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God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible

2.6 12
by Adam Nicolson

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Scoring extra points for the accessibility of this not-for-scholars-only history, Adam Nicolson shines a beacon on the crowning accomplishment of the Jacobean age: the creation "by committee" of the King James Version of the Bible -- an elegant and poetic translation of Scripture into the English vernacular. Nicolson does a remarkable job of weaving historical insights into an amazing story of faith.
The New York Times
Adam Nicolson's re-creation of this context is beyond praise. In God's Secretaries, he brings off a brilliant freehand portrait of an England more rich yet insecure, more literate yet superstitious, more urban yet still rural in rhythm, more unified yet riven with factions. — Christopher Hitchens
The Washington Post
A grandson of Vita Sackville-West and the author of several well-received books, [Nicolson] has written God's Secretaries for the lay reader rather than the scholar, but this lay reader suspects that it would win the approval of all but the most biased and/or self-interested scholars. In fewer than 250 pages of generously spaced text, it places the King James Version in historical context, brings vividly to life many of those who worked on it (most notably the king himself and Lancelot Andrewes, the churchman who presided over the translation), gives a plausible account of how the task was accomplished, and conveys in Nicolson's own passionate prose the full grandeur of the translation. — Jonathan Yardley
Publishers Weekly
The King James Bible remains the most influential Bible translation of all time. Its elegant style and the exalted cadences of its poetry and prose echo forcefully in Shakespeare, Milton, T.S. Eliot and Reynolds Price. As travel writer Nicolson points out, however, the path to the completion of the translation wasn't smooth. When James took the throne in England in early 1603, he inherited a country embroiled in theological controversy. Relishing a good theological debate, the king appointed himself as a mediator between the Anglicans and the reformist Puritans, siding in the end with the Anglican Church as the party that posed the least political threat to his authority. As a result of these debates, James agreed to commission a new translation of the Bible as an olive branch to the Puritans. Between 1604 and 1611, various committees engaged in making a new translation that attended more to the original Greek and Hebrew than had earlier versions. Nicolson deftly chronicles the personalities involved, and breezily narrates the political and religious struggles of the early 17th century. Yet, the circumstances surrounding this translation are already well known from two earlier books-Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters and Alister McGrath's In the Beginning-and this treatment adds little that is new. Although Nicolson succeeds at providing insight into the diverse personalities involved in making the King James Bible, Bobrick's remains the most elegant and comprehensive treatment of the process. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Popular British author Nicolson (Sea Room) proves once again that truth is stranger than fiction in this book concerning the making of the most famous English translation of the Bible, the King James Version (KJV), first published in 1611. He takes an anthropological approach, popular among contemporary Bible scholars, as he examines the cultural, historical, political, and religious influences that produced the KJV. Unlike two other recent books on the subject-Alister McGrath's In the Beginning, which discusses the KJV's historical and theological importance within the context of English Bible translations of the time, and Benson Bobrick's Wide as the Waters, which examines the context of English Bible translation from Wycliffe in 1382 to the KJV in 1611-this book concentrates on the immediate influences from James's accession to the British throne in 1603 until the publication of the KJV. Although Nicolson is not an academic, he handles his sources well, keeping conjecture to a minimum. Written in a popular style, the book is readily accessible to the informed reader. Its emphasis on background social influences makes the KJV and its era come alive. Recommended for public libraries.-Charlie Murray, Fordham Univ., New York Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
British travel writer Nicolson (Sea Room, 2002, etc.) anatomizes the creation of the 1611 English-language Bible, perhaps the only work of art ever made by a committee. But what a committee it was: made up some of the finest poets, translators, and scholars in the thoroughly well educated realm of King James I. The Bible that they produced with their collective wisdom and skill, James hoped, would settle dissent on any number of fronts, binding together the dissident branches of the still-new Church of England, calming Puritan disquietude, perhaps even helping bring about a reconciliation of some kind with the Catholic Church. "Money and happiness would dance together through the increasingly elegant streets of London," writes Nicolson, and "James’s Arcadian vision of untroubled togetherness would descend on the soul of the land like a balm." No such thing happened, of course; dissent and disunity continued unabated and would soon spill over into civil war. But in the meanwhile, tucked away in their warrens, the makers of James’s Bible produced an elegant and indeed unifying tapestry made of scattered Latin, Hebrew, and Greek texts, debating (in Latin, with learned Greek asides) over such matters as whether Launcelot Andrewes’s "face" was quite the right word in the stirring passage "and darknesse was vpon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God mooued vpon the face of the waters." Having a broad scene to paint, Nicolson takes his time building up to the work of the great translators and writers under James’s commission, offering a vivid picture of Jacobite London and its many roiling arguments--not least of them concerning the Englishing of biblical words such as ecclesia andpresbyteros, on which "the entire meaning of the Reformation hinges." Livelier and less scholarly than Alister McGrath’s In the Beginning (2001): an engaging work of literary, cultural, and religious history.

