- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003


By Adam Nicolson

HarperCollins, $24.95, 280 pages


We often locate ourselves in history by memories of a dramatic day, from President John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to the Challenger explosion in 1986. What were you doing, we will ask, the day the World Trade Towers fell?

In “God’s Secretaries,” the story of the King James Bible’s translation, Adam Nicolson gives us another benchmark. What were we doing between 1603 and 1625, the reign of James I? Quite a lot. During that time, the bestselling Bible in history was minted, Puritan dissenters left for America, and literary genius spilled from the pen of William Shakespeare.

It was also the English era of “companies,” or joint enterprises, that included the Virginia Company that arrived here in 1607. For our story, the important “company” was a group of about 50 men on six different committees who between 1604 and 1611 produced a new Bible for the king.

Mr. Nicolson argues that only the Jacobean age (Latin for James) could produced such a work — the age’s landmark was not a painting or piece of architecture, but a book. Because of this unique chemistry of royalty and worthy scholars, “the greatest translation of the Bible could be made then, and cannot now.”

The greatness, the author says, arose from the musicality of the verse. It used Elizabethan prose and when the final meeting of translators gathered, they read through it for final corrections on the principle that “if it sounds right, it is right.”

Reared in Scotland, James was baptized a Catholic and brought up by Presbyterian governors. He was intellectually inquisitive, wanted “the medium in all things,” had held a “dream of coherence” of society under his own kingship. “The Bible was to become part of the new royal ideology,” Mr. Nicholson writes, part of a “large-scale redefinition of England.”

The Reformation-produced Geneva Bible had been the favorite of English dissenters, who recoiled at the Church of England’s bishops, crosses and ceremonies and its staid Bishop’s Bible. When 1,000 Puritans appealed to James for a new translation, he used that momentum for his won purposes — he wanted a simple royal Bible to be read from every pulpit in the realm.

The cultural times lent to honoring hierarchy and pageantry, which would end up a quality of the King James. “Plaintiffs knelt in court, children to their fathers, MPs and bishops when addressing the king,” Mr. Nicholson said. While the Geneva Bible used the word “tyrant” for ruler, the Jacobean text proudly used “king.”

“For the strict reformers, only the naked intellectual engagement with the complexities of a rational God would do,” Mr. Nicholson writes. For Jacobean royalty, the carnal beauty, passion and pageantry of the world also were prized.

When James set up his company of translators, separatists and Presbyterians were excluded, yet the text ended up a synthesis of verbal simplicity and earthy richness. The most famous of the translators was the Cambridge don and dean of Westminster Abbey, Lancelot Andrewes. A brilliant and pious man, he was far from saintly. He fled his flock during the plague and abetted the torture of a Puritan heretic. But he spoke 15 modern languages and six ancient. He was one of the great preachers of that epoch.

Other dramas enthralled the era. The plague of 1603 killed 30,000 Londoners, and two years later some estranged Catholics were caught in a “gun powder plot” to blow up Parliament. A real plot now is questionable, but amid the public hysteria the crown executed the innocent leader of the English Jesuits.

Meanwhile, the royal agents in 1608 had finally banished “a separatist cell in Scrooby in Nottinghamshire,” namely the Puritans who left for Holland and then Plymouth colony to found the United States.

Through his splendid narrative, Mr Nicholson raises the ironies of such a glorious enterprise as he believes this work of sacred Scripture turned out to be. A skilled theological disputant, King James was also an active bisexual, which the author discretely hints at with comments about the married king being “vulnerable to the allure of beautiful, elegant, rather Frenchified men” and boys.

The Jacobean period was one of relative peace that preceded the bloody English Civil Wars, which tried to level royalty, but were defeated by the ultimate Restoration of the crown again. The wars had no little source in the corruption, moral and financial, of James’ court. “The court was corrupt and everyone knew it,” Mr. Nicholson notes.

Then there is the question of the prose itself, which Mr. Nicholson shows in many comparisons of Bible translation to be rhythmically superior, and not just sentimentally preferred. Indeed, the King James phraseology was so influential in the United States that it was almost believed that God spoke in Elizabethan cadences — and the fact that the lascivious King James was enemy to the Puritans is happily forgotten.

While the Bible’s language is beautiful on tombstones, and it compelled great oratory down to Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy and Martin Luther King, this must also be said: The living-room Bible study of the 21st century can barely get through the King James without a commentary.

Mr. Nicholson closes his lively narrative by acknowledging that partisans of William Tyndale (the British Lutheran executed in 1536 for translating the Bible from Latin to English) call the King James Version a 94-percent plagiarism. Tyndale did indeed fashion most of the great biblical phrases. But he “was working alone,” Mr. Nicholson said, and thus his prose lacked the “musicality” of the final King James masterpiece.

This book is a delight to read, and leaves us with wonder at the strange times of Jacobean England and the wonderful literature it wrought.

Larry Witham is a writer in Maryland.

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