When God Spoke English: The Making of the King James Bible

by Adam Nicolson

Paperback, 2011



Call number



Harper Press (2011), 280 pages


"A net of complex currents flowed across Jacobean England. This was the England of Shakespeare, Jonson and Bacon; of the Gunpowder Plot; the worst outbreak of the plague England had ever seen; Arcadian landscapes; murderous, toxic slums; and, above all, of sometimes overwhelming religious passion. Jacobean England was both more godly and less godly than it had ever been, and the entire culture was drawn taut between the polarities." "This was the world that created the King James Bible. It is the greatest work of English prose ever written, and it is no coincidence that the translation was made at the moment "Englishness" and the English language had come into its first passionate maturity. Boisterous, elegant, subtle, majestic, finely nuanced, sonorous and musical, the English of Jacobean England has a more encompassing idea of its own reach and scope than any before or since. It is a form of the language that drips with potency and sensitivity. The age, with all its conflicts, explains the book." "The sponsor and guide of the whole Bible project was the King himself, the brilliant, ugly and profoundly peace-loving James the Sixth of Scotland and First of England. Trained almost from birth to manage the rivalries of political factions at home, James saw in England the chance for a sort of irenic Eden over which the new translation of the Bible was to preside. It was to be a Bible for everyone, and as God's lieutenant on earth, he would use it to unify his kingdom. The dream of Jacobean peace, guaranteed by an elision of royal power and divine glory, lies behind a Bible of extraordinary grace and everlasting literary power." "About fifty scholars from Cambridge, Oxford and London did the work, drawing on many previous versions, and created a text which, for all its failings, has never been equaled. That is the central question of this book: How did this group of near-anonymous divines, muddled, drunk, self-serving, ambitious, ruthless, obsequious, pedantic and flawed as they were, manage to bring off this astonishing translation? How did such ordinary men make such extraordinary prose? In God's Secretaries, Adam Nicolson gives a fascinating and dramatic account of the accession and ambition of the first Stuart king; of the scholars who labored for seven years to create his Bible; of the influences that shaped their work and of the beliefs that colored their world, immersing us in an age whose greatest monument is not a painting or a building, but a book."--Jacket.… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member cbl_tn
I wrote my first research paper in high school on the translation of the King James Version of the Bible, and how I wish this book had been around then! Nicolson places the KJV in its political and cultural context. The companies of translators brought together scholars and clergy on both sides of
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the Puritan divide. Not much is known about some of the translators, and others led less than exemplary lives by modern standards, yet the translation they produced transcends their human failures.

Appendices include a brief history of the 16th century English translations, which the King James translators were directed to consult during the translation process; a list of the translators in each of the six companies with as much biographical information as is known about them; a chronology of the translation juxtaposed with significant events in English history; and a selected bibliography. I hadn't thought about the significant historical events that took place while the translators were doing their work, and that tangentially involved some of the translators – the Gunpowder Plot, the settlement in Jamestown, and the persecution of Separatists in Scrooby that drove them to the Netherlands and eventually to the New World on the Mayflower. The 400th anniversary of the KJV has resulted in the publication of several books on the topic. Although Nicolson's book has been out for a few years, it's a good starting point for readers interested in the history of this influential translation.
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LibraryThing member Jared_Runck
I must confess: A saint in church loaned this book to me months ago; it has been sitting on my shelf ignored. Until today when, on the most random of impulses (mainly guilt that I had kept the book so long), I picked it up to thumb through it as I'd done a couple times before. That was 10 am; I
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finished it just after 11 pm. Let me be clear: I. Could. Not. Stop. I can't tell you the last time that I completely ignored my "to-do" list and finished an ENTIRE book in a day.

Here's what I think was most amazing about Nicholson's achievement: He manages to tell the story of Jacobean England through the lens of the King James Bible while simultaneously telling the story of the King James Bible through the lens of Jacobean England. (If that sentence sounds like a tautology, read the section where he compares Hatfield House with the KJV and you'll see what I mean.)

Perhaps most intriguing to me is that I didn't find out until the very final pages of the very last chapter Nicholson's religious leanings which were quite cleverly summarized: " I'm no atheist, but I'm no churchgoer either." I suspected as much; however, that makes this work even more intriguing because of his very evident awe of this translation. This book is a testament to the KJV's cultural power as a shaper of English language and as an expression of English (e.g. British & American) culture.

