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In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and how It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and how It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture

4.2 10
by Alister McGrath

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In the sixteenth century, to attempt to translate the Bible into a common tongue wasn't just difficult, it was dangerous. A Bible in English threatened the power of the monarch and the Church. Early translators like Tyndale, whose work greatly influenced the King James, were hunted down and executed, but the demand for English Bibles continued to grow. Indeed it was


In the sixteenth century, to attempt to translate the Bible into a common tongue wasn't just difficult, it was dangerous. A Bible in English threatened the power of the monarch and the Church. Early translators like Tyndale, whose work greatly influenced the King James, were hunted down and executed, but the demand for English Bibles continued to grow. Indeed it was the popularity of the Geneva Bible, with its anti-royalist content, that eventually forced James I to sanction his own, pro-monarchy, translation. Errors in early editions--one declared that "thou shalt commit adultery"--and Puritan preferences for the Geneva Bible initially hampered acceptance of the King James, but it went on to become the definitive English-language Bible.

This fascinating history of a literary and religious masterpiece explores the forces that led to the decision to create an authorized translation, the method of translation and printing, and the central role this version of the Bible played in the development of modern English. McGrath's history of the King James Bible’s creation and influence is a worthy tribute to a great work and a joy to read.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

For several centuries after its publication in 1611, the translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I remained the dominant English version. Yet, although the KJV is arguably the most influential book in the chronicles of the language, its own story is but little known. This narrative of its fractious and majestic history has all the thrust, counterthrust, and intrigue of a Shakespearean play. Reforming our notions about the English Reformation, Dr. McGrath has written a compelling volume about the creation of a crucial book.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The peculiar history of the King James Bible highlights the power of marginal notations to destabilize a nation and command the anxious attention of a monarch. McGrath, professor of historical theology at Oxford University, recounts the production of this translation, the forces that allowed for its genesis and its influence on modern English, the history of England and the faith of millions since its 1604 publication. Although his "great men" emphasis on "doing" history offers few new insights and is embedded in a narrative that scans in overly broad strokes the intriguing circumstances of the Bible's production, this remains an engaging chronicle. McGrath frames the context for the KJV in phenomena such as the English church during and after Henry VIII's reign, the incendiary creativity of the translation process, the explosive force for change unleashed by the technological breakthrough of the printing press and the rise of nationalism. McGrath also situates the KJV as more immediately provoked by the English-language Geneva Bible, produced by self-exiled "radical" English Protestants in that republican city, during the reign of the Catholic Mary Tudor. As McGrath explains, prefaces to each book of Scripture and extensive interpretive notes offered in "plain English" account largely for the popularity the Bible enjoyed among laypersons hungry to read the word of God. This is a tale ripe for the telling; one wishes the execution were more satisfying. (Apr.) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
Many today tend to take the Bible for granted and fail to recognize its permanent influence upon politics, literature, and law. During the 16th and 17th centuries, however, the availability of the scriptures in the vernacular inspired a revolution of free thought culminating in concepts of constitutional government and democracy whose impact upon the world continues to the present day. The far-reaching implications of the printing press, the rise of English as a national language, and the Reformation all closely bound to the history of the vernacular Bible figure prominently in the narrative of both of these new histories of the King James Bible. Wide as the Water (beginning with the early development of Christianity in Britain and ending with the period of the American Revolution) details the unique stamp of the English people upon Bible translation through the lives of early reformers such as John Wycliffe and William Tyndale. Although the history of the English Bible is covered in a concise and informative way, In the Beginning primarily focuses upon the translation of the King James Bible and is richly illustrated. Each work supplies a chronology and a comparison of major English translations of the most well known passages. McGrath's book contains informative appendixes which are unique to his work: "The Evolution of the English Bible," "King James Translators, by Company and Assignment," and "Richard Bancroft's Rules to be Observed in the Translation of the Bible." Both books are a pleasure to read. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. [Wide as the Waters was previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/00.] Michael W. Ellis, Ellenville P.L., NY Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Containing many quotes from original documents and portraits of the protagonists, McGrath's (historical theology, Oxford U., UK) history brings to light the personal and political story behind the making of this pivotal work. The story is written for the lay reader by a historian with deep knowledge of the subject; he's able to go into detail on the cause and effects of every aspect of the Bible's production, the controversy surrounding its translation, the larger context of printing history, and the Bible's profound impact on the English language. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Kirkus Reviews
Oxford don and theologian McGrath (Evangelicalism and the Future of Christianity, 1995) celebrates the King James Bible. The English translation commissioned by James I and completed in 1611 is distinguished in two ways, according to McGrath. It's important to historians and theologians because it put Scripture into the hands of ordinary people. It holds an equally key position in the literary canon as one of the most poetic, haunting works in the English language. The first three chapters summarize the history of the Reformation, the invention and dissemination of the printing press, the status of the European middle class, and the consolidation of the English language. This may be necessary background, but McGrath's rehashes of well-known information about Gutenberg and Luther are stale and plodding. He serves up fresher material in chapter four, a discussion of the first English Bibles. Introducing readers to the Tyndale Bible, an English version that preceded the King James, McGrath notes reformer William Tyndale's commitment to rendering the Scriptures in "proper English." Tyndale's clear, accessible translation would "prove to be of foundational importance to the shaping of later English translations." We also read about the Calvinist Geneva Bible before finally getting to the King James Version. McGrath is at his most fascinating when explaining that the King's translation team did not begin "with blank sheets of paper in front of them"; they were aware (and respectful) of the long line of English translators in which they stood. Bibliophiles will relish the discussion of printing errors in the early editions of the King James, and its defenders will be pleased to learnthatnone other than Noah Webster praised it for "forming and preserving" America's English. The book also contains many lovely illustrations and the occasional helpful chart, like "A Note on Paper Sizes," which explains the differences between a folio and a duodecimo edition. Neither as theologically profound nor as literary as the King James itself, but a useful and entertaining study.

