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Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Book Review: God's Secretaries - The Making Of The King James Bible

This was a very interesting read. The author is Adam Nicolson who lives on a farm with his family near Burwash England. Once I got started it caused me to set aside Eusbius' Church History momentarily in order to devote my attention to this work.

It is only 243 pages long and is mostly a very easy read, especially for those who have an interest in the King James Bible, or the great Bible debate for that matter. Although I would not consider it an apologetic either for or against the King James Bible it is obviously favorably inclined in the direciton of the King James Bible especially as a religious literary work. The author on several ocassions argues that the languge used, the words, will either convey or detract from the granduer of the message of the Bible. It is a grand message that demands an expansive and grand use of the language.

I have read several books on the King James Bible and reflected, taught, and preached on the issue quite a bit. Most of what I have read addresses the issue from the standpoint of the Greek and Hebrew text from which the King James Bible is translated compared to the modern translations. This is, of course, a very important issue and one that demands attention. However, this book was refeshing in that it was not so much a thesis on the text that underlies the King James Bible but rather a presentation of the history of the King James Bible. It painted a picture of 17th century England so that the reader could have a better grasp of the cultural realites from which the King James Bible sprang. Most of the 54 or so translators of the King James Bible were obsucre churchmen. Nevertheless the book does give a thorough treatment of the men of whom we do know something. It especially addresses these men in the context of their relationship with the translation work.

One thing made clear is that King James, as KJV detractors are always quick to point out, was not a very godly man. He was educated and religiously inclined. He was king of Scotland and assumed the thone of England upon the death of Queen Elizabeth. Scotland was heavily influenced by the Presbyterians and they in fact wielded extensive power in the nation so that the King of Scotland could not exactly rule with a free hand. England on the other hand was extremely Monarchial. There was much emphais placed upon royalty and the bishops of the church. It was a very ordered and structured society. King James relished in the new found authority acsending to the throne of England.

Most of the Bishops and churchmen of England were very ambitious men. Several of them were very politically savy and were careful to always seek the favor of the court. Many of these men were not very godly and very much opposed to the Puritans, dissenters from the church of England. The Puritans primarily used the Geneva Bible that was produced by the Calvanist in Geneva. The Church of England primarily used the Bishop's Bible. The Geneva Bible was not very pro monarch or pro bishop, while the Bishop's Bible tended to be both.

Not all of the men who worked on the King James Translation were pious men. They were all learned men, but they were not all pious men. Their credentials concerning translation work were second to none. They did in fact produce a masterpiece in the English language. In fact it is my conviction that God used these men to give the English speaking world the inerrant, infalliable word of God.

When I first began to read I was not sure what to expect. I did not know if the author was pro-King James or anti-King James. As I read I begin to think that he was defending the King James. But........then in the last chapter he reverted to the arguments of the modern textual critic by explaining that the King James Bible was not translated from the best manuscripts. He also takes exception to some of the actual translation. By that point in the book I was disappointed to see him assuming that position, but not entirely surprised. The author extolls the virtues of the King James Bible as a masterpiece of Jacobean England but cast aspersions on its textual basis. However, the book is a good read and I highly recommend it!

The book is also interesting in that when he is quoting either the Tyndale Bible, Geneva Bible, Bishop's Bible, letters or writings from the men invovled he uses the 1611 orthography and spelling (which had not been standardized at that point). This dispells the argument that we could not read a 1611 King James Bible. The lettering was strange but it was easily readable. I have seen a reproduction of a 1611 King James Bible and it is readable. This is simply one of those arguments that people parade to justify the changing of the Bible.


"The translation these men made together can lay claim to be the greatest work in prose ever written in English."

"The book they created was consciously poised in its rhetoric between vigor and elegance, plainness and power."

"It is because people like Lancelot Andrewes flourished in the first decade of the seventeenth century - and do not now - that the greatest translation of the Bible could be made then, and cannot now."

"The King's instructions were perfectly explicit: they were to use 'circumlocution' in other words language in which meaning was to be 'sett forth gorgeously'".

"After the intial flurry of documents, there is a dearth of evidence almost until the final printed volume appeared in 1611. Once the King had decided it should happen; once Bancroft had disseminated the Rules; and once the Translators had been chosen, almost the entire process drops from view."

"Any idea that the culture from which the King James Bible emerged was parochial or insular, the great statement of an embattled island nation cut off from the corrupt and worldly currents of a degenerate continent, could not be further from the truth."