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God's Secretaries

The Making of the King James Bible
By Adam Nicolson

Harper Collins Publishers

Copyright © 2003 Adam Nicolson All right reserved. ISBN: 0060185163

Chapter One

A poore man now arrived at the Land of Promise

And the LORD magnified Solomon exceedingly in the sight of all Israel, and bestowed upon him such royal maiestie as had not bene on any king before him in Israel.

I Chronicles 29:25

Few moments in English history have been more hungry for the future, its mercurial possibilities and its hope of richness, than the spring of 1603. At last the old, hesitant, querulous and increasingly unapproachable Queen Elizabeth was dying. Nowadays, her courtiers and advisers spent their lives tiptoeing around her moods and her unpredictability. Lurching from one unaddressed financial crisis to the next, selling monopolies to favourites, she had begun to lose the affection of the country she had nurtured for so long. Elizabeth, should have died years before. Most of her great men - Burleigh, Leicester, Walsingham, even the beautiful Earl of Essex, executed after a futile and chaotic rebellion in 1601 - had gone already. She had become a relict of a previous age and her wrinkled, pasteboard virginity now looked more like fruitlessness than purity. Her niggardliness had starved the fountain of patronage on whichthe workings of the country relied and those mechanisms, unoiled by the necessary largesse, were creaking. Her exhausted impatience made the process of government itself a labyrinth of tact and indirection.

The country felt younger and more vital than its queen. Cultural conservatives might have bemoaned the death of old values and the corruption of modern morals (largely from Italy, conceived of as a louche and violent place), but these were not the symptoms of decline. England was full of newness and potential: its population burgeoning, its merchant fleets combing the world, London growing like a hothouse plum, the sons of gentlemen crowding as never before into the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, plants and fruits from all over the world arriving in its gardens and on its tables - but the rigid carapace of the Elizabethan court lay like a cast-iron lid above it. The queen's motto was still what it always had been: Semper eadem, Always the same. She hadn't moved with the times. So parsimonious had she been in elevating men to the peerage that by the end of her reign there were no more than sixty peers in the nobility of England. Scarcely a gentleman had been knighted by the queen for years.

