In The Beginning, There Was Nothing…

Posted on August 22, 2011

God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicholson

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first publishing run of the King James Bible. Think about that for a second. That means it predates the Constitution, half of the works of Shakespeare and Infinite Jest. God’s Secretaries gives us a view into the massive effort it took to create what is often considered the definitive version of the Bible.

A new translation of the Bible was on the docket from almost the moment King James I took the English throne in 1603. A year later he convened the Hampton Court and ordered the production of a new Bible. This one was going to be different than the others, though.

Previous editions of the Bible had been poorly translated and, in some cases, had notes in the margins telling the reader exactly how they should read the text. On top of that, this was the time when Puritanism was starting to take hold and, although they had no part in this undertaking, there was a certain objection to austere interpretations of Christian faith.

The first step that James took was to form a giant committee. This Bible was an effort shared between roughly 50 people. They were divided into 6 companies who had oversight over each others work. Each translator would work independently on a section. When he was done the entire company would compare each individual translation and would come to a consensus about which was the ‘best’ translation. This would get sent to the head of the company, who would make notes and then send it to a 6 man committee. They would edit the text and send it to Archbishop Bancroft, who had final say in all editorial matters.

This intricate process meant that a very literary translation was produced. James viewed the role of the Bible as a conduit between the present and the past, so he wanted his church to read the closest thing to the original Hebrew or Greek as possible. On top of that, a lot of editorial considerations were made simply to improve readability and the flow of the work.

And if you’ve read the King James Bible, you’ll know that what they produced was sublime.

We don’t know about much of what went on. In fact, the names of the translators have been lost to history. A book uncovered deep in the archives of the Corpus Christi gives us a little insight about what went on during the 7 years of work but other than a few examples of editing, we have next to nothing.

Nicholson’s account of the production of the King James Bible is nothing short of superb. He does an excellent job of summing up the politics, people and religion of the time. God’s Secretaries is, without a doubt, the authoritative work on one of the most important books in the English language.

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