I think the book's greatest strength is found in Nicholson's comparisons of the KJV with other translations (especially Tyndale's and the NEB). Though he only looks at snippets of text (at most 4-5 verses each), he has chosen well; the passage demonstrate that, in many important ways, the KJV could still claim to be a "superior" translation. In fact, Nicholson's distaste for modern translations I think plays no small part in his "non-churchgoer" status.

I am by no means a "KJV-only" radical...but neither have I ever desired to be seen as one who despises it. Nicholson's approach to the KJV mirrors my own; stunned admiration at its monumental achievement for its time dosed with the reality of its antiquarian nature. And, underneath it all, the yearning that, someday, perhaps we will reach another cultural nexus that will produce a work of the spiritual and cultural magnitude achieved in 1611.
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LibraryThing member DubiousDisciple
Here’s an odd book. It suffers from a little deficiency, through no fault of its own: the story it has to tell (how the King James Bible came into being) is simply not very interesting. Most of the contributors to the King James Bible were obscure, and the historical setting is equally dull.
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It’s wrought with typical corruption of court, power squabbles, and serious disagreements over doctrine. What else is new throughout the 1500 years since the Bible’s books were written? Even telling the story against a backdrop of the plague and the genius of Shakespeare can’t rescue its setting.

How could our Bible emerge from such a world? But out of this stagnation, through the unlikely cooperation of divergent men, arose a masterpiece. A work meant to be chanted in church, with a rich cadence and a majestic language. Quaint even in its own time, the KJV is nevertheless the language of God, properly aged, in His antiquity and mystery.

Never mind its inaccuracies, and how we have since uncovered more original scriptures to translate. Never mind that the authors have added and subtracted to enhance the beauty of the prose. The ear is the governing organ; if it sounds right, it is right. The end result does indeed rival Shakespeare in its beauty, producing by far the most quotable literary creation in history.

Pity it’s necessary to slog through the first 150 pages of Nicolson’s book in order to appreciate the miracle of the King James Bible, but it is necessary, because that is the story. Each member of the team was to translate all the chapters in his allotted section, alone, without conferring with others. Only then were they to meet together, discuss the text and decide on their final submission. Somehow, inexplicably, it all came together, and the final chapters of Nicolson’s book are glorious. And Nicolson’s rating? A three-star story miraculously transformed into a five-star miracle.
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LibraryThing member etxgardener
We are reading this book in my book group because 2011 is the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. I find Church history endlessly fascinating and this book by Adam Nicolson (grandson of Harold Nicolson & Vita Sackville-West) is no exception. Every page brings with plots,
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flattering courtiers and obstinate Puritan separatists.

King James, usually portrayed by history as a vain and obstinate ruler, comes across more sympathetically in the telling of this story with his desire to use the new translation of the Bible to bind the country - both Anglican and Puritan together with a new and majestic Bible. Of course, as anyone who knows English history will tell you, he didn't succeed. His committee of translators, however, produced a magnificent work that stands alongside Shakespeare as the foundation of English literature.

Today's religious fundamentalists who insist that the King James Version of the Bible is the inerrant word of God, will probably not like this book with it's story of many people tweaking the language of the holy book. For myself, however, I found it to be a fascinating story.
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LibraryThing member quicksiva
I just finished God's Secretaries: The making of the King James Bible , by Adam Nicholson. It is mostly about the key players in the first decade of the 17th Century. The book would have been a waste of $14.00 had it not been for one nugget of information. In the middle of a discussion on the Guy
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Fawkes plot, which he sees as a charade, designed to strengthen the king’s position, Nicholson launches into a sudden discussion of color symbolism in the court of King James. It’s almost as if he suspects the Guy Fawkes crew of being 17th Century Black Panthers.

“Blackness was well-established as a mark of vice", he says. But he gives no support for this observation.

At the very beginning of 1605, the queen had asked Ben Jonson to write a masque, an entertainment-cum-drama-cum-court ball, to be performed in Whitehall on Twelfth Night, and to be called The Masque of Blackness. The queen and ten of her beautiful young English aristocratic companions were to appear as blackamoors, an Aethiop Queen and the Daughters of Niger. Their azure and silver dresses designed by Inigo Jones, all lit by glimmering lantern light, were excitingly transparent, their breasts visible beneath the gauze, 'their hayre thicke, and curled upright in tresses, Iyke Pyramids'. The drama was arranged on 'an artificiall sea ... raysed with waves', which seemed to move, and in some places the billow seemed to break.”

