Monday, June 23, 2008

God's Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson

I have used the Revised Standard Version of the Bible all my life and memorized my Bible verses out of it when I was a child. My only experience with the King James Bible was that we had a big "family Bible" that sat on our coffee table, and occasionally I would leaf through it. It was pretty, but hard to read, both because of the typeface and because of the vocabulary. I was taught that the KJV was an inferior translation because it was derived from earlier translations instead of the Latin and Greek texts. This is the prejudice I held when I picked up God's Secretaries to read the tale of how the King James Bible came to be.

Needless to say, I am less ignorant now that I have read Nicolson's book. The King James Bible did draw on previous versions, but it was put together by a large group of eminent scholars, and they did have the Greek and Hebrew texts as well as the earlier English Bibles. The author does an adequate job of listing and describing many of the people who were involved in the translation that King James commissioned, but there were so many of them that they didn't really have a chance to emerge as individuals in the course of the narrative. I will try to remember that William Tyndale, who produced one of the earlier versions of the Bible upon which the King James version was based, was executed as a heretic before he even finished his translation. I always want to remain cognizant of the blood on the pages of religious history because I believe it is one of our main tasks to be vigilant and steer away from any tendency towards persecution or judgment.

What I like best about God's Secretaries is Nicolson's characterization of the King James Bible itself. He obviously holds it in reverence, and he is not reticent about singing its praises. I came away with a new appreciation for the literary value of this Bible. Numerous examples show passages where the KJV has words carefully chosen for effect, for the rhythm and the majesty of the language. The aim was not just to convey meaning, but to set a tone of authority and grandeur. One of the methods the committee used was that they chose words that carried more than one meaning. This is the Bible as literature, which is appropriate because the message it seeks to convey is not a simplistic one. Here is Nicolson extolling the virtues of the King James Bible, in contrast to a more recent translation:
"...The modern world had lost the thing which informs every act and gesture of...the King James Bible...: a sense of encompassing richness which stretches unbroken from the divine to the sculptural, from theology to cushions, from a sense of the beauty of the created world to the extraordinary capabilities of language to embody it.

"This is about more than mere sonority or the beeswaxed heritage-appeal of antique vocabulary and grammar. The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority. The language of the King James Bible is the language...of patriarchy, of an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good; the New English Bible is motivated by the opposite, an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died." (p. 154)
I would have preferred that Nicolson include more specific examples of the translation process, discussing the reasons why the specific words were chosen, including the discussions and arguments. He does have some documentation for that level of detail. Instead he spent more time on the general history of England in the early 17th century, which was too complex to be adequately covered in this limited book. Still, it's a good beginning and I look forward to learning more about the period,when the opportunity arises.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I realized that I much preferred the KJV a few years ago - when I heard a "modern English" version of the 23rd Psalm, and it left me cold - flat, as the author of God's Secretaries says. I've started the book but haven't gotten too far.