Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 29, 2004
Bible's roots take a lot of digging
God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson. Harper-Collins Publishers, 2003. 243 pages.
Review by DEAN SARNECKI
Special to the WCR
Where did the Bible come from? I regularly encounter people who do not have the slightest idea of how the Bible came to be. It appears that many believe the Bible just "appeared" as God's word and in English! And of course God speaks using a Shakespearean vocabulary!
The process and history of biblical translation is actually a story of the development of language and printing, far more complex than it would seem to us today. As English and other European languages developed and evolved, the Scriptures remained in Latin for the Roman Catholic Church into the 16th century. Early attempts at a translation were made by John Wycliffe in the late 14th century, but it was not until 1530 that a full version of a printed Bible was available in English.
Of all the translations, the King James Version of the Bible is probably the most famous in the English language. In God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, Adam Nicolson, a journalist and writer, describes the history and background of the King James Bible and the difficult task of translating the Greek New Testament and Hebrew Old Testament from the original languages. In the process, he provides insights into the characters who did the translations and the tumultuous times in which the undertaking was accomplished.
The Elizabethan era in England had ended and the Jacobean was beginning. King James of Scotland was called forth to unite the kingdoms of Scotland and England upon the death of his cousin Elizabeth. This was a time of unprecedented unrest, of political, economic and social change. Combining this with religious reformation was like lighting a fuse to powder keg.
James, whose mother was Catholic, was raised by Puritans in a Presbyterian Scotland, was called to rule an Anglican country with a strong Puritan influence and, on the other side of the Christian spectrum, Catholics trying to return England to the Roman Church.
James, probably one of the better educated and enlightened rulers of the time, tried to follow a middle ground. He attempted to unify the country by creating a translation of the Bible that would act as a rallying point for the austerity and biblical accuracy of the Puritans and still provide the majesty and ceremonialism of the Anglicans and Catholics. At the same time, it would emphasize the unification of the political and religious establishment of the period.
If Nicolson is accurate in describing the problems and people of the day, it was a staggering undertaking to translate this version of the Bible. The logistics alone of hiring and orchestrating 50 academics of impeccable scholarship and the "right" religious leanings, not too puritanical in their beliefs but definitely not Catholic sympathizers, was difficult enough. Combine this with people of ambition and agendas, and it is amazing that the project was completed.
Nicolson essentially strings together a series of brief biographies, interesting vignettes, and a history of the development of the English language into the story of the making of the King James Version. The biographies are interesting and insightful in many cases.
Many of the translators lived lives less virtuous than others. Some were downright scoundrels. Others were quintessential saints. Many were interested out of religious faith and belief but some were in it for the money and publicity.
It is interesting to learn of the issues involved in translation. The politics of words such as congregation verses, Church or elder verses had important, yet delicate nuances that reflected the belief system of the translator involved. The choice would ultimately affect the English nation and Anglican Church.
The book is not always an easy read. The author uses a considerably large number of quotes from 17th century writers often leaving one with the impression they are back in high school struggling through a Shakespearean tragedy (or comedy!). A few quotes were never deciphered.
Nicolson also tends to stray off topic and then suddenly returns to an idea, which leaves the reader befuddled. It was as if the story of biblical translation was just a common thread for a series of interesting antidotes of people and events of the early 1600s.
Nicolson evaluates the work of the translators and the committee that formed in a less than stellar sense: "Committees thrive on compromise and compromise produces fudge and muddle." Yet, he suggests that the product of this committee produced one of the greatest works in the English language; a book that places the word of God into the language of English like no other work will ever match.
(Dean Sarnecki teaches the Bible wherever he can and lives in Sherwood Park.)