Nicholson: God’s Secretaries

November 17, 2011

God’s Secretaries
The Making of the King James Bible

Adam Nicholson
(HarperCollins, 2003)
281 p.

To write a history of the making of the King James Bible seems an inherently interesting project, and it is easy to see both why an author would be drawn to the topic and why a major publishing house would agree to take it on. But even the best laid plans sometimes go astray. A literary history of this sort must rely heavily on surviving documentary evidence, and, much to my surprise (and, I have the feeling, much to the surprise of the author and his publishers), very little survives to document the making of this most famous of all English books: an initial commission in 1605, a few lists of translators — for many of whom we know only their names — and a couple of letters are almost all that we have to consult until 1611, when the Bible was in preparation for printing.

Under these straitened circumstances, Adam Nicholson has borne up manfully, producing an enjoyable account of the process of translation (insofar as it can be discerned) and filling out the background with historical context and biographical information about a few of the more prominent translators. Translation of the King James Version was delegated to many different men, with final editorial decisions assigned to a committee. Committees are, generally speaking, not noted for the stellar quality of the work they produce, but this particular committee was obviously a happy exception.

The KJV is based substantially on previous English translations: the Matthew, Coverdale, Whitchurch, Geneva, Douay-Rheims (against the King’s explicit instructions), and, especially, Tyndale translations. I was surprised to learn that over 80% of the King James Version’s New Testament is identical to the Tyndale translation. The changes introduced by James’ men are therefore few, but judicious, and often made with an ear to the music of the language. For example, consider this short passage from Tyndale’s version:

This is my commaundement, that ye loue togedder as I haue loued you. Gretter loue then this hath no man, then that a man bestowe his lyfe for his frendes.

The King James Version follows the basic structure, but sculpts the rhythms to produce the more memorable rendering that we know and love:

This is my Commaundement, that ye loue one another, as I haue loued you. Greater loue hath no man then this, that a man lay downe his life for his friends.

Nicholson remarks that the robust musical nature of the language of the King James Bible was something that the translators intentionally cultivated. We know, from a surviving description, that the final editorial committee sat around a table and simply listened as the text was read. Changes were often recommended on the basis of the sound of the words. It is also worth noting, in view of contemporary debates about the value of “ordinary language” in Scripture and liturgy, that the King James Version was not written in the “ordinary language” of its time: at initial publication people already commented that it sounded archaic and formal. This formality was sought as a way of heightening the majesty and magnificence of the text. Nicholson argues that our modern preference for the plain-spoken creates a problem when it begins to affect Scripture:

The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires.

I won’t belabour the point right now; friends will know that I am sympathetic to this point of view. The King James Version, whatever its problems may be, stands as a lasting reminder of the glory that results when we give our highest and best in the service of that which is highest and best.

I will close with two minor remarks. Nicholson states in passing the motto of Elizabeth I: Semper edeam. Always the same. I smiled at that; it is hard to imagine any contemporary political leader in the West adopting such a motto for themselves. Barack Obama, especially, has some claim to being the anti-Elizabeth in this respect.

Second, I was amused by Nicholson’s statement that a distinctive mark of the modern world is “a sense that the world now has fallen away from the more perfect state in which it once existed”. This, of course, was the medieval view, and is almost the opposite of the modern. It is hard to conceive why anyone would say such a thing (unless, perhaps, he simply meant to express his belief that the past, because it contained more documentary evidence about the production of the King James Bible, was, in that limited sense, more perfect than the present; if so, I am willing to concede the point.)

***

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible, and quite a lot of ink has been spilled to mark the occasion. A couple of interesting links:

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2 Responses to “Nicholson: God’s Secretaries”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    The early Anglican church placed great value on access to scripture. It comes from the Protestant tradition, but the almost sacramental nature reading scripture was distinctively Anglican—as one can gather from this famous (and well-crafted) early sermon. At any rate, we probably have this spirituality to thank for the KJV.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that, Adam. I’ll read the sermon when I have some time.

    Most of the tributes to the KJV that I have read stress the literary angle. This is not wholly inappropriate, but it is possibly a dodge. You are right to remind us that the motive behind the KJV was not to create a literary masterpiece, but to promote knowledge of God.


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