Elsewhere we learn that
“The masque was controversial in its day, in part for the production's use of body paint instead of masks to simulate dark skin. One observer, Sir Dudley Carlteton, expressed a view tinged with the prevailing social biases of the era:
...instead of Vizzards, their Faces and Arms up to the Elbows, were painted black, which was a Disguise sufficient, for they were hard to be known...and you cannot imagine a more ugly sight....”
The masque was expensive, costing £3000, and caused consternation amongst some English observers due to the perceived impropriety of the performance. The King's open-handed attitude to royal display also partly accounts for the style of masque costumes because, although he did not perform in masques himself, lavish expenditure on his clothes set a precedent at court.

Nicholson says this about the plot:

“The whole story of the masque hinged on the expunging of an awful blackness. The Daughters of Niger, it was explained ¬as the queen and her 'black' ladies sat silent in a giant shell where lights shimmered on the upper rim - had always imagined they were beautiful until a poet had revealed to them that their blackness was ugly. Only a message from the Moon had showed them what they could do. If they travelled to a country whose name ended in '-tania', they would find a man 'who formes all beauty with his sight'. So far, they had trecked to Mauritania, Lusitania and Aquitania but to no avail. Now they had heard of a place called 'Britania', also known as 'Albion', which meant 'the white country' and which was

Rul'd by a Sunne, that to this height doth grace it:
Whose beames shine day and night, and are of force
To blanch an Aethiope, and revive a corse.” 107-8

In Nicholson’s words:
“England was the white country, the king a magical miracle worker, a source of light himself who could turn black into white, who could bring happiness and a kind of Protestant truth to the sad, blackened and benighted.”Nicholson,108.

"It was ridiculous, and certainly seemed ridiculous to the sceptical members of the audience at the time. After the show was over, and before the banquet - chaos: the tables collapsed under the weight of sugar-glazed syllabubs and lark-stuffed pasties ¬the Spanish Ambassador bent to kiss the hand of the queen and came away with a black smudge on his face and lips".

'Ridiculous but significant: black was what England was not and the most revealing aspect of the plot was the extent to which the darkness of its origins were exaggerated.'

And just as abruptly, he returns to discussing Guy Fawkes. Nicholson,108

IMHO, this passage is worth the cost of the book. Imagine, at the same time that King James and his boys were translating the Bible, the pregnant Queen and her posse were conducting themselves like a bunch of 17th century hootchee -mamas. . As another writer puts it, "The pregnant Queen not only performs in the masque, but she does so covered in black makeup, presumably making her appearance doubly shocking. Carleton's much-quoted verdict on the masque and its costumes in a letter to Ralph Winwood clearly registers disapproval of the black disguise. It seems remarkable that he doesn't specifically locate his sense of breached decorum in the fact that the blackened Queen was performing while visibly six months pregnant, but this knowledge may underlie his acerbic description of the masquers as "courtesanlike"; Carleton indicts the women as looking whorish, but uses a diplomatic verbal formulation necessitated by the Queen's status" (Andrea 266).
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LibraryThing member DrBrewhaha
The KJV came out of a complicated political and religious environment. The translators were fully enmeshed in that environment and often seemed to continuously take the low road. There efforts at translation were more guided by poetry than inspiration. In the end, they produced a version of the
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Bible that contains majestic, uplifting, and flowing language that has the ability to lift the spirt and excite the imagination more than most, if not all, subsequent translations.

Nicolson does a good job of introducing this world and the translators. At times, he definitely loses the read with all of the historical details related to time and place, but finishes very strongly during the last third of the book and makes a strong case for viewing the KJV, not as the most technically accurate translation of the Bible, but as the translation that is most able to lift each of us beyond this mortal realm.
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LibraryThing member ALincolnNut
The year 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the original publication of the King James version of the Bible. The remarkable achievement, almost universally considered a masterpiece of English language, was produced by a culture in the midst of political and religious transition. In particular, the
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shape of English Protestantism and its relationship to Roman Catholicism was in flux.