From the Publisher
“Fascinating…. McGrath has a proper reverence for the language and a deep knowledge of the historical theology…. His book is a genially contented hymn to both.”—Simon Winchester, The New York Times Book Review

“Breezy and anecdotal…. Offers a helpful and detailed overview of the process of Bible translation.”–The Washington Post Book World

" A fascinating and splendid volume about an even more splendid and fascinating book." --Dr. David Noel Freedman, author of The Nine Commandments

"A sprightly narrative of how [The King James Bible] was the product of sensibilities honed by the Renaissance and the Reformation." --Bruce Chilton, author of Rabbi Jesus: An Intimate Biography

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Read an Excerpt


Unknown to the Ancients: The New Technology

New technology promises new riches to its pioneers. The development and commercial exploitation of television and computer technology in the twentieth century made fortunes for many, just as the railroad and oil industries created a new wealthy social class in nineteenth-century America. In the fifteenth century, a new invention promised to revolutionize communications and generate untold riches for those fortunate enough to be in it from the beginning.

In 1620, the influential English philosopher Francis Bacon observed how three inventions had reshaped the world as he knew it.

It is well to observe the force and virtue and consequence of inventions, and these are nowhere to be seen nowhere more conspicuously than in those three which were unknown to the ancients, and of which the origins, though recent, are obscure and inglorious; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the magnet. For these three have changed the whole face and state of things throughout the world.

Bacon here identified the three inventions that changed the face of the known world. Gunpowder altered the course of warfare irreversibly. The magnet, when used to construct a mariner's compass, allowed navigation to proceed even when the sun and stars could not be seen. These two inventions lay behind England's rise to greatness under Queen Elizabeth I in the late sixteenth century, as Bacon well knew.

Most important of all for the story that we are about to tell, the invention of printing made it possible for ideas to sweep across Europe and the oceans of the world, ignoring the barriers erected by anxious monarchs and bishops to safeguard the familiar and comfortable old ways. To understand the importance of this invention, we need to consider the social revolution that had engulfed Europe during the later Middle Ages. A new middle class emerged, convinced of the possibility of changing the world.

The Social Revolution: The New Middle Class

The Middle Ages was witness to a massive social upheaval across much of Western Europe. The feudal system gradually crumbled, with wealth and power beginning to shift to a new merchant class. Under the feudal system, power and wealth were concentrated in the hands of a relatively small number of families. Especially during the fifteenth century, the influence of the traditional families began eroding. Control of some of the great cities of Europe slipped away from the aristocracy, and shifted to the growing number of merchants. These had made their fortunes through trading and dealing, and had little time for the old-fashioned attitudes of the traditional families. Throughout Europe, cities began to be governed by city councils dominated by the new merchant class. Traditional social structures were undermined by greater social mobility, increased wealth and spending power within the middle classes, and a surge in literacy and levels of educational achievement within the population as a whole.

