Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Two Good Books on the King James Bible

How did we get the King James Bible (as the Authorised Version is generally known outside of the United Kingdom)? While there are some who seem to think it was let down on a string from heaven, the real story is far more interesting. A number of books have been published detailing this history, but two excellent volumes are Benson Bobrick's The Making of the English Bible (London, Phoenix, 2003), and Adam Nicolson's God's Secretaries (New York, Harper Perennial, 2003). Bobrick's book, as the title indicates, covers a wider field than Nicolson, who concentrates entirely on the AV. Bobrick covers the history of the Bible in English from Wycliffe's Bible to the AV, including the Jesuit Douay-Rheims Bible. This is a helpful treatment, as it is well known that the King James translators did not issue an entirely new translation, but drew on the existing translations, even the Douay-Rheims in places, although of course the Douay-Rheims is translated (barely) from the Latin Vulgate. On this subject, Bobrick notes how the Douay-Rheims translators were forced to retain at least 99 Latin words (P. 194), thus having "dominator" for 'sovereign' and "rationale" for 'breast-plate'. Thus Bobrick gives the 'pedigree' of the King James as well as the history of its actual making.

Nicolson, on the other hand, gives what he professes to, the story of "The making of the King James Bible." His English prose is excellent, probably influenced by the AV, and he is a professed admirer of the AV. What he gives is the political, religious and social background to the King James Bible, in glorious detail. We have potted biographies of the more exciting translators, such as the incomparable Lancelot Andrewes and the amazingly gifted Hadrian รก Saravia, half-Dutch, half-Spanish, of whom it was said that he could be translator-general on the Judgement Day. Their faults are not ignored, but nor are their excellencies and abilities. King James Only folks may be a little uncomfortable when they learn that the translation committee of the King James was made up entirely of Calvinists and Anglo-Catholics. Thus those who were not Calvinist were Anglo-Catholic, and those who were not Anglo-Catholic were Calvinists. Bishop Miles Smith (yes, seven of the King James translators were Anglican Bishops), a strict Calvinist, once left a boring sermon to go to the pub. It was probably a very bad sermon, and an hour or so down the pub with Miles Smith was undoubtedly a time of edifying conversation.

We meet here King James, a deeply insecure man (the natural result of his mother and her lover having had his father blown up, and his then being raised by a committee of Presbyterian ministers) who wanted to unite England and Scotland politically and economically - the first modern scheme for a single currency, perhaps? There were questions asked about his 'Union' currency as well. James also fancied himself as a theologian, and it was this that led to the Hampton Court Conference, at which the plan for the AV was adopted.

In his treatment of the English Bible after the AV, Nicolson notes the failure of three subsequent English versions. The first is the rather funny 18th century version by Edward Harwood. Those interested in why it failed can read it here. Second is the Revised Version, which was accused by one of its own committee members of "impoverishing the English language". It also, Nicolson points out, was written in cod-Jacobean prose, a further barrier to its being an improvement on the AV, at least stylistically, especially as it actually introduced a number of archaic words the were not in the King James! Then he deals with the New English Bible, which had a combination of the problems of Harwood with vulgarity and flatness of prose.

These books are both excellently researched, and will enlighten the reader as to how we got the King James Bible, and why it reads as it does in places. Neither is written by an Evangelical Christian, and Bobrick in particular sounds rather liberal in places. The Christian will note those places and ignore them.

A book by a Reformed Christian on the subject is Alister McGrath's In the Beginning. Undoubtedly this is a well-written and researched book, but I haven't read it, so I won't comment on it until I have.


The Puritan said...

I saw Nicolson give a talk when his book came out (on C-SPAN over here, a public cable network that covers government but also has a major interest in books and authors). My impression of him was strong at the time but why is vague now. I vaguely recall he was rather direct about saying he was not a believer.

Just found this short review which says what I remember about the author:

Highland Host said...

No, Nicolson's one of these 'Spiritual but not religious' types. Good writer, though, it's a pity he isn't a Christian.

waldensis said...


If our Covenant God wanted him to be a Christian, he would be one!

Ransom said...

I have McGrath's book and can recommend it. He (like your two authors) discusses the historical and political context leading to the KJV's creation, as well as its subsequent influence on language and literature.

Nicholson's work is on my acquisitions list, but so far I have not had a chance to buy or read it. Good to see my money wouldn't be thrown away!