Magazine article The Spectator

The Everlasting Legacy of King James

Magazine article The Spectator

The Everlasting Legacy of King James

Article excerpt

IN THE BEGINNING by Alister McGrath Hodder, L14.99, pp. 340, ISBN 0340785608

As every Desert Island Disc listener knows, the Bible, along with Shakespeare, is the most influential work of literature in the English language. I do not know if Roy Plomley, the deviser of the famous radio show, stipulated that the castaways' Bible should be the King James version; he should have done, for it is the only Bible worth spending one's solitude, indeed any time at all with.

The King James Bible is an extraordinary work both in what it represents - some of our earliest accounts of human civilisation, including history, anthropology, sociology and law as well as the more obvious religious rite and practice - and in the manner in which it represents it - some of the loveliest language ever written, which, in the history of England at least, has never been matched, except by Shakespeare himself. (There is a tradition which suggests that, on his retirement, Shakespeare worked as an anonymous member of one the translating companies. Try this: Psalm 46 - count 46 words from the beginning and 46 words from the end, then think of how old Shakespeare was in 1610, the year the translators finished. `Spooky, isn't it?' as the friend who showed me this said.)

With In the Beginning, Alister McGrath has taken on the enviable task of writing about the King James Bible, how it was 'translated' and who 'translated' it (it was both rather more and less than a true translation), its honourable forerunners and the historical background which saw its inception, execution and the final processes of publication. He explains how the Bible was never, so far as we know, finally 'authorised' by the king whose brainwave it was - or, more accurately, who snatched at the idea of a 'new' translation as a means of fobbing off the Puritan 'pests' who were hustling for reform of the Anglican Church. If King James did nothing else in his mostly disappointing reign, as the catalyst of the 1611 Bible he did more for civilisation than most more conscientious monarchs.

The history of the previous translations and translators is often dramatic: Tyndale, whose was the most imposing of all previous versions, died for his belief in the right of every 'plowboy' to be able, as he followed his plough, to read in his mother tongue the words of his maker. McGrath doesn't tell how Tyndale, a religious refugee from England, spent, before being burned alive, his last hours in a prison cell with his Hebrew grammar, still dedicatedly pursuing his commitment to translation into the vernacular. …

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