This development was of immense significance in the shaping of a new Europe. The control of sections of society was slowly but surely shifting from the old patrician families to the entrepreneurs. The emerging breed of venture capitalists was looking for business opportunities. The great trade fairs of late medieval Europe--held at international crossroads, such as Geneva--became important catalysts for economic growth, encouraging trade across Europe. Investment opportunities were eagerly sought. Our story concerns one such opportunity--the invention of printing. The financial backing of the new technology of printing was quickly identified as one of the surest ways to make money. Investment in printing technology became increasingly attractive on account of a major social change--the rise in literacy. People began to read; someone had to produce the books they came to demand.

In the early Middle Ages, literacy was rare, and often limited to the clergy. It was common for the courts of Europe to employ clergy to handle their correspondence and archives. This was not because the clergy might bring some special spiritual quality or blessing to these matters, but simply because the clergy were just about the only people at the time who could read and write. But the new culture of the Italian Renaissance, which swept through much of Western Europe in the fourteenth century, saw literacy as being a social accomplishment, rather than just a useful administrative tool. Being able to read was now seen as the key to personal fulfillment; to own books was a statement of social status, sending out powerful signals concerning both the financial and intellectual standing of the household.

The Renaissance was a complex and highly dynamic movement, which had its origins in fourteenth-century Italy. At one level, it can be seen as a movement working for the renewal of culture, which based itself on the classical language, literature, and arts of Ancient Rome. Ancient Rome was seen as a fountainhead, a spring of fresh and flowing water, that could refresh and renew European culture, and liberate it from the barren and arid ideas of the Middle Ages. The Renaissance set out to promote written and spoken eloquence, and placed considerable emphasis on cultivating both reading and writing. To be literate was now more than a technical accomplishment, useful for keeping records and correspondence up to date. It was a sophisticated cultural achievement that opened the way to self-improvement and personal fulfillment--not to mention the hope of social advancement. The possession of books was now seen as a social virtue, raising the status of their owner within an increasingly literate culture.

The demand for books soared. The rise in literacy created a virtually insatiable appetite for reading material. Yet this new demand simply could not be met by existing book production techniques. These were painfully slow, and the price of books correspondingly high. Text and illustrations had to be painstakingly copied out by hand by specially trained scribes. Demand far outstripped the supply. The surge of interest in books caused many to wonder whether it was possible to develop a new way of producing them that would cut out the hugely expensive copying process. There was money waiting to be made for someone who could cut production costs, just as there was venture capital waiting to be invested in any new technology that could open the way to mass book production.

So how could books be produced cheaply? A short-term answer was found in the early part of the fifteenth century. Text and illustrations were engraved on wooden blocks, using a knife and gouge. A water-based brown ink, made from the bark of trees, was then applied to the block using an inking cushion. The block was then used to print copies of the image on single sheets of paper, which were bound together to produce a book. But it was only an interim solution. The blocks were costly to produce, and once cut to order, could not be used for any other purpose. It was ideal for short books--but for long works, such as the Bible, it was unrealistically cumbersome. A better solution had to be found. The man who found it was Johannes Gutenberg.

Johannes Gutenberg and the Origins of Printing

As we have seen, the burgeoning demand for reading material throughout Western Europe created a huge market for books. Entrepreneurs began to realize the potentially lucrative business opportunity this offered. Suppose it were possible to invent a new way of producing books quickly and cheaply. If the process could be kept secret in its early stages, it could make its inventor and his backers immensely rich. This was the new philosopher's stone, which could turn all to gold. By 1450, five individuals were desperately seeking the answer, each with their own financial backers. Jean Brito of Bruges, Panfilo Casteli of Feltre, Johannes Gutenberg of Mainz, Laurens Koster of Haarlem, and Prokop Waldvogel of Avignon were urgently pursuing this new holy grail, which promised to make them rich beyond their dreams.

The solution was eventually found by Johannes Gutenberg, who made the breakthrough that finally established printing as the communication technology of the future. Similar ideas may have been under development around the same time in Prague and Haarlem. But in business, the key question is not about who else is in the race, it's about who gets there first. Johannes Gutenberg was the first to make the new technology work, ensuring his place in any history of the human race.

Gutenberg was born to the wealthy Gensfleisch family in the city of Mainz. Following a long-standing custom, he took his mother's name. He trained in metalworking, and became a member of Mainz' Guild of Goldsmiths. In 1430, he moved to Strasbourg, where he established a business making high-quality metal mirrors. These were much sought after by pilgrims to local cathedrals, who believed that they could reflect the healing power of sacred relics on their owners. It was pure superstition, of course--but even superstition could be exploited for profit.

