How the Bestselling Bible in History Came to Be

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 18, 2003 | Go to article overview

How the Bestselling Bible in History Came to Be


Byline: Larry Witham, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

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.

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