my studies paralleled the emergence of a definitively interdisciplinary biblical studies at the University. My final thesis, Englishing the Bible in early modern Europe: The case of Ruth, was submitted in 2014 and examined by John Barton and Richard Rex just as SIIBS came into being.