Customer Review

73 of 73 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Middle-brow history of a working committee, May 28, 2007
This review is from: God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (Paperback)
As always, visiting and reading the words of the previous 63 reviews has proved to be enlightening and useful. Because of certain comments and objections offered in the past, it seems to me that I should begin with statements of what this book is NOT:

--This book is not an advocate of any particular religious issue, sect or cause.

--This book is not a Bible study or, indeed, any sort of religious study guide. Those seeking an exposition of religious truth should turn away right now. This is not for you.

--This book is not an academic text, being largely free of any formal thesis and paying no particular homage to whatever Theory happens to be on the academic boil these days. Academic drudges burrowing for material with which to footnote their footnotes will be wasting their time here in a manner even more dramatically pointless than usual.

--This book is not a self-consciously designed "easy read" written in words and phrases suitable for the comprehension of fourth graders. This author occasionally dares to quote people who lived four hundred years ago in their own words, styles and spellings. Consider this passage: "I am persuaded his Royall mynde reioyceth more with good hope, wch he hathe for happy successe of that worke [the new Bible], then of his peace concluded with Spayne." [Page 65-66 of the hardcover edition] If that taxes your reading skills to the breaking point, seek enlightenment elsewhere.

This book does provide an overview--or perhaps more accurately, a sketch of religion and politics in 17th century England. In many ways, the two words were alternate terms for the same phenomenon, much as they are in Baghdad today. (A single generation after this translation of the Bible was made, the intertwining of religion and politics would become almost as deadly as it is in Baghdad today.)

The book offers thumbnail biographies--and in a few cases, somewhat more than that--of the fifty or so grave and learned scholars tasked with preparing the translation. In so far as the records survive, it outlines their organization and their contributions--for even in those long-ago days there were bosses and drudges.

Finally, the book deals with the majestic 17th century translation of the Bible as a literary entity. Here, at last, Adam Nicolson becomes an advocate. While acknowledging that scholarship and learning have made advances in the three centuries since the translation was made, he argues forcefully that no English translation made before or since has matched the King James Version in effectiveness, directness, power and sublimity.

Nicolson is such an advocate of the grand style of the KJV that it affects his own writing style. He does not emulate the actual style of the Bible--a thing, he makes clear, that was deliberately chosen and already noticeably archaic in the early 17th century, but he is much more orotund than is common in our piping times. He models his prose more on Gibbon or Macaulay than, say, Hemingway.

Consider the author's handling of a meeting at Hampton Court that involved the newly crowned King James, some gorgeously bedecked senior bishops of the Church of England and four black-clad Puritan ministers. All were assembled to bring sweet harmony to the land under a King who liked to think of himself as a peacemaker--and who sometimes was. That, of course, turned out to be a flat failure, but one of the Puritans, John Reynolds, almost casually remarked that the ministers he represented would like to have "one only translation of ye Bible to be authenticall and read in ye churche." Richard Bancroft, the Bishop of London (who a few years earlier had taken up a pike among his own armed guards to repulse the Earl of Essex's ragtag rebellion and who would soon become Archbishop of Canterbury) sneered at that, saying "If every man's humour might be followed, there would be no end of translating."

To everyone's surprise, the King commanded that a translation be made. In Adam Nicolson's long-breathed, parentheses-strewn, semi-colon-laden words, it was a "translation that was to be uniform (in other words with no contentious Geneva-style interpretations set alongside or within the text); with the learned authority of Oxford and Cambridge (which, at least in their upper echelons, were profoundly conservative institutions ...); to be revised by the bishops (the very influence that Reynolds did not want); then given, for goodness' sake, to the Privy Council, in effect a central censorship committee with which the government would see that its stamp was on the text, no deviation or subversion allowed; and finally to James himself, whose hostility to any whiff of radicalism ... had been clear enough. And this ferociously episcopal and monarchist Bible was to be the only translation to be read in church: `no other'." [Page 60.]

It must be pointed out, however, that Nicolson's prose does not always march to the solemn beat of the kettledrums ("for goodness' sake"), but sometimes dances to a merrier piper: "For these Puritans, and in a way we can scarcely understand now, the words of the scriptures were thought to provide a direct, almost intravenous access to the divine." [Page 135]

This is a good, middleweight book that, so far as I can tell, does not push unduly beyond the bounds of the scanty evidence. It can be justly criticized for being as much a series of raconteurial anecdotes as a logically-structured book. Its underlying preference for style over content is, at the very least, open for debate.

Four stars--but well worth reading in any case.

A MINOR OBSERVATION:

Adam Nicolson is obviously an Englishman, but my American edition from HarperCollins consistently uses the typically North American term, "King James Version," rather than the English "Authorised Version." I therefore suspect that other Americanisms may also have been edited into the English text.
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