Very little is known about the making of the King James Bible. Few primary sources remain to give a glimpse into the formation of one of the most famous pieces of prose in the English language. Adam Nicolson takes the ingenious approach of indirectly investigating the Bible through an exploration of the people, events, and society surrounding its formation. God’s Secretaries explains how a work so closely tied to a particular time and place can become a classic piece of literature.
England at the turn of the seventeenth century was at one of its greatest periods of flux. Queen Elizabeth’s reign had lasted for over forty years when, after her death in the spring of 1603, her nephew James Stuart, already King James VI of Scotland, ascended to the English throne as King James I. Nicolson takes care to emphasize the importance of such a transition: “A change of monarch in an age of personal rule meant not only a change of government and policy, but a change of culture, attitude, and belief. A new king meant a new world.” James’ vision for England was one of unity. The bringing together of opposites, which Nicolson dubs “jointness,” was one of the defining characteristics of the Jacobean era. He thought of himself as a Rex Pacificus, hoping to bring together the often unruly isles under one banner. James commissioned the new Bible as part of his greater unification project. The King James Bible was to be the official Bible of the new England: it was to be a complete expression of the age in both a political and aesthetic sense, something each English-speaking person could recognize as his or her own.
In Jacobean England, however, questions of aesthetics and politics were really questions of religion, and on that subject the county was deeply divided. The established Church of England was an almost opaque bureaucratic hierarchy of parishes, country priests, bishops, archbishops, and finally, the King himself as its head. The Church placed emphasis on the mystery it found inherent to the Christian religion, and expressed that mystery through symbols and ceremony. Its Bible, the Bishops’ Bible, contained no margin notes, whereas the Puritans’ Geneva Bible, was packed with multiple interpretations and possible readingson every page. To the Puritans an understanding of the written Word was of primary importance, as every member of the congregation was expected to read and interpret intelligently the sacred texts. The Puritan church eschewed ceremony of any kind and saw symbols as extraneous at best, blasphemous at worst. If the King James Bible were truly to be an everyman’s text, as Nicolson points out again and again, it would need to satisfy both of these competing religious views.
In an effort to do just that, James assembled the finest theological scholars from both sides to undertake the translation. Although nearly half of the more than fifty translators were Puritans, all were moderates. James excluded the extremist Puritans who wished to dismantle the Church of England in favor of a Presbyterian system like the one in Scotland. Nicolson’s approach to explaining the history of the King James Bible through an examination of the characters and situations surrounding its conception is successful in explaining why James takes this particular course of action. Nicolson had previously described James’ rule in Scotland before Elizabeth’s death as particularly difficult precisely because of Presbyterianism’s refusal to recognize the divine power of the king. It is no surprise to the reader, then, when James sharply refutes the lead Puritan translator upon hearing suggestions that he limit the power of bishops: “`No bishops,’” [James] told Reynolds [a notable Puritan translator], “’no King.’” Nicolson does not underplay the importance of the Puritan influence on the Bible. He does, however, suggest that the project’s primary political purpose was to strengthen unity under James’ supreme authority. As a result James most often sided with the bishops. In 1611 the King James Bible was printed without marginal notes, much to the dismay of Reynolds and his Puritan colleagues.
Even so, the actual process of translation was highly collaborative. Nicolson gives a detailed account of how the scholars were divided into several groups, each group responsible for several books. Each scholar would work on a small section by himself, and present his work to the group. The entire counsel would then debate on the merits or failings of the proposed changes. Nicolson describes the process as long, arduous, and, above all, confusing. The translators were primarily working from a translation by the Protestant martyr William Tyndale. He completed his translation while on the run from the Catholics, and even though it was a colossal solo achievement to produce a Bible at all, there were many errors. The translators would next turn to the original Greek texts. But even these were problematic. To Nicolson, “the standard of scholarship among Christ’s disciples was despicable.” This begs a disturbing but inescapable question: what validity can a religious text have if the accuracy of its contents is called into question? What if the disciples had misunderstood, mistaken, or misconstrued God’s word? Nicolson does not tackle the problem himself. A good historian, he is content to reserve judgment and explore how the translators themselves handled the dilemma.
The answer lay in the translators’ relationship to the task. They could not get it wrong because they were not actually writing it: Nicolson points out that, “There is no authorship here. Authorship is egotistical, an assumption that you might have something worth saying. You don’t…For this reason biblical translation, like royal service, could only be utterly faithful.” The translators were not concerned about religious validity. They all believed the texts they were working from were valid; they just wanted to know which were best, which were most exact.
But being exact was not enough: it had to be artistic as well. Nicolson rests his argument for the King James Bible as the greatest prose work in English on this point. To him it is the perfect Jacobean work, both exact and majestic. He cites T.S. Eliot among the bible’s admirers: to Eliot it had “that auditory imagination…feeling for syllable and rhythm, penetrating far below the conscious levels of thought and feeling invigorating every word.” The King James Bible, because it presents the contending forces of comprehensibility and rhetorical brilliance simultaneously in a distinct, uniquely Jacobean manner, heightens religious experience. Nicolson backs up this thesis by comparing passages in the King James Bible to the same passages in other translations. These comparisons are the most enjoyable sections of the book. The following passages are taken from the opening lines of Genesis. Next to the grandeur of The King James, the 1970 New World Bible is so bad it risks creating a nearly comic effect:
In the beginning God created the Heauen, and the Earth. And the earth was without forme, and voyd, and darkenesse was vpon the face of the deepe: and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters.
Now the Earth was formless and empty. Darkness was on the surface of the deep. God’s spirit was hovering over the surface of the waters.
Nicolson is a skillful reader and often is able to squeeze surprising and insightful results from the most minor words or phrases. Not only does he point out the obvious superiority of the King James’ imagery but explains how the extra “and”s and additional punctuation slow the reader to create an effect of measured majesty.
Upon publication the King James Bible was an enormous commercial flop. Its language was too highbrow and antiquated, even for the day, to become the English Bible of choice. It failed in its political function as well: the Rex Pacificus’s son led the country to civil war. But the King James Bible endures today because it was an artistic, and religious, success. The aesthetic genius is indisputable but the real miracle of the translation though, is the religious success:
In [one] sentence we can see the extraordinary phenomenon of the King James Bible conforming both to Protestant and to pre-Protestant ideas about the nature of Christianity. It is both clear and rich. It both makes an exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony.
The translators reconciled the opposing religious beliefs of the Puritans and Bishops into one text. The language is dense, mysterious, and awe inspiring, painting a picture of God as infinitely complex and incomprehensible. At the same time such language invites an almost limitless, active investigation and interpretation. Nicolson’s book is a success because he correctly ascertains the root of what makes The King James Bible an enduring classic: its affirmation of the elevating and universal power of language.