Gutenberg's experience in working metals to create mirrors would come in useful as he labored, in secret, to develop a new way of transferring ink to paper through the first printing press. Gutenberg's first experiments in new approaches to printing were carried out clandestinely in Strasbourg. They were hugely expensive, and Gutenberg had to borrow extensively to finance them. Gutenberg regarded the costs as the inevitable result of any major business venture, and had every expectation of recouping all his costs once the technology was perfected. Secrecy was essential if he was to stay ahead of the opposition.

What Gutenberg developed was a printing system. It is important to appreciate that the printing press being developed by Gutenberg brought together a number of existing technologies, as well as one major innovation--movable metal type. The invention of movable metal type on its own would not have been enough to enable this breakthrough. Gutenberg's genius lay in creating a system that incorporated both new and old ideas, allowing a task to be performed with unprecedented efficiency.

Gutenberg's experimental printing process involved the kind of wooden screw press traditionally used to crush grapes for wine or olives for oil, or to compress bales of cloth. A similar press was already used in paper production, to squeeze water out of newly made paper. Gutenberg appears to have realized that the process that removed water from paper might also be used to print ink onto that same medium.

An initial difficulty that Gutenberg encountered was that the screw used to press the platen--that is, the flat plate that spreads the pressure from the screw across a wide area of paper--caused ink smudges. Turning the screw to increase the pressure on the paper also caused the platen to rotate slightly, and thus blurred the printed impression. Gutenberg got around this difficulty by inserting a vertical wooden box between the screw and platen. This box--which came to be known as a "hose"--allowed the smudge-free printing so characteristic of Gutenberg's early productions.

But what kind of ink should be used? One of Gutenberg's key contributions to the development of printing was the invention of a new type of ink made from lampblack--the soot deposited by candle flames on cold surfaces--and varnish, which was suitable for this new approach to printing. The older printing technology used a water-soluble brown ink, which faded over time; the new process used a dark black ink, which was permanent. A range of water-soluble inks were available to medieval scribes. The liquid produced by cuttlefish and squid was employed to produce a sepia-colored ink, while a brown ink could be made by extracting the tannic acids found in gall nuts or tree bark. Egg white and gum acted as a media support for these inks.

Oil-based ink had been developed earlier in the Middle Ages. The new inks, based on "lampblack," had not been used extensively. The main reason for this was that most medieval books took the form of manuscripts made of vellum or parchment (calf- or lambskin), which did not readily absorb the oil. As a result, the ink did not always dry completely, and smudged easily.

Gutenberg developed printing techniques that allowed paper to come into its own as a medium for the new technology. The origins of rag- and fiber-based papers can be traced back to second-century China. The Arab invasions of western China in the eighth century led to the Arabs acquiring this new technology; in turn, they passed it on to Europe. The first European paper mill was established in eastern Spain in 1074. The technology spread slowly across Europe. The first German paper mill was founded at Nuremberg in 1390. The reason for this slow advance is not difficult to establish. Paper was widely regarded as inferior to vellum. It cost less to produce than vellum, but it did not last as long. In addition, it had a tendency to absorb the water-based inks used in manuscript book production. Vellum was widely regarded as being superior on all counts.

Yet paper proved to be eminently suitable for the new process of mechanical printing, using metal type and oil-based inks. Although Gutenberg produced a small number of printed Bibles using vellum (or parchment; the two terms are more or less interchangeable), his technology effectively marked the end of vellum as a publishing medium. An additional factor here was that vellum did not absorb any kind of ink, whether water or oil-based. As a result, the pigments were deposited on the surface of the material, rather than absorbed within it. The pigments could thus easily be rubbed off the surface of vellum through constant use. The imprint on paper, in contrast, remained permanent.

Gutenberg's real breakthrough was the invention of movable type--that is, letters that could be reused after printing one book. Block-print technology--which had been known in Europe since the return of Marco Polo from Asia at the end of the thirteenth century--suffered a serious limitation. Each block had to be created specially for each page of a book; once it had been used, it could not be recycled or employed for any purpose other than reprinting exactly the same page. The process of carving the individual blocks was time-consuming. Errors could not easily be corrected. Gutenberg's solution allowed the reuse of type, and the ready correction of each page from "proofs."

