Q&A with UTP Author Mo Pareles

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Drawing on a wide range of Old English literary and religious texts, Nothing Pure explores the cultural translation of Jewish law in pre-Conquest England. Read the full blog post by author Mo Pareles:

Tell us about when the idea for writing this book first came to fruition. Is there a story behind it? How did this topic get fleshed out?

Yes! Nothing Pure, which is about the strange life of Hebrew Bible translation in Old English, grew out of a question I had about tattoos. In my second year of graduate school, I was thinking of a relationship between tattoos and Bible translation as related technologies, an idea I later discarded. I wondered how the Levitical prohibition against tattooing was translated into Old English. I ended up finding out that this verse wasn’t in the Old English Leviticus. It was missing! I was at a conference, and Ben Saltzman, then a grad student (he is now a professor at the University of Chicago and has read many drafts of my work), was sitting right there with me – he will remember me screaming.

And I ended up writing my dissertation about why certain Hebrew Biblical laws that maintained their relevance in medieval English Christianity were not translated into Old English Bibles, while other laws (like sacrificial law) were translated. I had been reading the 1941 Yiddish New Testament for another project, and became convinced that the key was a concept I began to call supersessionary translation, a translation strategy that communicates that the Jewish source text has been relegated to the past of a current Christianity and must not be taken fully at face value. The verse about tattooing faded into the background, but the research I did on the Old English Leviticus and what I came to call the “exsanguinary” style of translating blood prohibitions and sacrifice law became the first chapter of Nothing Pure. And eventually the book itself became an exploration of this larger concept of supersessionary translation and how it served various political projects in a crucial period of early English national formation.

Tell us about the research process for this book. Was there something in your research that surprised you?

There was a lot of archival research at the beginning, and then again toward the middle. I spent a long time with the so-called Old English Heptateuch (Oxford, Bodleian, MS Misc 509). It is a small but heavy, unadorned book with thick parchment pages that are mesmerizing to touch because you know people have been touching them for a thousand years. Bodleian Misc 509 began to feel very familiar, a kind of friend. At the same time, I was aware that this manuscript was never intended for a Jewish person to touch, although it is itself a translation of a Hebrew Bible. So there is a strange thrill in that friendship.

I visited manuscripts at the British Library, at Oxford and Cambridge University libraries, at the Morgan Library in New York City, and at the Bibliothèque Royale de Belgique in Brussels, where I spent a single afternoon and did nothing else but buy some chocolates in the train station. I also went to the Durham Cathedral Library, which used to be a monastic dormitory, to look at some fragments in Durham Cathedral Library, MS C. IV. 7. These were not what I expected. They are two nonconsecutive leaves of Leviticus that have been taken, perhaps somewhat at random, from a Latin Leviticus manuscript that we no longer have, and used casually as wrapping paper for what seems to be a more valued Boethius manuscript. They consist respectively of Leviticus 14:46-15:16 (on purification around leprosy and semen) and 26:5-28 (God’s promises and curses dependent on God’s fidelity), which completely unrelatedly is a passage that Wulfstan will both plagiarize in Latin and translate into English a couple of centuries later. What happened to the rest of this manuscript – and why monks felt able to treat Biblical matter so casually – is absolutely confounding.

What was the most challenging aspect of this project?

I wrote this book over a long period and a lot of things – practically everything significant in my life and many significant things in the field and the world – happened during that period. So I’ve worked on it in many moods and many different apartments, libraries, offices, planes, trains, buses, airports, coffee shops, and most memorably for several months in COVID lockdown, where I used my living room as an office while homeschooling my kindergartener and sharing one computer, because the other one had broken down, with my spouse who was also working from home. Lots of people have some version of that story. And I kept having to pause to attend to different things or to cope with events, which I mostly do by reading frenetically for pleasure or in adjacent fields. And the more I read, the more I thought differently about everything I had written and started to alter it. As a result of this temporal dilation and the work of life, I kept returning to the book with changed views and different understandings, and I rewrote most of it dozens of times. That’s for the best. I could not have written this particular book before the publication of Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages or Roland Betancourt’s Byzantine Intersectionality (in 2018 and 2020 respectively), or of other books in critical premodern race theory, Jewish studies, and medieval studies that have appeared recently. Certainly not before coming to UBC, where conversations with colleagues have completely changed my critical frames and my work patterns. And it’s very difficult to finish a long-term project because you know your thinking will continue to mature – you never want to say the last word.

What do you hope readers will take away from reading Nothing Pure?

I hope my medievalist readers will find exciting provocation in these early English Biblical translations sometimes described as staid, boring, and depoliticized – or on the other hand as liberatory and proto-liberal – which the book reveals to be anything but. In fact, Old English Bible translation is a crucial vehicle for all kinds of early English political projects: Nothing Pure demonstrates that Ælfric and other English Benedictines translate the Hebrew Bible strategically to portray monasticism as a “queer” alternative to the secular family, that Ælfric develops a political theology and a technical vocabulary for power that make chastity the sign of a righteous sovereign, and that Wulfstan turns Biblical images of slavery, humiliation, and abasement into justification for ecclesiastical political rule. In their particular method, which I call supersessionary translation, Jewish law is a figure for legal authority itself and also an object for Christian mercy and contempt, as well as a vehicle for these locally specific power moves.

I hope that when other scholars look at the crucial role of Bible translation and the use of Biblical voice in later European national and colonial projects, for instance Brexit and Christian Zionism, they will think about the idea of supersessionary translation that I pose in this book.

Where will your research and writing take you next?

My research for Nothing Pure draws a connection between early English theological anti-Semitism and the history of European racism, anti-Semitism, and Islamophobia. So I am continuing to think about translation, temporality, and the abjection of religious minorities in European national projects since the eleventh century. I’m doing a project on animal and infantile temporalities in the Christian Middle Ages, which I published an initial chapter of as “Already/Never: Jewish-Porcine Conversion in the Middle English Children of the Oven Miracle.” I’ve written a bit about The Siege of Jerusalem recently and I am thinking more about this text in connection to messianic temporality and the literary history of Christian Zionism. I’ve also become interested in interfaith encounters in historical fiction and in the recovery of Jewish-Muslim cultural work.

Learn more about Nothing Pure by Mo Pareles, here.


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