Adam Nicolson chronicles the great translation and its age in "God's Secretaries." Beginning with the breathless news delivered to King James VI of Scotland that he was now king of all England, Nicolson weaves a story of political intrigue surrounding the King James translation. King James himself, as part of his goal of unifying the kingdom, believed a great new translation of the Bible could foster such unity. The religious leaders charged with overseeing the translation saw an opportunity to reward friends, punish theological enemies, and consolidate their own power.

This contentious environment, however, fostered the creation of an astonishing masterpiece. Six groups of men formed companies responsible for translating different sections of the Bible. Representing the cream of the church and English college system, the translators represented a spectrum of theological beliefs, including moderate Puritanism. Indeed, the quality of the work contradicts the conventional wisdom about committees producing inferior thinking and products, which Nicolson credits both to the translators' diligence and insistence on reaching agreement.

Many of the discussions and drafts of the translating companies are lost to history. But the notes that survive, as well as the final text, point to a unique linguistic instinct which prized the seemingly contradictory aspects of precision, clarity, simplicity and majesty. "The language of the King James Bible is the language of Hatfield, of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good," writes Nicolson. In fact, the language of the King James translation is so unique that it exists fully only in itself: Nicolson argues that the English never really spoke their language the way it appears in the King James version, except in decades following when they consciously or unconsciously modeled their use of language on the tones and rhythms of the iconic translation.

In this book, Nicolson capably explores the context and the personalities behind the King James translation. Well written and consistently interesting, it offers a glimpse into English history at the beginning of the 17th century. Perhaps some will be disappointed that the work of translation is still shrouded in mystery, but even they will be impressed that Nicolson identifies and describes the human personalities that produced the text that almost seems to be the transcribed voice of God.
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LibraryThing member thorold
The compilation of the Authorised Version must have been one of the few thoroughly succesful government-sponsored IT projects ever. Completed on time and within budget, despite the fact that all the developers involved were clergymen and/or academics (unfortunately the project sponsor had spent the
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money on something else in the meantime...), run according to strict project-management principles that sound like PRINCE2 avant la lettre, and resulting in a product that became an industry standard internationally, with no serious competitor for over 350 years. Admittedly, initial acceptance of the product was slow, and some of the early versions did have serious bugs (the celebrated missing "not" in the 10 commandments), but that sort of thing is inevitable.

Nicolson gives us a very readable, if slightly gossipy account of the project and its background. He's rather limited in what he can do because most of the official documentation has been lost, and he obviously doesn't think his readers would be interested in technical discussions of Greek and Hebrew texts, so he tends to fall back a great deal on character sketches of the people involved, which can get a little wearing after a while. There's surprisingly little about the actual English of the translation, but the chapters where he does get into comparing the text of the AV with Tyndale and its other predecessors are some of the most rewarding parts of the book, and also the parts where Nicolson is most willing to intrude himself and give an opinion.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
Beautifully written and utterly absorbing!
This book tells of the commissioning, translation and publication of the landmark 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible (generally referred to as the King James Bible). This may sound a somewhat dry subject, unlikely to engage the general reader but that
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judgement couldn't be more wrong.
Arising out of the Hampton Court Conference in 1604 which attempted to achieve harmony between the variant forms of Protestantism then prevalent in the only-recently united realms of England and Scotland. As might have been readily predicted no such harmony emerged but King James was persuaded of the value of commissioning an official translation of the Bible, which would be accessible to as broad as possible a section of the population.
Teams of scholars from both Oxford and Cambridge Universities, augmented by ranks of academic clergymen, worked over the translation for seven years, producing what has since come to be immortalised as the King James Bible.
I had a particular interest in reading this book as the section of the Department for Education in England is currently engaged in a project to send a copy of the King James Bible to every state school in the country as part of the celebrations of the 400th anniversary of its publication. However, while I expected to find the book of vague work-related interest, I was amazed to find how gripping and enthralling the story was.
Nicolson gives a lucid and detailed account of the religious dissension holding sway across the country, and of the social and economic strife that was wreaking widespread havoc, yet he never loses the reader's interest.
This book achieved that rare treat of being both improving and entertaining.
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LibraryThing member PointedPundit
A Monumental Project Reveals an Age

It was to be the Bible for everyone. James, the sixth in Scotland and the first in England, viewed it as an opportunity to unify his kingdom.

