Ruth as deserving stranger

A case study of translation serving ideology in Reformation Europe

Paper to be presented at the Sixteenth Century Society Conference in Bruges, 18-20 August, 2016; session 244, “The Vagaries of Translation in the Early Modern World”
(chaired by Paul Arblaster).

Did sixteenth-century bible translation and commentary contribute to debate about social issues? What differences occur between vernacular and Latin translations of the Bible, and what is their significance?

Reading the biblical book of Ruth, sixteenth-century commentators address the protagonist’s question, why Boaz has helped her—a foreign woman (Hebrew: nokriyyah). They frame answers by locating her as both biblical and contemporary stranger. Analysing Ruth’s actions, they then apply their conclusions to tell their contemporaries who may (expect to) be helped, how and why. Some focus more on the world of the narrative, others on the world of their audience; but Ruth is consistently situated as a model stranger, in dialogue with Abraham and pentateuchal legislation.

This mode of reading Ruth relies upon a prior hermeneutical step, prevalent in vernacular bibles: the standardisation of Hebrew ‘others’. Situated in a nexus of homogenized ‘stranger’ texts, Ruth could be exploited to encourage and support emergent ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor.

Comparing contemporaneous vernacular and Latin versions of the Bible, studying commentaries from different reformation parties, and drawing widely on historiography about managing poverty, migration and exile in Reformation Europe, this paper investigates how Ruth became a vehicle for competing ideologies and an embodiment of the deserving stranger. Commentators featured include Lutheran scholar Johann Brenz, Zurich pastor Ludwig Lavater (with Ephraim Pagitt’s near-contemporary translation), Flemish exegete Johannes van den Driesche, and English preacher Edward Topsell (better known for his bestiary).

The first fruits of the Linguistic DNA project provide additional semantic contextualisation.

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