There are better books on the King James Version, there are better books on the rise of English Bibles, and there are better books on the technique of translation, but there is no better book that tells the behind-the-scenes story of the King James Bible than that of God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson. I took this book on vacation to browse through and couldn’t put it down.
What are your stories about the KJV? I grew up on a Scofield morocco leather Bible; its onion skin pages made its use for “sword drills” well-nigh useless. It was the Bible I memorized as a kid. I still enjoy its cadences. I’ve spent too much time in the original languages and in translation theory to think the KJV is for us today. Still, what do you think?
Nicolson’s prose sings like a siren and his knack for opening up the story within the facts unsurpassed. In brief, this is a book worth your time for a good read. It has led me to go back and read some of my KJV — which of course is not the original one but close enough.
While Alister McGrath’s book will be a more academic approach to the story of the King James Version (In the Beginning), Nicolson’s gets a good sampling of the facts as it explores the translators — 54 of them — and the committee work involved and the role King James himself played in the process. They were a motley bunch; some politics; some carping about money; some chance discoveries of notes taken during a final session (notes taken in Latin!); the dependencies of the translators on Tyndale, Coverdale, and the Bishop’s Bible; the continuing attraction of Puritans for the Geneva Bible; and Nicolson is nothing if not a huge fan of the KJV. He doesn’t fail to show how majestic the language is, which for me was his aesthetics and not an argument for a translation. But the story comes through and it is a good one.
An oddity of the KJV revolves around the tensions involved in the translation: the recent establishment of the Anglican Church as a Protestant Church over which now King James was the head, the lingering tension with the Roman Catholics — coming to a head in Guy Fawkes’ famous attempt to burn the place down where the translators were meeting — and the disgust the Established Church had with the radical Puritans who not only wanted the Reformation to become complete in England but who were also beginning to agitate for an entirely separate church. Many of the more radicals ended up on these shores and gave rise to a radical low church and locally autonomous form of church life. Those sorts had no use in England for King James’ attempt to construct a Bible that would express a mediating as well as a majestic translation.
The irony, of course, is that successors of the radical Puritans, who were scorned in the introduction to the original King James Bible, are the ones still intent on preserving the KJV as the best Bible for all time now and forever.