To create this translation – a project many consider to be the greatest work of English prose – he assembled about 50
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scholars to do the work. Despite their individual failings – drink, ambition, self-promotion, obsequiousness, greed and pedantry—they labored together for seven years to give the first Stuart king his translation. It is a text, which for all of its failings, is without equal.

Its language drips with potency and sensitivity. The English language had just reached its age of maturity. This translation reflected the times – boisterous, subtle, majestic, nuisanced and musical. King James’ Bible reflects the Jacobean England. This book relates not only the translation’s tale, but also the England of Shakespeare, Bacon, the plague and the Gunpowder plot.

It is insightful read into the greatest monument of those times
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LibraryThing member hailelib
This book is a picture of English society during the reign of King James I of England (and VI of Scotland). While there is a great deal about the state of the Church of England, the various Protestant groups (especially the many varieties of Puritans), and the persecutions of any dissenters from
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majority opinion, mainly Nicholson tries to give us a snapshot of Jacobean society and how it informed the translation that eventually became the most accepted version of the Bible in England and North America. For anyone interested in Jacobean history or the history of the Bible as we have it today this is an interesting book. The author does include what is known about the translators and their methods and a bibliography for further reading.
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LibraryThing member Oreillynsf
I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining and detailed chronicle of the making of the KJV. beginning with a profile of the times, e book explains both the motivations, process, and people behind this remarkable book. Like any good narrative history, the book is ultimately about the people that made
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the work, but it spends a great deal of time discussing why the times and the political and religious climate were ideal for the making of this work. The stage setting added tremendously to the quality and readability of this book. Nicolson is clearly very passionate about his topic, and it shows in the great writing, organization, and description he provides.
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LibraryThing member TheLibraryhag
I found this a very accessible account of the creation of the King James Bible. It is very easy to understand the politics and the other considerations that went into this monumental project.
LibraryThing member RobertP
Another great book from Adam Nicolson. He gives not only a great piece of history, but he takes us into the heart of English Protestantism, and the heart of the Reformation in England. He also taught me quite a bit about my native language, to my benefit. Highly recommended.
LibraryThing member DivineMissW
I really enjoyed reading this book about the creation of the King James Bible. It is a good place to start if you are interested in this topic. As a Christian and as a history buff, I am very interested in the process used and men who were charged with this task. The book is very basic, not a lot
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of detail. Written in an interesting manner with little details that I later researched in depth.
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LibraryThing member Savagemalloy
Great insights in how the book was brought together and the culture of King James
LibraryThing member john257hopper
This is a very well written book, as befits the language of its subject, and it describes marvellously the atmosphere of England at a time of great change - the end of the Tudor/Elizabethan age and the birth of the Stuart/Jacobean age. It puts across very effectively the point that the Jacobean
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view of the world is very different from more modern viewpoints, for example in assumptions about the relationship between religion and the state and the nature of both types of authority. Unfortunately there is comparatively little surviving detail about the actual compilation of the Bible itself, beyond the rules set out for the translation and a few scattered examples of the thought processes behind it as revealed through a tiny amount of surviving documentation. This is complemented by vignettes of the lives of some of the translators themselves. The language of the King James Bible is without a doubt wonderful and it deserves its place as a cornerstone of English literature, though one must not forget that it is based very largely on earlier Bibles and the Tynedale version in particular also deserves its own reputation. The King James version is very much a product of its own time and place. 4/5
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LibraryThing member kaitanya64
A readable and interesting history of the King James translation of the Bible.
LibraryThing member Helenliz
This is such an interesting book. The King James bible runs as a thread through English culture. Even if we've never read very much of it, we've all heard phrases from it, going to back to earliest nativity plays. this takes the reader through the genesis of probably the only work of art ever
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created by committee. It covers the society from which the text emerged, the task of the translators and the other texts on which they drew. It also deals with some of the various people involved in the task of translating. there is very little evidence of the process of the translation, but what is available is presented so that the care and attention that went into the translation is clearly seen. He also discusses the more recent efforts at translating, the new English Bible of the 1970s coming in (justifiably, to my mind) no little criticism for removing the majesty and mystery of the King James. A very interesting book on the birth of a very important book.
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LibraryThing member reannon
Book that gives great historical context to the creation of the King James Bible.
LibraryThing member Devil_llama
This book is more about the early years of the reign of James I and all the people that surrounded him than it is about the making of the Bible. The actual descriptors of the translation of the King James Bible constituted at best 1% of the book. Most of it is descriptions of the people who came
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together, some well known, some obscure, and about James himself and the kingdom during the transition from Elizabeth to James. It is an interesting read, but extremely repetitive (and not in a useful way; in a redundant way). In addition, the author will often make a point, which he then contradicts by his examples a few paragraphs later. He attempts to be trying to build up James against the reputation of Elizabeth, who he clearly feels was a far below average ruler. His picture of James as a tolerant sort is hampered, however, by the historical details he presents, including the driving of groups of Puritans out of England to America - a fact he discounts as not that important in the overall kingdom, and therefore not a good example of intolerance. In fact, the picture he paints is of a court and a church corrupt and hedonistic, and dissenters who are totally unlikable and unsympathetic as they attempt to free people from the coercion of the Church of England by offering a new form of coercion that is actually much more coercive than the already existing hierarchy. In short, it was hardly the beatific world he tries to present, and hardly the picture of a tolerant and loving monarch that he appears to think he is presenting. That said, the book is very worthwhile for the descriptions of people and places - if you can get past the "gentle" bishop who engaged in and encouraged torture.
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LibraryThing member setnahkt
According to God’s Secretaries author Adam Nicolson, the King James Bible is the only great work of literature ever produced by a committee. I concur with that, and might go a little further- it’s the only great work of any kind ever produced by a committee. Nicolson is perhaps an odd choice
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for this work, as he’s primarily a travel writer; but perhaps being used to describing strange locales makes him suitable for describing Jacobean England. The bulk of the book does just that, establishing the “look and feel” of the translator’s milieu; and if it rambles a little Nicholson can be forgiven; the 17th century is, after all, a strange locale and wandering around there exposes the traveler to astonishing sights.