Gutenberg's type had to be designed and produced in large quantities. The cost was huge. After Gutenberg had returned to Mainz in 1448, he was able to interest Johann Fust, a local goldsmith, in his invention. Fust backed Gutenberg to the tune of eight hundred gulden in 1450, and the same amount again in 1452--nearly two million dollars by today's standards. The type was designed by Peter Schoeffer, and was probably cast in "speculum" metal--the same metal used by Gutenberg for the mirrors that gullible pilgrims believed reflected the spiritual powers of sacred relics in their direction. This metal consisted of an alloy of lead, tin, and antimony--the last being added to harden the metal, to ensure that it resisted wear. The method of casting type devised by Gutenberg would continue to be used until 1838, when David Bruce pioneered the first typecasting machine in New York.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Meet the Author

ALISTER McGRATH is Professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University and Principal of Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He is a consulting editor at Christianity Today, the general editor of The NIV Thematic Study Bible, and the author of numerous books, including The Journey, Theology for Amateurs, To Know and Serve God, and A Journey Through Suffering. He lives in Oxford, England.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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In the Beginning: The Story of the King James Bible and how It Changed a Nation, a Language, and a Culture 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
It was a pleasure reading this book with such a wealth of info. Can't believe that for generations the English people were once ashamed of their own tongue, preferring instead to speak in Latin, and then French. Every Jamaican in particular (those at home and in the diaspora) should read this book (for Miss Lou's sake at least), especially those who distance themselves from the Jamaican Language (JL now taught in Birmingham,UK),and others who believe that JL is not fit enough as a vehichle for the translation of God's holy Word. In the days before the KJV, it was Church officials and the Oxon and Contab academicians who opposed the very thought of an English Bible. Not so in Jamaica. It more the middle and upper classes, and successive goverments lacking the political will to promote such a project. McGrath is by no means an armchair theologian he knows how to communicate well on the popular level, like the Master Teacher of old--even if he has to do so with American spelling. Only one typo I have seen: p.256, last paragraph, 8th line where the author appears to 'stammer'for the first time ('It Italy') .Otherwise his prose flows with consummate ease, and his sense of humour (sorry, humor) is refreshing.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
As a minister holding a doctorate and well read, this book proved an oasis of new information for me. I opt not to ramble on with words of praise but simply say, get this book! It will enrich any reader. Get it!!!!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
[Reviewed Hardback Edition (2001)] The author begins with a 3 chapter recap of external events leading up to a thorough discussion of early English Bibles in chapters 4-6. This sets the stage for the discussion of KJV which is very good. This book gives many insights into the great story of the making of the King James Version. The story is told without getting bogged down in ancient manuscript details. There is even a small section on Bibles in Colonial America. [Mechanics]: Many nice features here...There is an Index, A segment comparing 9 versions of the 23rd psalm, a bibliography and even a decent timeline from 1456 to 1675. There are some charts and illustrations. The only quibble is that scripture references are part of the regular index. [Summary]: A nice rounded history of the highs and the lows of English Bible translation in pre and post reformation England resulting in the KJV. You can't miss this one.
Guest More than 1 year ago
McGrath provides a broad overview of how the King James Bible came to exist and how it affected language and culture. He spends a lot of time setting the scene ¿ the King James translation doesn't really make an appearance until halfway through the book. McGrath starts at the beginning with the printing press and the legitimization of the English language and then works his way through the first vernacular translations and the religious/political tumult of the Reformation. McGrath expertly shows how religion and politics intertwined to spawn the King James translation. He also clearly lays out the challenges faced by the translation team. But I thought his efforts to show how the KJV impacted culture and nations were less effective. He does have some good examples of how the careful translation of Hebrew phrases led to many idioms becoming adopted into common use in English ¿ such as 'sour grapes', 'from time to time', and 'to fall flat on his face.' I also found it fascinating that the language of the KJV was considered a bit archaic from the start, and that it was not really accepted as the definitive translation until much, much later. It's amazing to me that the emphasis on an accurate translation in many cases led to beautifully poetic passages with a minimum of awkward phrasing. While it is clear that the author appreciates the KJV, he also explains quite nicely how new translations will always be needed because of our constantly evolving language. This is a clearly written, engaging history - the tone is more conversational than academic. He is a bit repetitive, and uses 'but we'll talk about that later' transitions a few too many times, but these are minor quibbles. The author brings history to life and makes it easy to understand why events played out the way they did. The broad strokes of IN THE BEGINNING should appeal to the casual reader who would like to see a big-picture history of the times that led to a string of printed Bibles cumulating in the King James Version. It is definitely more readable than the more tightly focused yet rambling GOD'S SECRETARIES by Adam Nicolson, which deals more closely with the personalities directly involved in the project.