God’s Secretaries, The Making of the King James Bible

By Adam Nicolson
HarperCollins Inc.: 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022.
2003. xiv, 281 pp., $24.95. ISBN 0-06-018516-3

Having read Nicolson’s reconstruction of the era that produced the KJV, one might well have expected his subtitle to be “The Miracle of the King James Bible.” In this retelling he includes the significant additional light that the 1955 discovery of three long-hidden manuscripts provides for the process of the KJV’s development. For prior to these, after an initial flurry of documents, there had been a lack of data almost until the final printed volume appeared in 1611. All previous accounts of the KJV’s making suffered this handicap. Once the king had decided a revision of the Bible should happen, and once he, with Bancroft, drew up the Rules, and once the Translators were chosen, the entire process virtually dropped from view.

But now, with the discoveries of a California scholar, E. E. Willoughby, scholars have three very significant additional documents to fill in the some of the blanks. The first is a vellum-hound hook of 125 pages which brings us as near as any of us will ever come to a portion of the KJV manuscript. The second is a letter requesting the return of such a manuscript book when it was needed for the final editing process. The third is a record of a scholar in the very process of translating. It was an edition of the Bishops Bible on which the King’s and Bancroft's Rules required the translators to base their own. What no one realized at the time it was acquired by the Bodleian Library in 1646, or for another three centuries, was that this Bible was not only an account of the alterations made, it was an instrument in the translation itself.

The author sets the origin and the process of the KJV’s making in its wider context in which a stream of complex currents flowed across Jacobean England. This was the England of Shakespeare, the failed Gunpowder Plot, the worst outbreak of the plague England had ever seen, its toxic slums, and above all this England was both “more godly and less godly than it had ever been, and the entire culture was drawn taut between the po1arities.”

This was the world that created the KJV, the work unabashedly considered the greatest work of English prose ever written. The sponsor and guide of the whole project was the King himself, the brilliant, ugly, and profoundly peace-loving James the Sixth of Scotland and the First of England. Trained virtually from birth to manage the rivalries of political factions a home, James saw in England the chance for a sort of irenic Eden over which the new translation was to preside.

That the Bible be a fruit of GODS SECRETARIES demonstrates that there is no authorship involved here, for authorship is egotistical. Every iota of the Bible counts but without it we count for nothing. For this reason, Biblical translation could only be utterly faithful. And for this it must he majestic: that is why there is here so ruthless a critique a so-called modern translation, e.g. the New English Bible.

This in spite of the fact that all copies of the 1611 Bible are riddled with mistakes. The translators had intended that any word inserted to improve the sense should he printed in a different typeface but, in fact, that principle became confused early on so that if a word was in italics there is no telling if it is in the original language or not. Marginal references to other parts of the Bible are highly inaccurate and references are made to the numbering system used in the Vulgate and not that used in the KJV itself. “The curious fact is that no one such thing as ‘The King James Bible’ —agreed, consistent, and whole — has ever existed.”

These seeming contradictions in a Bible version that “is an organism that absorbed arid integrated difference that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace. It is the central mechanism of the translation, one of immense lexical subtlety, a deliberate carrying of multiple meanings beneath the surface at a single text. This single rule lies behind the feeling which the King James Bible has always given its readers that the words are somehow extraordinarily freighted, with a richness which few other texts have ever equaled.”

The non-British readers of this book may need to adjust to a very elaborate style and to words which are at times foreign to his/her understanding but what is learned is rich and substantial. Nicolson has been both a publisher and a travel writer and is the author of many award-winning hooks. He lives on a farm with his family near Burwash, England.

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