James I/VI was an interesting sort; fond of handsome boys yet apparently perfectly happy with his wife; amazed by the wealth of England compared to impoverished Scotland (and quite willing to spend that wealth on his favorites); personally unprepossessing (he had some sort of jaw or mouth defect that caused him to drool continuously); one of the more intelligent English monarchs (admittedly, that’s not saying much, but he is the only one to have his collected works published) yet passionately devoted to hunting. He saw himself as a bringer of peace to both politics – one of his first acts on ascending the throne was a treaty with Spain ending the decades-old war – and religion. The religious divides in England were between Catholics, who didn’t really count, especially after the Gunpowder Plot; Presbyterians, who were willing to remain in The Church of England but with some cavils about the Book of Common Prayer (particularly whether the Greek πρεσβύτεροι meant “priest” or “elder”); Separatists, who were later called Puritans (an insult at the time) and who wanted nothing not sanctioned by the Bible*; and the Church of England. The Catholics were still nominally illegal, as were the Separatists; both were subject to varying degrees of persecution. The King’s new Bible translation was supposed to unite the various groups in harmony. Didn’t, of course, but a noble attempt.

The translators for the King James Bible were divided into “companies”, each charged with a certain section (Old Testament Torah and histories, except Chronicles; Old Testament Chronicles, Psalms and some prophets; Old Testament rest of the prophets; Apocrypha; New Testament Gospels, Acts, and Revelation; New Testament Epistles). The after completing their translations, each company circulated them to all the other companies for further comment and correction. The process seems guaranteed to produce an incomprehensible muddle, if anything at all; it sounds like the government procurement specifications behind some of history’s more unfortunate failed projects. Remarkably, it didn’t turn out that way.

There are few clues to how the process actually worked; some letters and diaries from the translators with comments and a “life” of one of the translators noting that he read aloud to the company; if there were any objections they were noted and discussed; if not he read on. Nicolson makes an important point here; the frontispiece of the King James Bible contains the statement “Appointed to be Read in Churches”, the key being that it was intended to be read aloud and the language and meter were chosen to suit that; Nicholson notes a couple of examples where the words of earlier versions were left intact but punctuation was added to imply pauses and stops in the reading. James used the word “circumlocution” to describe the kind of language he wanted; modern definitions of “circumlocution” imply confusion and unnecessary verbiage but in Jacobean time the word implied “richness” of language. Earlier English Bible versions – most notably the Geneva Bible, put together by English Protestants exiled during the reign of Mary – although read aloud in church, were more intended to be reference works for private study; the Geneva Bible notably had numerous marginal notes on how to interpret Scripture, plus maps of the Holy Land, diagrams of the Temple, and similar aids, while James specifically prohibited marginal notes except to reference other passages or to give precise Hebrew or Greek translations of phrases that had been modified to sound better in English. To my surprise, the King James Bible didn’t catch on right away; published in 1611, it wasn’t made mandatory for church use until 1616 (and even that was done in a roundabout fashion; rather than ban and collect the old Bibles the law simply prohibited printing new editions).