"In early seventeeth-century England, endlessly and repetitively, the word of God was preached in the 8,000 or so pulits across England. It was the ocean in which everyone swam. Attendance at sermons was complusory. Many peole would hear two or three on a Sunday in which every last echo of meaning would be squeezed from the words of the Bible. And week after week, preachers would occupy their pulpits, analysing texts, pursuing moral and theological argument, exercising the difficult and demaning skills that hold a congregation's attention. They were clearly good at it. Laurence Chaderton, the moderate Puritan leader, once paused after two hours of a Cambridge sermon. The entire congregation stood up and shouted, 'For God's sake go on!' He gave them another hour."

"Andrewes himself could speak for an hour, to an enraptured audience on the multiple signifigances of a single word. He could, as T. S. Eliot said in admiration, 'derive the world from a word', squeezing it, strechting it, crushing and contorting it, so that every conceivable facet of its meaning could be made apparent."

"In a sense that almost no one now understands, the words of the Bible were the ultimate and encompassing truth itself. That depth of belief in the sufficiency of langauge is also one of the shaping forces of the King James Bible."

"If the words of the Bible were the foundation of all understanding, nothing could be more important than a text which was both accurate and intelligible. Precision in Bible scholarship and in translation was the foundation stone of the Reformation. High fidelity reproduction was a moral as well as a technical quality and it was aximomatic that Translators and scholars could approach the text only in a mode of humility and service."

"Secretaryship is one of the great shaping forces behind the King James Bible. There is no authorship involved here. Authorship is egotistical, an assumption that you might have something new worth saying. You don't. Every iota of the Bible counts but without it you count for nothing. The secretary know that."

"This is another foundation stone. One of the King James Bible's most consistent driving forces is the idea of majesty. Its method and its voice are far more regal than demotic."

"Its qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale, power. There is no desire to please here; only belief in the enormous and overwhelmingly divine authority, . . . ."

"The King James Translators do exactly what Luther had described as absurd: they mimic precisely the form of the original. No searching for the laguage of mothers, or the man in the market stall. They acted, in other words, according to Calvin's injunction, as God's secretaries."

"This atmopshere of holiness is made to reside in the strange, formal, ritualized language of the seventeenth-century Bible (which also happens to be an intimately exact translation of the original)."

"It both makes an exact and almost literal translation of the original and infuses that translation with a sense of beauty and ceremony."

"No one could fault the Translators in their meticulous attention to the detail of the original texts; and yet in doing so, more than any other English translators, they enshrined a high moment of Christian meaning."

"It has plumbed and searched for the essence of the meaning and in a way is an exercise in passionate exactness."

"The linguistic hierarchy is also one of the sources of the King James style. This English is there to serve the original not to replace it. It speaks in its master's voice and is not the English you would have heard on the street, then or ever. It took up its life in a new and distinct dimension of linguistic space, somwhere between English and Greek (or, for the Old Testament, between English and Hebrew). These scholars were not pulling the language of the scriptures into the English they knew and used at home. The words of the King James Bible are just as much English pushed towards the condition as a foriegn langauge as a foreign language translated into English. It was, in other words, more important to make English godly than to make the words of God into the sort of prose that any Englishman would have written, and that secretarial relationship to the original languages of the scripture shaped the translation."

". . . . endless careful picking of the nuance of sound and meaning, the finely balanced, the audibly intelligible, more often than not choosing a form of words that embraces and bridges an ambiguity."

"These men are interested not only in clarity and fidelity but in a grandeur of statement which colours the translation as a whole."

"There is, on the whole, no telling that this text has been assembled like a mosaic floor, every tessera gauged and weighed, held up, examined, place, replaced, rejected, reabsorbed, a winnowing of exactness from a century of scholarship."

"The characteristic sound of the King James Bible is . . . like the ideal of majesty itself, is indescribably vast and yet perfectly accessible, reaching up to the sublime and down to the immediate and the concrete, without any apparent effort."

"Again and again, the seventeenth-century phrases seem richer, deeper, truer, more alive, more capable of carrying complex and multiple meanings, than anything the twentieth century could manage. It happens in linguistic history that languages lose aspects of themselves, whole wings of their existence withering, falling off, disappearing into the past. Has it now happened to English? Does English no longer have the faculty of religious language?"

Book rating ****
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