That drought of honours was a symptom of a kind of paralysis, an indecisive rigidity. None of the great issues of the country had been resolved. Inflation had transformed the economy but the Crown was still drawing rents from its properties that had been set in the 1560s. The relationship between the House of Commons and the queen, for all her wooing and flattery, had become angry, tetchy, full of recrimination. The old war against Spain, which had achieved its great triumph of defeating the Armada in 1588, had dragged on for decades, haemorrhaging money and enjoying little support from the Englishmen whose taxes were paying for it. The London and Bristol merchants wanted only one outcome: an end to war, so that trade could be resumed. Religious differences had been buried by the Elizabethan regime: both Roman Catholics, who wanted England to return to the fold of the Roman Church, and the more extreme, 'hotter' Protestants, the Puritans, who felt that the Reformation in England had never been properly achieved, had been persecuted by the queen and her church, fined, imprisoned and executed. Any questions of change, tolerance or acceptance had not been addressed. Elizabeth had survived by ignoring problems or suppressing them and as a result England was a cauldron which had not been allowed to boil. Later history - even in the seventeenth century itself - portrayed Elizabeth's death as a dimming of the brilliance, the moment at which England swopped a heroic, gallant, Renaissance freshness for something more degenerate, less clean-cut, less noble, more self-serving, less dignified. But that is almost precisely the opposite of what England felt at the time. Elizabeth was passé, decayed. A new king, with wife, children (Anne was pregnant with their sixth child) an heir for goodness' sake, a passionate huntsman, full of vigour, a poet, an intellectual of European standing, a new king, a new reign and a new way of looking at the world; of course the country longed for that. Elizabeth's death held out the prospect of peace with Spain, a new openness to religious toleration, and a resolution of the differences between the established church and both Catholics and Puritans. More than we can perhaps realise now, 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 Stuart was an unlikely hero: ugly, restless, red-haired, pale-skinned, his tongue, it was said, too big for his mouth, impatient, vulgar, clever, nervous. But his virtues, learned in the brutal world of Scottish politics, were equal to the slurs of his contemporaries. More than anything else he wanted and believed in the possibilities of an encompassing peace. He adopted as his motto the words from the Sermon on the Mount, Beati Pacifici, Blessed are the Peacemakers, a phrase which, in the aftermath of a European century in which the continent had torn itself apart in religious war, would appear over and over again on Jacobean chimneypieces and carved into oak testers and overmantels, crammed in alongside the dreamed of, wish-fulfilment figures of Peace and Plenty, Ceres with her overbrimming harvests and luscious breasts, Pax embracing Concordia. The Bible that is named after James, and whose translation was authorised by him, was central to his claim on that ideal.


Excerpted from God's Secretaries by Adam Nicolson
Copyright © 2003 by Adam Nicolson
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Adam Nicols on is the author of Seamanship, God's Secretaries, and Seize the Fire. He has won both the Somerset Maugham and William Heinemann awards, and he lives with his family at Sissinghurst Castle in England.

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God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (P. S. Series) 2.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
GennyMac More than 1 year ago
I've always wondered how the books of the bible all came together, and over time have gotten so many differing responses, I finally started doing some digging to get the answers. From the point of a final widely accepted version which was reproduced for the masses to read it where I started. That version was the King James version and this book is absolutely a treasure trove of information which was well researched and has a high degree of credibility. It takes us to back to the era when documentation allows us to follow the story in its majority. This is a wonderful starting point for anyone who is interested in how the books of the bible were chosen and passed down through the ages. It is a good first step to follow the trail back through the centuries to see the politics of how Christianity was presented to the world. I have a hard copy of this book and a nook version so that as I continue my research I always have one to refer to as I continue going back in time. If you have been told that God wrote the bible and gave it to us, then this is a wonderful story of the hands he used to deliver it................human hands with human foibles
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Pretty much everything that was good about the KJV actually came directly from Tyndale's translation. Tyndale was the real genius. In fact a well known biblical scholar has said that where the KJV and the Tyndale translation are different it is usually because Tyndale had a better understanding of the original language than the KJV translators had. Personally I've never much cared for the archaic translations. Come to that, most of the genius of Tyndale actually comes from the underlying biblical writers themselves and is readily seen in many modern translations. Too many readers of the KJV actually don't understand what they are reading. For example the 'strain at a gnat' verse, which is often labeled a misprint in the KJV, is misinterpreted by most otherwise well informed KJV readers that I've met. (Hint: strain means 'filter').
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book was ok. I say ok because I was able to read it on a plane from Ohio to Florida, so it is quite short. There are no footnotes or endnotes, thus making its scholarly contribution next to nil. However, it does give a sweeping and superficial overview of the creators of the KJB (I'm not even going to get into the Tyndale controversy - too complex!). This could be fine for someone who wants an introduction to the subject, though it does help to already have some background on Jacobean society and politics. The author made many broad generalizations that left me uncomfortable, so I can only give it 2 stars.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Composed of "..clever guesses and well-devised possibilities." Old Testament criticism and the rights of the unlearned – John Kennedy 1Timothy 1:7 They want to be teachers of the law(Bible), but they don't know what they are talking about. They don't even understand the things they say they are sure of.