Ironically what was supposed to be a “standard” Bible ended up full of printer’s errors, to the extent that scholars have cataloged better than 25,000 (!) different text versions. (The most famous is probably the “Wicked Bible”, in which a crucial “not” was left out of the commandment “Thou shalt not commit adultery”). For the initial 1611 edition, it seems that the printer somehow got two “final” manuscripts from the translators and intermingled pages from each.

This is the Bible I grew up with and the language still resonates; updated English versions may be more doctrinally correct but just don’t carry the same majesty of language. Compare:

“Lord now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word

For mine eyes have seen thy salvation,

Which thou hast prepared before the face of all people,

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.


“Lord, I am your servant, and now I can die in peace, because you have kept your promise to me.

With my own eyes I have seen what you have done

To save your people, and foreign nations will also see this

Your mighty power is a light for all nations, and it will bring honor to your people Israel.

It’s Bach versus Barry Manilow.

Nicolson is satisfying on several levels; this a good description of Jacobean England, a good analysis of the religious feeling of the time, and full of capsule biographies of notably people. Highly recommended.

*This was sometimes carried to an extreme extent; one Separatists preacher, assuming that if God wanted an English Bible he would have seen to it that is was written in that language, gave all his sermons in Hebrew or Greek. Since his congregation was almost all illiterate farmers, this must have been singularly trying for them; it was bad enough to have to sit alertly through the traditional three-hour Puritan sermon but listening to it in an alien language must have strained the patience of even the most devout.
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LibraryThing member kaulsu
I have entered into a new phase of reading multiple non-fiction books at a time, resulting in not finishing any of them in a timely fashion. I am endeavoring to STOP this immediately.....

I found the history behind the work of creating the KJV pretty fascinating though because of the long periods
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between my picking up where I left off, there were gaps in my enjoyment. I suspect that when the book became less interesting, I tended to put it down.

Some of these scholars were lyrical in their translations. They often took from the Tyndale translation because of his clarity of prose. The Jacobean period was one of struggles between freedom of conscience and a perceived need for order; between the monarchy and a quest for democracy; between extremism and toleration... much as we are experiencing in the early 21st c. James himself was extremely intelligent, and fruitful when attending to business at hand. His good points were his dignity and a desire for consensus.

On the negative side of his ledger was his profligacy. On the positive side is the grace, stateliness, scale, and power with which he encouraged in his chosen translators.
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LibraryThing member raizel
This is about the men who prepared the King James Bible, along with some of the political and religious history of the early part of the reign of King James. It is not about the actual translation, beyond the praise that the author has for the use of the English language by the translators,
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especially when compared with modern translations. There is a list of the translators along with the books of the Old and New Testaments that they worked on, for each of the six companies assigned to do the translation. (Nicolson talks about the new concept of "company.") And parallel chronologies of England from 1603 to 1611 and the translators and the translation.

I continue to be amazed and appalled by the torture and execution of people in the name of a religion that says it is about love and kindness. Nicolson seems to feel that this passion for the right way to worship results in the splendid phrases of this bible; our more tolerant era is bland and uninspiring.

In any case, knowing very little about this time, I learned a lot. Including the value placed on writing: George Abbot, one of the translators, also wrote A briefe Description of the whole worlde, in which he describes native Americans , of whom he has no personal knowledge, as

"without all kinde of learning, hauing no remembrance of historie or writing among them ...."

Nicolson explains "Not only were they not like the English, they were not like the people of the Old World, who, for all their differences, were united from here to China by this one thread: they all wrote and read. . . . the textlessness of the Americans, that was the radical and shocking difference. Abbot could only imagine that it was the work of the devil." [p. 161]
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LibraryThing member fionaanne
I have no idea how the author managed to fill so many pages with so little information. The entire book seemed filled with nothing but inference and speculation.


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280 p.; 7.8 inches


0007431007 / 9780007431007
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